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Am I Myris?
It’s the question I asked myself the first time I encountered the poem, Myris: Alexandria A.D. 340, by the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy. I heard the poem for the first time at a lecture given by the noted scholar Dr. Gregory Jusdanis on the campus of Georgia State University in the Spring of 2007. In his lecture, Dr. Jusdanis drew attention to Cavafy’s astonishing ability to describe the epochal shift in the Western world from paganism towards Christianity within the seemingly small confines of a simple poem. In the piece, an unnamed narrator describes the experience of attending the funeral of his friend, Myris. In shifting from his observations of the funeral preparations to his recollections of Myris’ life, we are presented with a complex portrait of a young Christian living in a pagan world; seemingly enjoying the company and activities of his non-Christian compatriots. It is only gradually that we begin to see how Myris was unwilling to cross certain boundaries and remain separate from his friends.
So I refined the question for myself: Which Myris am I?
On the one hand, I am certainly the Myris who outwardly lives my life according to the carnal pleasures of the world. But on the other hand, do I ever evidence for anyone the fact that I am a Christian as Myris did, if even in retrospect?
As Dr. Jusdanis pointed out in his lecture, one of the amazing attributes of Cavafy (1863 – 1933) is his use of ancient Greek topics to comment upon contemporary life. The true genius of the poet, however, is how these commentaries are still relevant in the 21st Century. In my personal case, the poem still speaks to the issue of Faith and how one lives it within a culture growing increasingly hostile towards Christianity. Myris stands as a stark image of how I lead my life.
Within the scope of this musical composition, I have sought to explore both the compelling story of the West in transition as well as my personal identification with the character of Myris. The music is reflective of the stream of thought of the narrator. Moving from the drama of the impending funeral, thoughts of days gone by and the sudden, startling realization that Myris may not have been the person he presented to the world. The music shifts from the use of an ancient Byzantine hymn chanted during Good Friday Vespers within the Orthodox Church to the use of abstracted Greek folk rhythms, melodies and harmonies. The most overt and obvious use of a Byzantine hymn is revealed at the very end of the piece. As the narrator flees from the house of Myris, abstracted Greek dance music gives way to the hymn, “Those Who Have Been Baptized.” This hymn is chanted at the Sacrament of Baptism and during the Divine Liturgy on special Feast Days within the Church calendar. It’s text, Those who have been baptized in Christ / Have put on Christ forevermore, Alleluia, within the context of this composition describes the reason for both the shift of Myris away from his friends as well as the West away from paganism.
This orchestral work is adapted from a chamber work entitled Elegy for Myris written in 2008. There are substantive differences between the two versions including a change of voice from mezzo-soprano in the orginal to tenor in the orchestral version as well as additionl music added to the orchestral version.
I am very appreciative of the translation of the Cavafy text made especially for this composition by Dr. Gregory Jusdanis.