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Aulos & Lyre


For saxophone and piano

Duration: 7'30"

The most famous musician in Greek mythology is unarguably Orpheus, who journeyed to the underworld with lyre in hand as he sought to bring back his beloved Euridice. So many composers have used the epic tale as the inspiration for their works over the centuries (Montiverdi, Offenbach, Gluck, Haydn, Stravinski, etc) that one might begin to think that it is the only music-inspired story from Greco-Roman legend. However, a whole ensemble could be made from the characters said to possess musical talent in ancient Greece, with singers and instrumentalists in abundance. This composition draws from the myth of Marsyas and Apollo, a satyr and a god, who competed in what would have been considered the earliest music competition in history.


Marsyas was skilled in playing the aulos, a kind of reed instrument that had two shafts. This means that, because an aulos player would control two pipes at once, they could harmonize with themselves or play drones underneath more active passages. Apollo was one of the first lyre players recorded in Greek mythology, and being a member of the Pantheon, was near-perfect in much of what he did, yet was still fallible. Marsyas challenged Apollo to a musical duel on the condition that the winner could “do what they wanted” with/to the loser. Given what is known about satyrs in other stories from Greek mythology, this prize would likely be more than coquettish in nature if Marsyas was the victor. Apollo agreed to the contest, and the Muses were assembles as a panel of judges.


The competition began with the aulos being played in a way that whipped everybody into a frenzy, causing the Muses to dance wildly and with abandon. Apollo, in turn, played his lyre so sweetly and so beautifully that everybody was hushed, and many listeners began to well up with tears. The contest resulted in a draw, and both performers became flashier in their performance in the final round to insure their victory. Ultimately, Apollo was declared the winner, and skinned Marsyas alive for his hubris.


In Aulos & Lyre, the saxophonist and the pianist are representative of Marsyas and Apollo, respectively (spare the skinning). The story lends itself incredibly well to ABA form, with the final A section being a kind of “sudden-death” between the wild and lyrical themes presented prior. While the saxophone is a much different instrument than the aulos, the saxophonist does what they can to replicate the aulos’ most distinctive feature in the dramatic finale of this composition.

Aulos & Lyre was commissioned by Jichen Zhang, a talented saxophonist with technical facility that I believe to be nearly unmatched. I was encouraged to explore the most extreme fringes of the instrument’s capabilities, taking advantage of Zhang’s extensive altissimo range, his mastery of glissandi, and his openness to explore extended techniques that I was unable to find in any other pieces for saxophone. While Aulos & Lyre might only be performed by the most skilled players, I hope it serves as a fun and rewarding mountain to climb.

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