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Marsyas or the skinned artist
The myth of Marsyas, subject of Wolfgang Rihm’s composition, survives in variety of traditions. In Syria and Asia Minor Marsyas was regarded as the spring demon, Greek mythology made him a satyr, a virtuoso of the aulos, a music fighter. He is even believed to have invented the instrument with the characteristic double-reed. Attic legend however tells us that Athena created it.
But playing on the aulos did not make Athena happy: horrified by her swelled and contorted face reflected in a stretch of water she threw the instrument away. Marsyas eagerly picked it up and played on it so sweetly that his audience was immediately captivated. Another Greek tradition is tied up with this legendary skill: Marsyas, spurred by his own ability, challenges Apollo to a contest – and fails. The Muses decide against him and put him at the winner’s mercy which is dreadful and leads to a ritual skinning. Apollo hangs Marsyas up by his feet and maltreats him. It is said that the skin of the bold and hapless wind player wondrously vibrated when it was hit by the sound of the auloi. The dualism of soul and feeling provides the background to this barbaric act. Apollo and Marsyas represent as it were two aesthetic principles.
The mouth of the wind player, full of his instrument, does not allow him to speak whereas the player of the lyre, Apollo, is not restricted in his vocal expression. The musical art of the god is intellectual, the one of his opponent entirely sentiment and feeling: beauty and emotion prove to be his undoing. By robbing Marsyas of his sense-organ, namely his skin, Apollo becomes his master: not the only emotional but also thinking human being meets the requirements for a real artist. Nonetheless Marsyas symbolises the artist, the musician, the composer per se. Being exposed to criticism and self-doubt the latter feels skinned as well. Wolfgang Rihm’s music reflects the mythical aura of this saga figure shrouded in mystery with the sound of a richly instrumented orchestra and a scenic rhapsody in which the trumpet as protagonist is mainly grounded by the resounding incantation of the percussionist.
(Translation: Dorit Luczak)