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The Greek legend of Demeter, goddess of the cornfield, and her daughter Persephone, is one version of the ancient death and resurrection myth as related in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter from the 7th century C.E. Briefly described, one day while Persephone was picking flowers in a lush meadow she was dazzled by the beauty of the narcissus flower. Upon picking it, the earth opened and Pluto, god of the dead, emerged, seizing and dragging her to the underworld. Demeter, in shock and mourning, traveled the ends of the earth in search of Persephone, finally settling in the home of the king of Eleusis. She discovered from Triptolemus, the king’s son, that Persephone was in Hades with the consent of Zeus. Demeter was so outraged that she refused the growth of all vegetation until Zeus apologized and Persephone was returned. Pluto agreed to Zeus’ request to free her, but under condition that she not taste the food of the dead. When Persephone was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds, ensuring her return to Hades, a compromise was reached: Persephone would stay above ground nine months of the year, spring through autumn, and in Hades for the three months of winter. This is the myth on which André Gide fashioned the text that Stravinsky monumentalized in music.
The composition of Perséphone came into being as the result of a commission from Ida Rubinstein in 1933 for a sung ballet on an earlier poem by Gide. With Stravinsky’s penchant for classical models, the antiquity of this myth must have struck a deep chord.
In Gide’s version of the myth, Persephone willingly and compassionately picks the narcissus after looking into it and seeing the “…spectres slowly moving… a people without hope… sorrowful” in the underworld. This sacrifice of selfless love brings a little bit of spring to the subterranean inhabitants of Hades, but waste and decimation to the trees and plants upon the earth. After eating pomegranate seeds she is aroused with longing for earth and, gazing once again into the narcissus she witnesses the devastation of winter.
This “miracle”of rebirth is obviously the center of the myth, but dramatically it is an anticlimax.The sudden rescue of Persephone neutralizes the tension in the drama. It is, as Stravinsky scholar Stephen Walsh phrases it, a deus ex machina plucking Persephone out of Hades.
With her return, we have a perfect circular structure of birth – “…this is the world’s first morning”; death – “Unhappy people of the Underworld, you draw me to you – I am coming”; and rebirth – “Demeter, thou art waiting with outstretched arms to welcome thy reborn daughter….” The music reflects these three phases through orchestration and pace and also by means of a cyclic return of motivic material, especially that of the singer/narrator Eumolpus.
Perséphone is a hybrid theater work of song, choral singing, dance, instrumental music, and speech (the role of Persephone is spoken). Its sustained, classically restrained beauty and lyricism penetrates every phase of the work. From the pastorale choruses of Part I to the darker and slower paced music accompanying Persephone’s descent into Hades, to the final chorus, the emotional distance and coolness of the music makes of us contemplators and spectators to the ritualizing of this timeless myth.
Composer and writer Steven Lacoste, who serves as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Archivist, holds a Ph.D. from UCLA and lectures on music theory at California State University at Long Beach.
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns,
3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps, keyboard, strings, children’s choir, chorus, tenor, and speaker.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 10, 1963, with tenor Leopold Simoneau and narrator Vera Zorina, Zubin Mehta conducting.