An Odyssey through Music and Words

I saw the Friday night performance of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria as part of Monteverdi 450 at the Harris Theater.

Monteverdi’s opera, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, tells of the second half of the journey of Ulysses. It is considered one of the earliest operas and one of the three surviving operas written by Monteverdi.

The Odyssey itself is held in regard as the oldest written text next to its prequel, The Iliad. I was interested in the adaptation of this story into a musical form. Since the Odyssey comes from an oral storytelling tradition, vocal music seems like a particularly fitting way to present the story because it is conveyed orally.

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Monteverdi’s work laid the foundation for opera going forward and are sometimes referred to as the “first modern” operas. Although, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria has even made its own return. After its 1640 premier, it was rarely performed until Robert Haas published a manuscript of the opera in 1922. This publication created a stir that the opera was not written by Monteverdi himself. But now, it is widely held to be authentic. How has the opera survived until today?

In the case of the Odyssey and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, oral performance has survived because it was recorded in print media. The print music and the libretto survived. Whereas, for the other seven operas he is to have written, they have been lost almost entirely, with only a few librettos.

The reason the work can be performed today is because both the music and the words were documented and preserved. We needed a page in order to lift the words off of it with song.

Ellen Hargis said in her pre-concert lecture of Monteverdi’s operas “prima la parola.” Words were of more importance than music. This principle is opposed to later composers like Wagner or Salieri who claimed “Prima la musica.” This unique feature guided my ear in listening to the opera. The story and the character of the words came through quite clearly.

The music in this early opera is much more foundational and simplistic musically than what we’re accustomed to today. Cadences were repetitive and the vocal style reserved. Although, stylistic changes stood out more prominently than I was expecting. Monteverdi uses changes in the style of the music to outline complex emotions and expressions.

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As for my experience as an audience member for the Monteverdi 450 performance, I enjoyed discovering the work. Being so familiar with classical orchestral music, I felt dropped in a foreign land with the baroque instrumentation. It was an interesting experience to rack my brain for the names of the instruments. I imagine that must be how many first time orchestra attendees might feel.

Although Classical music and instruments may seem such a part of our culture, the practice dates back hundreds of years. What is another couple hundred to place us in the world of the Baroque?

Below is a breif timeline of a few notable adaptations of the Odyssey in the context of cultural developments.

circa 750 – The Odyssey is written

1640 – Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria is first performed

1750 – End of Baroque Era

1857 – The phonautograph is invented, the first device that could record sound waves as they passed through the air. It was intended only for visual study of the recording and could not play back the sound.

1911 – L’Odissea, silent film, is released

1922 – James Joyce publishes Ulysses AND Vienna Manuscript of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria is published


The story of Odysseus has become a pillar in our cultural landscape across different forms of media. One consistency in what adaptations have lasted, there was some way to document them.

Now, we are lucky to have video and sound recording to preserve performance. But how will these technology formats evolve to be useful for future generations? And who chooses what has enough value to get preserved?

I was surprised to find L’Odissea on youtube, but without the film transferred to the digital formats we use today, would it end up as dusty film on a shelf? Perhaps lesser known titles will dissolve this way.

Why did 1922 see a surge in Ulysses related publication?

1922 – Mussolini rises to power. The Irish Civil War begins. Joyce was Irish, living in Trieste, which had just become a part of Italy. Robert Haas was Austrian and became a member of the Nazi party.

Perhaps in a time turbulent with war, the idea of the epic journey became more intriguing. Or perhaps with modern technologies, the creation and distribution of these works was more conceivable than earlier times.

Ulysses, in particular, juxtaposes references to historic English literature with many vocal music songs (and many other things in between). Joyce seems to play with the idea of what is written vs. what sounds aloud. Rooted in the oral history of the Odyssey, spoken, sung, or sounding noise has lasting impact when written down in Ulysses. Although Joyce references many songs, only once does musical notation appear. It appears in reference to a gregorian chant style piece. Otherwise, he references songs through their names or lyrics.

Prima la parola

Joyce’s reliance on words is quite different than what led to the preservation of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria which was Robert Haas’ publication with score and libretto. The lost operas of Monteverdi, if you’ll remember, only had librettos or pieces of librettos. Although words had primary importance in Monteverdi’s writing, the opera is incomplete without both music and words.

Regardless, these works have had a lasting impact and continued the legacy of the Odyssey while continuing the discourse about spoken v. written word. Their preservation in print has led, in part, to their lasting contribution.


Odysseus, Ulysses, Ulisse, Nobody, Homer

Homer, Monteverdi, Shakespeare share something in common. It has been claimed of all of them that they have not written the works that bear their names.

James Joyce plays with this idea in Ulysses heavily referencing Shakespeare and the question of his authorship. I think this reference is connected to Odysseus’ famous interaction with the Cyclops. When Odysseus spears the cyclops in the eye, the cyclops asks his name, to which Odysseus replies, “My name is Nobody.” This will force the cyclops to respond if asked, that “Nobody” stabbed him. Just as Odysseus’ work is separated from his identity, these creators have become distanced from their work and called into questions as it has been passed down generations.

Homer is claimed to just have written down the story of the Odyssey that was passed around orally by many storytellers. It is also said that the story of Romeo and Juliet was a common tale and Shakespeare was the one to write it down.

Monteverdi’s authorship was called into question because of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. The musicologist Giacomo Benvenuti claimed that the work couldn’t be by Monteverdi because it wasn’t as beautiful musically as his other operas. He declared “Il ritorno d’Ulisse non e di Monteverdi.” Here, it is was the music not the story that sparked the controversy.  I do think the question of authorship, though in different forms, unites these works and complicates their preservation.


I created a piece that took the idea of the Odyssey and told it using a temporary medium. Since it is fall, I thought leaves would be the perfect material to use for my adaptation. I chose write and illustrate on leaves the three books of the Odyssey; the Telemachiad, the Odyssey, and Nostos.

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Then I released them back out into nature. This way they my find readers, but may disappear and rot into the ground. I added my own artist signature if they are discovered.

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I wanted to emphasize the temporality of works of art and give a twist to the question of authorship. While someone who finds a leaf could not connect it to me, I have this digital account of my work. Through the photos the work can be understood by future audiences, but the original, will almost certainly be lost.

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