Samuel Barber: Medea’s Meditation and Dance of Vengeance

When I entered Indiana University as a sophomore in the fall of 1974, I began taking Latin. Fellow baby boomers might cringe when I admit this–many had to take Latin in public or Catholic school. How could nuns do justice to the bloody, internecine civil wars and the debaucheries of Catullus? By the time I got to high school, Latin had been dropped from the curriculum altogether, which disappointed me because I had wanted to take it from an early age. You’re probably wondering why.

I have written before how I used to sneak into the room of my older brother, Bob, and listen to his records. Bob also had a bookcase that held a number of dusty, old books. It was an eclectic collection. Some were text books that had obviously belonged to Bob or my oldest brother, Al. The others might have come from garage and rummage sales, scavenged by my father. The reason I suspect that had to do with the presence of a set of Western novels by Zane Grey, whose work my father loved. There was also a few books by Hemingway, but what caught my attention were a number of books on ancient culture–Greek, Roman and Egyptian.

I found myself usually drawn to one book–Caesar in Gaul, which was third year reader that had a long introduction on Roman warfare, a selection from Jason and the Argonauts, and Caesar’s Gallic War. The book was published in 1917 and they had spared no expense on the illustrations. The part on the Roman military had intricate drawings of weapons, siege engines, uniforms, troops in battle formation and maps in color showing Caesar’s routes. What really drew me to it was the very lurid picture of Caesar being stabbed in the Senate by a vicious electorate, his red blood trailing down the white marble steps and mixing with the inlaid cippolina marble and red granite of the Cosmatesque inlaid paving stones. As a young boy I used to stare at this picture in awe, which probably makes me less critical than some of the fascination with blood and gore video games like nowadays.

After the introduction, the rest of the book was entirely in Latin, which fascinated me and sparked my interest in the language. When I began studying French seriously in college, I learned it had evolved from Latin and thought it would help with my studies. Latin wasn’t offered at my first university, but Indiana University had a great classics department so I enrolled in Latin 101 when I got there.

In the second year, we began working through a Roman reader and then Virgil’s Aeneid. My teacher was a cool bearded guy named Joe Day. A fellow classmate, named Mike Casey, happened to live in the German House next to my dorm and he and I became friends. We got in good with Joe and from time to time sat around with him drinking a few beers and debating Marxism, the classics and opera. We called him “doc” short for doctus the Latin word for teacher or tutor.

Joe loved Latin and did a great job of motivating his students by his passion. He had a gift for making the classics come alive, not only through his retelling of the stories, but also by enthusing about the poet’s use of language and meter in exciting ways that modern poetry lacks. Joe was responsible for igniting an interest in classical writers.

In French class that semester, we read Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “The Flies,” which retells the story or Orestes who slays his mother Clytemnestra to avenge the death of his father, Agememnon, whom his mother killed with the help of her lover Aegisthus. (Whew!) Sartre used the plot to explain the ideas of his philosophy, existentialism. Orestes makes a willful decision to act, in spite of knowing the consequences–that he will be plagued for all eternity by the Furies in the form of a cloud of stinging flies. Even though his mother deserved it, Orestes was still guilty of matricide, a real no-no.

Around this same time period, the Italian film dierctor, Pasolini, released a film version of the myth of Medea. Medea was a witch who married Jason, a mythological precursor to Odysseus and Aneas. Medea is so pissed off by her husband’s infidelity that she murders most of his children, cooks them, and then serves them to him on his return. Pasolini chose Maria Callas for the starring role.

I found something appealing about all these old myths, which despite the intervention of the whimsy of gods, seemed a bit more sane than our current Zeitgeist. The people sometimes just can’t help acting in spite of being for the most part rational. Those who are driven to great deeds and acts–the lust for power or influence–may sometimes obtain their goals, but at a very high price. And though they might think they’ve cheated death or won the contest, fate has a way of coming round and humbling them. Or as Lily Tomlin once put it-“the bad thing about the rat race is the even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

I discovered Barber’s Medea Meditation and Dance of Vengeance quite by accident. It was included on an album with his “Adagio for Strings,” which I wrote about yesterday. There were days when I was so blue that I would wallow in self-pity and listen to the Adagio. Other days, I would pump up the volume and energize myself by listening to the Medea’s Meditation. While the Adagio demonstrates Barber’s mastery of more traditional lush orchestration and melody, Medea’s Meditation shows he had also assimilated the modern trend toward dissonance and Stravinsky’s emphasis on rhythm as a vehicle for affect in music.

The piece starts out lyrically enough, with lush strings, with just a touch of Hollywood schmaltz. After this calm introduction, the piano plays a syncopated tune on the lower chord, which sets the rhythm for the killing frenzy in which Medea whips herself. I can’t think of a piece that better expresses the horrific side of humanity envisioned by a myth about infanticide and cannibalism. Yet, I don’t find it a horrifying piece, and it certainly never made anyone go out and imitate Medea–or enter politics.

Barber Biography

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