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Siren Song

October 25, 2012

We’re just about to head to the coast. A particular stretch of coastline, beautiful and dramatic: if you listen to the first minute or so of the Third Movement of Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, you get the idea (but stop after that – the music gets more march-like, and doesn’t carry the image nearly so well). This part of the country has been the site of shipwrecks and smuggling over hundreds of years. If there was ever any truth in the idea that villainous folk would use deceitful lights to draw ships onto the rocks so that their cargoes could be looted, this would be where it happened.

By a circuitous route this leads me to the Stranglers’ song – Golden Brown. (I mentioned that on another post recently, I know, but bear with me, and listen to this intriguing version.) The second verse includes the line “On her ship, tied to the mast” which, whether or not the song is about heroin, certainly references the myth of the Sirens – an equally deadly peril. It was the Sirens who lured mariners of ancient Greece to shipwreck by their enchanting music. Their victims would either perish in the wreck, or if they survived would not be able to tear themselves from the sound of the Sirens’ song, and would starve to death in their presence; some images of the Sirens have them surrounded by the decaying bodies of their “guests”.

“Siren” these days denotes a sound designed to put people on alert. From air-raid sirens heard during WWII, to digital wails from ambulances, via the loud bell that 60s and 70s police cars around London used to carry. (I was reminded of them yesterday, by the cacophony that begins The Ruts’ Babylon’s Burning – an angry, urgent punk song from 1979.) By a curious reverse logic this usage has been extracted from the Sirens of mythology, who made music intended to attract and enchant, not alarm or warn.

It’s easy to overlook the nasty bit about the Sirens – noting only the idea of sweet angelic voices, perhaps with a celtic lilt to both voice and music. The Corrs, I think, would fit that bill, or if you wanted something a little more mystical, Clannad.

But actually, while those are indeed very pretty, I think I would more probably be tempted by something lazy and mellow: I can imagine myself chilling (as they say) on a beach forever, to Morcheeba’s World Looking In and similar. (There’s something weird about the video to this song – fitting, somehow.)

On a bigger scale, Debussy’s Sirenes is one of the only pieces to try and capture the whole story. Compelling voices captivating you, with a touch of menace and some swirling orchestration that lets you sense the loss of control that preludes destruction.

Back to the point. In his voyage home from Troy, Odysseus wished to be the first mortal to survive hearing the song of the Sirens. This he achieved by the expedient of filling the ears of his crew with wax and having himself lashed to the mast of his ship, so that he might hear the music but they might not. When eventually they released him, the Sirens were behind them, and Odysseus was left to regret that he would never again glimpse the sheer bliss promised by their music. Fated to die if anyone heard their song and lived, the Sirens fell into the sea.

Jason had previously escaped the Sirens by having Orpheus play his lyre, so preventing the Argonauts hearing anything else; so that doesn’t count – it just shows that music conquers all. Thus it seems only fair to give Orpheus the final moment. Or rather Orfeo, to use his later italianised name. Che Faro is the music that Gluck gives him in Orfeo ed Euridice, when he is faced with life without his lover.

Yes it’s sung by a woman. In this case (and not for the first or last time) it’s Janet Baker. And no more need be said.


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