The sirens, those mythical beings of the island of Circe, occupy a unique place in literature. Unlike other temptresses, their lure is art: a song of such overpowering beauty that it draws sailors to a rocky death.
Perhaps one thinks of lyrical, melodic music coming from sirens, but this cycle casts a wide net in exploring seduction music. For example, hypnotic and pulsing passages can also entrance, and this is the music that floats across the ocean to Odysseus in the work’s beginning and end. This is followed by the simpler and more direct “Die Lorelei,” a nineteenth-century poetic retelling of an ancient German myth about a siren singing atop a lofty riverside rock. The strophic form of Heine’s poem is reflected in the music, which nods to his century’s musical conventions. But the piece dissolves into a trance at the mention of her “strange, powerful melody.”
But sirens do not always involve danger; in fact, they are sometimes personified as pure, heavenly beings emanating harmonious music. Pietro Aretino’s sonnet pays homage to the stars, each of which is blessed with a lovely siren atop them (“Stelle”). In the central piece of the cycle, the earthy and rich world of the indigenous South American Quechua Indians associated sirens (“Sirinu”) with equal parts mystery, temptation, and magic. The cycle goes furthest afield—at least on the dramatic level—with its inclusion of Christ’s calling of the first disciples and perhaps the most intriguing (and haunting) line in history (“Book of Matthew”).
—Mason Bates, composer