An Inspiring European poet

The Roman poet Ovid is chiefly famed for the ‘Metamorphoses’, a long verse narrative which retells ancient Greek and Roman legends, unifying them as a sequence and through the theme of the title. The poem, originally written in Latin, was translated and much admired in the Middle Ages; it subsequently provided a rich source of subject matter for important pieces from European art (music, painting / sculpture, literature) which show us that Ovid is one of the most influential poets of Europe - being a source of inspiration for many artists from different times. We will reflect especially about music inspired by the ancient myth of the nymph dryad Syrinx and the god Pan.

  • 43 BC
    Ovid was born in Sulmo (modern-day Sulmona, in the province of L’Aquila, Abruzzo)
  • 43 BC
    Second triumvirate between Octavian, Antony and Lepidus
  • 31 BC
    Actium battle: Octavian became the sole ruler in Rome
  • 27 BC
    Senate gave Octavian the new titles of Augustus and Princeps
  • 23 BC
    Augustus received the Imperium proconsulare maius et infinitum
  • after 20 BC
    Ovid published the first edition of Amores
  • 18 BC
    Lex Iulia de adulteriis (Julian marriage laws) was released in order to promote monogamous marriage to increase the population’s birth rate
  • 1 BC -1 AD
    Ovid composed Ars amatoria concerning the serious crime of adultery
  • 8 AD
    Ovid was banished to Tomis, on the Black Sea, by the exclusive intervention of the Emperor Augustus
  • 14 AD
    Augustus died
  • 17-18 AD
    Ovid died in Tomis

Ovid, Syrinx (Metamorphoses, I 689-712)

Tum deus “Arcadiae gelidis in montibus” inquit
“Inter hamadryadas celeberrima Nonacrinas
Naias una fuit; nymphae‚Syringa’ vocabant.
Non semel et satyros eluserat illa sequentes
et, quoscumque deos umbrosaque silva feraxque
rus habet. Ortygiam studiis ipsaque colebat
Virginitate deam. Ritu quoque cincta Dianae
Falleret et posset credi Latonia, si non
Corneus huic arcus, si non foret aureus illi.
Sic quoque fallebat. Redeuntem colle Lycaeo
Pan videt hanc pinuque caput praecinctus acuta
talia verba refert:... “ Restabat verba referre
(precibus spretis) fugisse per avia nympham,
donec harenosi placidum Ladonis ad amnem
Venerit; hic illam (cursum impedientibus undis),
ut se mutarent, liquidas orasse sorores;
Panaque, cum prensam sibi iam Syringa putaret,
corpore pro nymphae calamos tenuisse palustres;
dumque ibi suspirat, motos in harundine ventos
effecisse sonum tenuem similemque querenti;
arte nova vocisque deum dulcedine captum‚
“Hoc mihi colloquium tecum” dixisse, “manebit”;
atque ita (disparibus calamis compagine cerae
inter se iunctis) nomen tenuisse puellae.

In order to lull the hundred eyed giant Argos to sleep, the god Mercury plays on his flute. He also tells the story of the origin of his flute: Then the god (= Mercury) said: “Once upon a time in the cool mountains of Arcadia there was among the dryads (= tree nymphs) around the town Nonacris a very famous naiad (= water nymph). The (other) nymphs called her ‘Syrinx’. More than once she had mockingly escaped the satyrs when they chased her and all the (other rural) gods whom the shadowfell forest and the fertile country soil houses. She herself honoured the goddess of (the island) Ortygia (= Diana) with enthusiasm and virginity. Dressed, too, in the style of Diana she would deceive you and could have thought to be Latonia (= Diana), if not her (Syrinx’) bow were made of horn, the bow of the other (= Diana’s) of gold. In that way, too, she was deceiving. And Pan, when he came from the mountain Lykaios, saw her and, wearing a wreath of spiny pine around his head, he said words as follows.” And now he (= Mercury) had to tell those words and (he had to tell) that the nymph had despised his entreaties and had fled through the wilderness until she had came to the peaceful current of the sandy (river) Ladon; and that it was here that she, as the waves stopped her run, had begged her liquid sisters (= the water nymphs of the river Ladon) to transform her; and that Pan, when he thought that he already hold Syrinx as his own property, had hold reeds from the marshes instead of the nymph’s body; and that, while he sighed there, the winds which had been moved in the reed, had made a sound, tender and like that of a moaning human being; and that the god (= Pan), because he was touched by the new art and the sweetness of this voice, had said: “This (kind of) conversation with you will remain to me”; and that in that way, when he had joined reeds of unequal length together with wax, he had kept the name of the girl (= the name ‘Syrinx’).

Syrinx and Pan – Musical Interpretations

In the first piece, Debussy’s “Syrinx” for flute solo, you can hear how Syrinx is running from Pan and how she lets him come closer before she runs again. That is because of the fast notes at the beginning (bar 1-5), then the music got slower notes (bar 6-8) and gets faster again (bar 9-17). In bar 18-24 Pan is about to catch Syrinx so she is getting transformed into reed before Pan can reach her. You can hear it because the music gets less teasing and more melancholic. From bar 24 until the end of the piece the mixed feelings of Pan are getting clear. At first, he sighs and then he plays on the reed, a fast and sad melody that is getting slower at the end because he realises his loss.

Claude Debussy, “Syrinx (La flûte de Pan)”

The second piece, “Pan” by Benjamin Britten for solo oboe, shows Pan’s mixed feelings after Syrinx gets transformed. He is discovering the new instrument and what it can do. That makes him play softly. At the same time, he has lost Syrinx. His only love is nowhere to reach anymore. His anger and sadness get clear because of the staccato notes and the fast notes he plays. In the end he is getting slower and sad. That is how the piece ends.

Benjamin Britten, “6 Metamorphoses after Ovid: Pan”

At the beginning of the third piece, “Pan og Syrinx” by Carl Nielsen, Syrinx is alone. That is why the piece starts quiet and slowly. When Tremolo begins, Pan has discovered her beauty and started to desire her. It is also where Syrinx starts to be in danger so the piece gets louder. Now Syrinx is playing with Pan. The music is staying soft and teasing as well as fast. When it gets louder again Pan has almost caught her so she begs to be saved from Pan. Right after the big pause when the oboe starts playing is where her transformation into reed begins, because of the mystical sound. Pan has lost her out of his sight. The louder the music gets the nearer Pan gets to find Syrinx. When the snare drum makes a loud noise, Pan has found her. The fast and loud music shows how upset he is. The music is getting slower and quiet again. Then the oboe plays again. That is where Pan discovers the beautiful sounds coming from the reed when he blows into it. His anger is getting less. He is amazed by its beauty but realises that he has lost Syrinx but will always be reminded of her because of the instrument she left. Pan is sad about it. That is why the music fades out slowly.

Carl Nielsen, “Pan og Syrinx.”

Peter Paul Rubens, Pan and Syrinx 1517-1519

Rubens, a Flemish painter (1577-1640) from Anversa, painted several scenes taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Some of these represent the myth of Pan and Syrinx and were realized by Rubens and his studio, including another important Flemish painter who is Pieter Brueghel. This is a joint work by Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder for which Brueghel painted the landscape and Rubens the figures. The painting represents the scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, recalled in may details: he lustful shepherd-god Pan pursued the shy, virginal nymph Syrinx, who ran to a river to escape him, calling on her ‘sisters of the stream’ to turn her into a reed. Just as Pan attempted to seize the nymph, she was transformed and he was left holding not a beautiful maiden but a bunch of reeds. From these he made his pipes, ever since called the syrinx, whose lovely tones reminded him of his lost love. Rubens, for whom Pan and the nymphs symbolise positive forces of nature, has based his Syrinx - modestly covering her loins with one hand and seemingly fending off the fast-closing Pan with the other - on the ancient Medici Venus, famous since the 16th century. Jan Brueghel the Elder, renowned for his life-like depiction of plants and animals, nestles the scene in a lively and luxuriant landscape.

Ovid in the European art