‘It profiteth a man to gain wisdom through trouble.’ Thus Wallace heads his score, being kind enough to translate the Greek which precedes it. It is the role of the Furies—the sisters of Fate—to punish the guilty: in this case Orestes for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra, who had murdered her husband, Orestes’ father. Orestes is defended by Apollo in the ensuing trial, and Athene, the goddess of wisdom, has the casting vote. She dismays the Furies by giving a verdict of justifiable homicide, but wins thems over by offering them asylum, a new role and elevated status in Athens, and a new name—the ‘Eumenides’, or ‘benefactors’. The play reflects the gradual maturing of the legal system in Athens in the fifth century before Christ, leading away from the inexorability of vengeance towards a more humane approach.
The Prelude opens with the leitmotif of Fate, driving and relentless. The reply to this comes in the form of an oboe solo, reasoned but full of feeling, which, as it increases in fervour, leads us back to the less rational aspects of the Furies. As the musical argument swings to and fro, so it becomes clear that the two themes are related to each other, the first becoming subsumed in the more rational character of that for Athene. It is in her honour that the concluding hymn in the brass is heard, accompanied by a variant of her own theme.
August Manns conducted the first performance in the Crystal Palace, London, on 21 October 1893.
from notes by John Purser © 1997