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Apollo and Marsyas

Apollo and Marsyas


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Apollo And Marsyas

One day, Marsyas saw the radiant god Apollo playing his lyre (which, in Greco-Roman society, was the instrument of the aristocracy). Lord Apollo was clad in the costliest raiment and equipped with the finest gold trappings. He was inhumanly beautiful…dangerously beautiful. Marsyas was overwhelmed: he was a crude goat-man, and Apollo was the god of music (and sunshine, and medicine, and prophecy). At this juncture, Marsyas made a fateful choice–he decided to challenge glorious Apollo to a musical contest. The winner would be able to “do whatever he wanted” with the loser. Marsyas, a satyr (synonymous, in the classical world, with lust) thus imagined that he would “win” or “be won” no matter which way the the competition worked out.

Apollo and Marsyas (Pietro Perugino, late 15th century)

Apollo grew oddly enflamed by the challenge and agreed readily–with one stipulation of his own. The muses, the goddesesses of art, would judge the event. Now the muses were daughters of Apollo, both figuratively and literally. To a disinterested observer the arrangement might smack dangerously of favoritism, but Marsyas was blinded by longing and besotted by hist art.

Apollo and Marsyas (Hans Thoma, 1888, oil on canvas)

The two musicians set up beside a river and began to play. Apollo played a complicated piece about laws and lords and kings. It sparkled like sunshine. It grew oppressively magnificent like the great gods of high Olympus. It ended like glittering starlight in the cold heavens. Next Marsyas played and his music was completely different–it spoke to the longing of the weary herdsman coming home at sundown. It was about the mist rising from furrowed farmlands, about fruit trees budding in the orchard, and about the soft places where the meadows run out into the rivers.

Contest of Apollo and Marsyas, 350-320 BC from Mantineia. Part of the Base of a Sculpture,

The muses listened closely to the music and made their choice. “These pieces are played by opposite beings on dissimilar instruments. The works have completely different subjects, but both pieces are perfect. Neither is clearly “better” than the other.” Sublime music had won the contest!

The Contest between Apollo and Marsyas (Tintoretto, About 1545
Oil on canvas)

But Apollo was not satisfied. There are two versions of the story: in one he turned his lyre upside down and played it as well as ever (Marsyas, of course, could not do the same with the aulos). In the other version, Apollo played the lyre and sang (also impossible with the aulos). “I have two arts, whereas Marsyas has only one!” he proclaimed. The muses halfheartedly assented: Apollo had officially won the contest.

Apollo flaying Marsyas (Luca Giordano, 17th century, oil on canvas))

This was the moment Marsyas had planned for. He was shaking with excitement as Apollo took hold of his unresisting form and shackled him to a tree. Then Apollo picked up a skinning knife and started flaying the saty’s skin off. Marsyas screamed and bleated in horror and pain, but Apollo kept cutting and peeling until he had removed the satyr’s entire hide. Then the lord of music sat and watched while Marsyas bled to death, before hanging up the horrible dripping pelt in the tree and departing. Vergil avers that the blood of Marsyas stained the river everlastingly red–indeed the waterway was thereafter named the Marsyas.

Apollo and Marsyas (Bartolomeo Manfredi, ca. 1615-1620, oil on canvas)

The artistic thing to do, would be to leave the story as it stands–to let readers mull the troubling tale on their own. However I have been thinking about it a great deal…Every artist thinks about it a great deal. Museums are filled with interpretations of the story by history’s greatest painters and sculptors. There was a version of Apollo and Marsyas painted on the ceiling of the Queen of France (in that version, the skinning is done by underlings as Apollo languidly points out how he wants things done). Since I have seen plenty of museum-goers blanch when looking at pictures of Marsyas and hastily turn away, I will provide some ready made meta-interpretations to start the conversation.

Apollo and Marsyas from the ceiling of Anne of Austria’s summer apartments (Giovanni Francesco Romanelli, ca. mid 17th century, fresco)

First, this story is a tale of masters and servants. The lyre is the instrument of the rich. It was expensive to own and required tutors to learn. The aulos was the instrument of shepherds, smallfolk, and slaves. The tale of exploitation is a very familiar one throughout all of history. It always goes one way: somebody gets fleeced.

The Flaying of Marsyas (Titian, ca.1570-76, oil on canvas)

Also this is self-evidently a tale of forbidden sexuality. It was immensely popular with Renaissance, Baroque, and Victorian artists from the west because of the opressive mores of society. By presenting this story as a classically varsnished picture, people could represent forbidden ideas about same-gender relationships which society would literally kill them for saying or acting upon. Indeed the story’s ghastly climax represents exactly that!

Apollo and Marsyas (Giuseppe Cammarano, 19th century, ink wash)

In a related vein, philosophers and writers interpret the story as “reason chastening lust.” The former is more powerful than the latter: ultimately the mind subjugates the passions. Perhaps this is why the picture was above the queen’s bed–maybe the king commanded that it be painted there. Yet the reason of Apollo does not strike me as at all reasonable. If this is what rationality accomplishes, then reason is monstrous (and it often seems so in the affairs of men). I wish I could sit with Jeremy Bentham and talk about this. Utility and pragmatism oft seem as ruthless as cruel Apollo.

Apollo and Marsyas (Anselmi, 1540, oil on canvas)

It is also a tale of artists and their audiences (and their art). Marsyas does not clearly lose the contest. His music is as beautiful as that of Apollo–maybe better. However the game was rigged from the start. Art is a mountain with infinite facets but the sun of fashion only shines on a few at a time. The greatest artists are not necessarily appreciated or loved. I can’t imagine a single artist who painted this story imagined themselves as Apollo. Unless you have personally rigged the game with money and power, it will not benefit you. You must prepare for operatic destruction at the hands of the world. It is a terrible part of art. The world’s inability to discern true worth is one of life’s most disappointing aspects.

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, 1735, oil on canvas)

Above all, it is a story of gods and mortals. For daring to step on the field with the divine, mortality is punished with the ultimate penalty–mortality. I don’t believe in gods or divinity (people who literally believe in such things strike me as dangerous lunatics). Divinity is a myth–but an important one which informs us concerning humankind’s ultimate purpose and methods. We have strayed into vasty realms. I’ll come back to this theme later but for now let’s say that the defeat of Marsyas reveals something. Would you prefer if he just gave up and groveled before Apollo? No, there would be no story, no striving, no art. There is a divine seed within his failure–a spark of the celestial fire which animates (or should animate) our lives.

Marsyas Flayed by the Order of Apollo (Charles André van Loo, ca. 1734-1735, oil on canvas)

Anyway, for putting up with this rather horrible week I have a Halloween treat for you tomorrow. Remember, I am not just a moral and aesthetic philosopher but a troubled toymaker (and a lost artist) as well. Happy Halloween!


Apollo Flaying Marsyas, By Girolamo Troppa (c. 1637-1733)

This curious painting, created by the Italian artist Girolamo Troppa (c. 1637-1733), displays a scene from a horrific myth. On the right side, the childlike figure with blonde hair is a representation of the god Apollo. Restrained beside him is Marsyas, a hairy-legged satyr who made the mistake of challenging Apollo to a music contest. The god did not take kindly to the challenge, and after Apollo won the melodious duel, he imposed a merciless and gruesome penalty on the defeated satyr. Girolamo Troppa, in his cool-colored painting, did his best to conceal the horror that would come in the seconds and minutes after this scene was unfrozen. No blood can be seen, and the expression on Marsyas’ face is obscured. Nevertheless, what happened next was quite bloody and extremely painful. The Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), vividly described Marsyas’ punishment—flaying:

“In spite of his cries, the skin was peeled from his flesh, and his body
was turned into one great wound the blood was pouring all over him,
muscles were fully exposed, his uncovered veins convulsively
quivered the palpitating intestines could well be counted,
and so could the organs glistening through the wall of his chest.”
(Ovid, Metamorphosis, 6.387-391)

Such is the horrific myth that this painting subtly alludes to. Marsyas, of course, did not survive the flaying that was imposed on him. As the story goes, Marsyas’ many friends shed such a quantity of tears in mourning the loss of their loved one that a river was formed, carrying their grief to the sea.


The Musical Contest between Apollo and Marsyas

The Satyr Marsyas was a famous flute-player from Phrygia, in what is now Central Turkey, who boasted that he could play the double flute better than Apollo, the Greek god of Music.
When Apollo found this out, he challenged the Satyr to a musical contest. The winner of the contest would do as he pleased with the loser, and the judges of the contest would be the Muses, the Greek goddesses of Art and Science.

First Marsyas played his flute and the tune was wonderful. Then it was Apollo's turn. Apollo played notes full of harmony with his lyre and his voice was heavenly, captivating everything around him.

Then Apollo played his lyre upside down and asked Marsyas to do the same, but Marsyas was unable to do so. So Apollo was declared the winner of the contest. and the punishment he chose for Marsyas was severe: Apollo hung Marsyas over a pine tree and skinned him.


Contest of Apollo

Contest of Apollo
The short mythical story of Contest of Apollo is one of the famous legends that feature in the mythology of ancient civilizations. Discover the history of the ancient Roman and Greek gods and goddesses. Interesting information about the gods and goddesses featuring Contest of Apollo in a short story format. This short story of Contest of Apollo is easy reading for kids and children who are learning about the history, myths and legends of the ancient Roman and Greek gods. Additional facts and information about the mythology and legends of individual gods and goddesses of these ancient civilizations can be accessed via the following links:

Contest of Apollo
The Story of Contest of Apollo

The mythical story and history of Contest of Apollo
by E.M. Berens

Apollo, Marsyas and Pan
Although Apollo was renowned in the art of music, there were two individuals who had the effrontery to consider themselves equal to him in this respect, and, accordingly, each challenged him to compete with them in a musical contest. These were Marsyas and Pan. Marsyas was a satyr, who, having picked up the flute which Athene had thrown away in disgust, discovered, to his great delight and astonishment, that, in consequence of its having touched the lips of a goddess, it played of itself in the most charming manner. Marsyas, who was a great lover of music, and much beloved on this account by all the elf-like denizens of the woods and glens, was so intoxicated with joy at this discovery, that he foolishly challenged Apollo to compete with him in a musical contest. The challenge being accepted, the Muses were chosen umpires, and it was decided that the unsuccessful candidate should suffer the punishment of being flayed alive. For a long time the merits of both claimants remained so equally balanced, that it was impossible to award the palm of victory to either, seeing which, Apollo, resolved to conquer, added the sweet tones of his melodious voice to the strains of his lyre, and this at once turned the scale in his favour. The unhappy Marsyas being defeated, had to undergo the terrible penalty, and his untimely fate was universally lamented indeed the Satyrs and Dryads, his companions, wept so incessantly at his fate, that their tears, uniting together, formed a river in Phrygia which is still known by the name of Marsyas.

Picture of Contest of Apollo and Pan, watched by King Midas

Apollo and King Midas
The result of the contest with Pan was by no means of so serious a character. The god of shepherds having affirmed that he could play more skilfully on his flute of seven reeds (the syrinx or Pan's pipe), than Apollo on his world-renowned lyre, a contest ensued, in which Apollo was pronounced the victor by all the judges appointed to decide between the rival candidates. King Midas of Phrygia, alone demurred at this decision, having the bad taste to prefer the uncouth tones of the Pan's pipe to the refined melodies of Apollo's lyre. Incensed at the obstinacy and stupidity of the Phrygian king, Apollo punished him by giving him the ears of an ass. Midas, horrified at being thus disfigured, determined to hide his disgrace from his subjects by means of a cap his barber, however, could not be kept in ignorance of the fact, and was therefore bribed with rich gifts never to reveal it. Finding, however, that he could not keep the secret any longer, he dug a hole in the ground into which he whispered it then closing up the aperture he returned home, feeling greatly relieved at having thus eased his mind of its burden. But after all, this very humiliating secret was revealed to the world, for some reeds which sprung up from the spot murmured incessantly, as they waved to and fro in the wind: "King Midas has the ears of an ass."

The Myth of Contest of Apollo
The story of Contest of Apollo is featured in the book entitled "A Hand-Book of Greek and Roman Mythology. The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome" by E.M. Berens, published in 1894 by Maynard, Merrill, & Co., New York.

The Myth of Contest of Apollo - the Magical World of Myth & Legend
The story of Contest of Apollo is one of the stories about the history of ancient gods and goddesses featured in ancient mythology and legends. Such stories serve as a doorway to enter the world of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The names of so many of the heroes and characters are known today through movies and games but the actual story about such characters are unknown. Reading a myth story about Contest of Apollo is the easy way to learn about the history and stories of the classics.


Marsyas

A mythological personage, connected with the earliest period of Greek music. He is variously called the son of Hyagnis, or of Oeagrus, or of Olympus. Some make him a satyr, others a peasant. All agree in placing him in Phrygia. The following is the outline of his story, according to the mythographers.

Athena having, while playing the flute, seen the reflection of herself in water, and observed the distortion of her features, threw away the instrument in disgust. It was picked up by Marsyas, who no sooner began to blow through it than the flute, having once been inspired by the breath of a goddess, emitted of its own accord the most beautiful strains. Elated by his success, Marsyas was rash enough to challenge Apollo to a musical contest, the conditions of which were that the victor should do what he pleased with the vanquished. The Muses, or, according to others, the Nysaeans, were the umpires. Apollo played upon the cithara, and Marsyas upon the flute and it was not till the former added his voice to the music of his lyre that the contest was decided in his favor.

As a just punishment for the presumption of Marsyas, Apollo bound him to a tree, and flayed him alive. His blood was the source of the river Marsyas, and Apollo hung up his skin in the cave out of which that river flows. His flutes (for, according to some, the instrument on which he played was the double flute) were carried by the river Marsyas into the Maeander, and again emerging in the Asopus, were thrown on land by it in the Sicyonian territory, and were dedicated to Apollo in his temple at Sicyon.

The fable evidently refers to the struggle between the citharoedic and auloedic styles of music, of which the former was connected with the worship of Apollo among the Dorians, and the latter with the orgiastic rites of Cybele in Phrygia. It is easy to apply this explanation to the different parts of the legend and it may be further illustrated by other traditions respecting Marsyas. He is made by some the inventor of the flute, by others of the double flute. 1 By a confusion between the mythical and the historical, the flute-player Olympus is made his son, or by some his father. He is spoken of as a follower of Cybele, 2 and he occupies, in fact, the same place in the orgiastic worship of Cybele that Silenus does in the worship of Dionysus: Pausanias 3 actually calls him Silenus, and other writers connect him with Dionysus.

The story of Marsyas was often referred to by the lyric and epigrammatic poets, 4 and formed a favorite subject for works of art. 5 In the fora of ancient cities there was frequently placed a statue of Marsyas, with one hand erect, in token, according to Servius, of the freedom of the state, since Marsyas was a minister of Bacchus, the god of liberty. 6 It seems more likely that the statue, standing in the place where justice was administered, was intended to hold forth an example of the severe punishment of arrogant presumption. The statue of Marsyas in the Forum of Rome is well known by the allusions of Horace, 7 Juvenal, 8 and Martial. 9 This statue was the place of assembly for the courtezans of Rome, who used to crown it with chaplets of flowers. 10

Iconography

A famous work by Myron (late sixth century BCE) shows Marsyas picking up the flute after Athena had thrown it away. A bronze statuette of Marsyas in the British Museum may be a copy of Myron's work. Marsyas, a nude, bearded satyr, holds his right hand to his head, the left making a gesture of averting. The torture is depicted in a Hellenic statute: Marsyas is bound by hand and feet to a tree and is awaiting his punishment. He is also portrayed on reliefs, vases, and coins.

References

Notes

Sources

  • Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
  • Diodorus Siculus. Historical Library iii, 58, 59.
  • Herodotus. Histories vii, 26.
  • Hyginus. Fabulae, 165.
  • Libanius. Narratatives, 14, p. 1104.
  • Ovid. Metamorphoses vi, 382, 400.
  • Palaephatus. On Unbelievable Tales, 48.
  • Pausanias. Description of Greece ii, 7.9.
  • Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 4.2.
  • Pseudo-Nonnus. On Gregory of Nazianzus' Invectives against Julian ii, 10, p. 164.
  • Pseudo-Plutarch. De Fluviis, 10.
  • Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
  • Xenophon. Anabasis i, 2.8.

This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.


Apollo and Marsyas - History

The Flaying of Marsyas is one of the Venetian master’s great, late works of art. Titian modified and perfected details on this particular painting for over a decade. It was completed in the summer of 1576 just before his death, suffering from the plague. In his old age, his mysterious style has been interpreted in many ways. It is contemplated that this painting style was due to being tired, old, deathly ill, impatient, or some other change in style of brushstroke. It is an oil on canvas painting, portraying pain and cruelty, and is now in the State Museum in Kromeriz.

A Story of Ovid Behind The Flaying of Marsyas

This painting has a look of frenzied, dark activity, cluttered with figures of beasts and humans, who are participating in the rite of painfully and slowly tearing flesh from the bones of the central figure, Marsyas. The story behind the painting is from Ovid, which centers around a contest between a satyr, Marsyas, and Apollo, the mythical god.

Marsyas challenges Apollo to a contest of playing reeds musically. The conditions are that the victor can inflict his choice of punishment on the loser. Marsyas does not win the contest, and Apollo chooses flaying Marsyas, or stripping the flesh from his bones. The story from Ovid’s writings is one of cruelty, and Titian’s painting depicts Ovid’s written description of the flaying scene.

The Flaying of Marsyas Style

This painting is composed in such a manner, that it should be viewed from a distance as opposed to close inspection. Titian used broad, sweeping brushstrokes, with sparsely interjected color splotches. Using loose, and somewhat agitated brushstrokes with specks of white interwoven, everything appears to glisten and move. Some speculate whether the painting was indeed finished, or whether this is how the newer-style use of the brush appeared.

Titian’s paintings were sometimes portraits religious themes and mythological scenes. It is interpreted by some, that the seated, bearded, kingly-looking character in The Flaying of Marsyas is actually a portrait of Titian himself, just looking onward. Although this is a cruel theme, Titian was an artist who transformed the written word into fabulous art. The Flaying of Marsyas was a labor of love for a very old and infirmed, yet determined master of painting.


Apollo and Marsyas by José de Ribera

José de Ribera (1591 – 1652) was one of the greatest of Spanish artists. I paint–I studied very seriously with a master portraitist for many years–and I can usually understand how a painting was put together and executed, but the craftmanship of Ribera paintings tends to stand beyond my comprehension. When I come across one of his works in a museum, the dazzling virtuosity leaves me stupefied. He should be one of the foremost of the old masters…his name upon every lip like Rembrandt, Tintoretto, or Caravaggio. Yet in the museum, I see the other visitors turn away from his canvases.

Though a Spaniard, Ribera studied in Italy, and spent most of his life working there. In the 17th century, the peninsula was divided by great powers, and Spain, at the zenith of its empire, controlled the Kingdom of Naples. Ribera, a Spaniard who painted exquisitely in the Italian style was the favorite of the Spanish viceroys who ruled Naples. Ribera is an exceedingly great painter, but he was an exceedingly dark painter…a Tenebrist, and he is said to have had a matching dark personality. There are whispers that he utilized ruthless court intrigue and outright violence to monopolize worthwhile artistic commissions in Naples (a city with its own shadowside and a sinister history). This brings us to today’s dark artwork which I have put at the top of the post. This is “Apollo and Marsyas” (Jusepe de Ribera, 1637, oil on canvas). Ribera’s art combined the dark action and shadowy super-realism of Caravaggio with the deliquescent supernatural otherworldiness of Corregio (a puissant and disquieting combination). Here is the nightmare denouement of the tale of Apollo and Marsyas (you should reacquaint yourself with the myth if you are unfamiliar). A pure black diagonal bar slashes across the composition: Marsyas is inside that void, upside down, screaming in agony as the flaying begins. Apollo looms above him, both an omnipotent god and an implacable killer. His red cloak billows behind him like a tunnel of blood through which he has burst into the mortal world. The witnesses look on in dazed shock or scream outright at the nature of the proceedings. The instruments of music are cast aside forgotten, as violence and pain take center stage. It is a bloodbath on canvas–a horror movie painted by the matchless hand of an all-time master.

And here is where Ribera goes wrong. The son of a shoe-maker painted his way to unparalleled wealth and status. Through his hard work and ruthless machinations, his family was enobled, but the struggle cast shadows across his work. There is real sadism in the beautiful and intent visage of Apollo as he fingers the incarnadine slit. There is true pain in the inverted face of Marsyas. Look at the other works of Ribera–they are all so gorgeous…but they are all so awful. In the allegory of Apollo and Marsyas, a personal challenge each artist must face, Ribera cast himself as Apollo. He and his art failed a moral challenge. Look upon it, dear reader, are there tests which you are failing too?


Apollo and Marsyas: The Nature of Art

I have a fascination with operatic castrati and since I’m currently doing quite a bit of research for an academic project that involves them, their music has been the subject of much conversation in my house lately. Add to that a meme a friend of mine posted on facebook wherein one of the choices was “because a human did something better than a God and that God threw a hissy fit” and I knew I had to write about the conversation my husband and I had the other day.(1) Somehow the subject of the contest between Apollo and Marsyas came up and the lessons this might hold for musicians.

In this story, Marsyas, a satyr and master musician hubristically challenges Apollo to a music contest. The contest is to be judged by the Muses and the winner would then be permitted to treat the loser anyway he wished.(2) Both God and satyr play, Apollo wins, and in punishment for his hubris Marsyas is flayed. Customary interpretations of this story revolve around the flaying specifically as a punishment for hubris, for the satyr daring to challenge a God (and thus to put himself above the right and natural order of things) and this is not an incorrect interpretation but there are other lessons to be had in this tale as well.

Allowing that one of the major lessons of this story is in fact the need for piety and humility before the Gods (amazing how “don’t be an asshole” covers so many situations in which we might find ourselves, devotionally and otherwise), I’d like to discuss here one of the other lessons, and this is where the castrati come in.

In my research I’ve noticed that there is a standard way in which historians seemingly must approach this material. Before they go into whatever it is that they want to discuss about the castrati, they must first state how barbaric or inhumane they find the practice.(3) They must first separate themselves from any hint that they might approve of the process, particularly if they are writing positively about the result (and given that the influence of the castrati pretty much defined opera for two hundred years and shaped contemporary opera too, there’s quite a bit to celebrate there).

The question is endlessly asked (by academics and other researchers): why would someone do that to himself? Why would someone allow that to be done to a child? What was the allure of the castrati (they were the equivalent of sex symbols and rock stars)? I find these questions boggling: for the voice. Are you people deaf? Have you never listened to a top-notch counter tenor? It’s like listening to the voice of God. It’s like having the heavens crashing down around you and these men don’t come close to the vocal quality of a well-trained castrato superstar.(4) I completely understand why someone would have sought to become a castrato and certainly why they were so attractive to their listeners. I mourn the fact that we can’t hear them today.

If the sounds harsh, consider my own background: I was a professional ballet dancer for the first part of my adult life. I started working with a regional company at thirteen and retired in my early twenties. I retired with crippling injuries. I knew at thirteen that I was choosing to commit to a career that would likely leave my body broken irreparably. I knew that I would have to make health and nutritional choices that were ultimately damaging. I didn’t make this choice blind and I did make it over parental objection. The call of that daimon – dance – was too strong. I have crushing pain now and very limited mobility and while I did soloist roles in the regional company for which I worked, I didn’t make it past apprentice in the New York company. I’ll go down in no history books as a competent dancer and…I would make exactly the same choice again.

I suspect that is incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t been infected with that hunger, been taken up by that daimon, felt what it is like to push the body past its limits, past pain, to fly. I know that if at twelve, someone had said to me, if you mutilate your genitals you’ll have a chance to be one of the truly great dancers, I’d have done it without question. I would have considered it a worthy trade. There are things more important than what’s between our legs and far more important than our ability to procreate or the limits of our bodies. Being in service to art, in service to something far bigger and more important than ourselves supersedes all of that. That’s what moderns don’t comprehend.

Of course, that the castrati had to be castrated before puberty complicates things. There are questions of a child’s ability to make such a long-term choice for himself (see my comments above for where I stand on that) and certainly there were children sent under the knife against their will. The consequences of early castration are not just loss of fertility. (5)I also find the way Castrati were treated socially by the same communities that idolized their voices to be repellent (the church, for instance, forbade them to marry and in regular society they were often viewed as freaks, mocked for the very procedure that gave them the angelic voices so celebrated). By the nineteenth century with “enlightenment,” industrialization, more focus on binary gender roles, more focus on ‘nature’ as opposed to constructed brilliance, and certainly the elevation of both childhood and the individual over any common good the castrati were fast becoming a thing of the past. The last operatic superstar was the castrato Giovanni Velluti for whom both Rossini and Meyerbeer composed but operatic tastes were changing along with everything else and by 1913 not even the Vatican choir allowed for them. (6)

So what does all of this have to do with the story of Apollo and Marsyas? One of the many ways that I interpret this story is as a clear indication of what is required for excellence in an art. It doesn’t matter what the art form is (dance, singing, music, painting, etc.), to truly reach the heights of greatness, sacrifice is not just required, it is demanded. Excellence has a price. Art brings us into communion with the Gods like nothing else can. The Platonic philosophers wrote about the ennobling effects of Beauty, how it had the capacity to elevate the soul and I very much believe that is true. To be in service to the arts is to be in service to the Gods when it’s done right. It’s to move in sacred currents. That carries a demanding price and sometimes the consequences are irreparable. Devotion is like that too, if one wants to do it well.

We are owed nothing, yet opportunities are given. Devotion is an art just as much as dance or opera. It’s the art of the soul and it often carries as great a price as that any performer will pay. Excellence requires sacrifice. Mediocrity doesn’t. Make a choice. I read once of one castrato (and I can’t recall which one at the moment. I’ve been reading * a lot* on the topic) who was once asked if he regretted having been cut. He laughed in the interviewer’s face. He was one of perhaps half a dozen men who could do what he did at the level at which he performed in the entire world. He was feted across Europe. His name would go down in music history. He was as close to a god as a mortal has any right to be (barring apotheosis!).

Ironically I have seen some of the same criticisms of ballet children that I’ve seen about the castrati: it’s abuse. How can a child make that decision, etc. etc.(7) One such included a documentary about a leading Russian ballerina. The narrator could not stop talking about the brutality of the training and the sacrifice required. Yes, and she’s one of maybe ten women in the world who can do what she does. She had some of the best training in the world, and it’s training she herself wanted. I find it far more offensive that a second rate film maker is complaining about her sacrifices than that she’s consciously making them. Excellence requires certain choices and sometimes those choices hurt.

I think that’s the second lesson to be found in the story of Marsyas and Apollo. It’s not just a warning against hubris, it’s also telling us what is required to reach the heights of a practice: sacrifice. Perhaps it’s a warning against the hubris of assuming we can find greatness without the work or the cost.

Far from being appalled by the castrati, I rather think that when we as a culture began putting the mediocrity of the individual over the glory of art, over arête, over those things that represent the best of who we are as a people, that was when the real moral and cultural decay began and that’s what horrifies me the most because it’s not just sacrifice for the arts that modernists find problematic, it’s veneration of and sacrifice for devotion too and yet, if we wish to truly find excellence in our devotion, it’s going to require hard work and sacrifice on par with that of the best of the castrati or the best ballet dancers. We should be willing to bleed for our devotion, to bleed for our art, to bleed for our dreams. That’s Marsyas’s lesson: nothing is free, and one doesn’t reach the top of one’s game without painful hard work. We all have those talents and skills that we were given. The gap between that and excellence is what we choose to do with them and how much of ourselves we’re willing to bet in the bargain.(8)


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Watch the video: The Story Of Apollo u0026 Marsyas (July 2022).


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