Orphée 53 by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Musical language and iconographic references

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Orphée 53 is an opera of the Musique Concrète genre, composed by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry and based on Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. Its the debut was staged at Donaueschingen in 1953 and is a work created using the manipulated magnetic tape technique, live harpsichord and a female voice. It can be placed within the debate then occurring in Germany at that time between Elektronische Musik, oriented towards a total and rational control of sound, and Musique Concrète, aimed at an aesthetic of a more auratic and sensorial nature.
If the principle traits of Elektronische Musik, exemplified in the production of the WDR Studio in Cologne, are based on a synthesis of sound and an elaboration on the basis of serial models, Musique Concrète, theorised by Schaeffer within the Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM) at the RTF studios in Paris, on the other hand moves from a musical syntax based on the recording of audio samples subsequently manipulated as autonomous cells of a ‘language’ tending towards a re-articulation of their meaning.
Within this historical context, Orpheé 53 in some ways represents a momentary phase of convergence between the two schools on account of the use of electronic sound-elaboration instrumentation here associated with Schaeffer’s sound library (P. Schaeffer, G. Reibel, Solfège de l’Objet Sonore) as classified in his Traité des objets Musicaux (Éd. Seuil, 1966).
The organic insertion of such instruments as the Phonogene and the Morphophone, which were designed and created by Schaeffer and Jaques Poullin, allows in fact for the manipulation of sound samples of the pseudo-serial type (transposition, inversion, filtering etc.). However, with Orpheé 53, Schaeffer again expresses a vision of antithetical composition with respect to that of the Cologne school, having recourse to harmonic procedures of a tonal nature (cf. e.g., scene 6, Debate d’Orfée, 00:30 – 1:00) with frequent relations of the tonic-dominant type and the use of traditional forms and the inclusion of arias and recitatives.
Despite the fact that visual elements of a scenic nature are not envisaged in Orpheé 53, we do find a panorama of sound clearly reminiscent of the iconographic symbolism of the myth of Orpheus.
In particular, the proposed link aims at emphasising two different relationships with orphic iconography: one of an explicitly narrative type and the other of a meta-linguistic nature.
The work traces the iconographic topoi present in Gluck’s work, relating to the mythological setting contained in Calzabigi’s libretto. However,
in Schaeffer’s work, one may also discern references to the iconography of the Orpheus of the têtes coupées – for example of Moreau, Redon or Delville – in the definition of certain specific traits of his compositional poetics. The head of Orpheus, which continues to sing despite its having being severed from the rest of his body, expresses an analogy with what may be found in his own conception of an objet sonore, which in turn assumes a sense by virtue of the extrapolation from his generative source (Pierret, Marc. Entretiens avec Pierre Schaeffer, Paris, Belfond, 1969).
Characterising the fundamental concept which can be extended to the entire field of electro-acoustic composition, sounds extracted from their acoustic source affirm – as in the pathos formel of the beheaded Orpheus – their transcendental capacity to express a new form of expressive autonomy.