The Myth of Semele: A Woman on Fire

by | Feb 18, 2022 | Composer, Research

The Myth of Semele

Although various versions of the myth of Semele exist, they follow a similar narrative trajectory: Semele was a Theban princess. One day, she encountered the god Jupiter, who instantly fell in love with her. Since Semele is characterized as the object of Jupiter’s desire, her initial feelings are rarely elucidated. When Jupiter’s wife, Juno, learned of their relationship, she schemed to punish Semele. Juno disguised herself as Semele’s nurse, Beroë. Believing her nurse to be a friend and confidant, Semele confessed that Jupiter, the ruler of the Olympian gods, was her lover. Beroë questioned Jupiter’s honesty – was he truly immortal and so powerful? With these seeds of doubt planted in Semele’s mind, she asked Jupiter for a favor. Swearing on the River Styx, he promised to grant any request that Semele asked of him. Semele demanded that Jupiter reveal himself in his immortal glory to prove that he was truly a god. Jupiter pleaded with her to take back her request, but Semele insisted. Bound to his oath, Jupiter revealed himself as immense clouds, thunder, and lightning. Semele, a mortal, could not endure the heat’s intensity, and she was tragically immolated by Jupiter’s bolts.

Although the anonymous author of the libretto set by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) ends Semele’s tale here, her mythological narrative continues. At the exact moment of Semele’s lethal request, she is also pregnant. As flames engulf her, Jupiter saves their unborn child, “sewing” the fetus into his thigh. After Semele’s death and descent into the underworld, the baby is born, and he becomes Dionysus, the god of wine, theater, and fertility. Later, Dionysus rescues his mother from Hades, and Semele becomes immortal as Thyone, the goddess who resides over Dionysus’ court on Mount Olympus.

The anonymous librettist of de La Guerre’s Semelé, however, freezes Semele’s “portrait” at the precise moment of her death, followed by an air, or aria, with a pointed moralistic tone. The librettist writes, “When Love enchains us…let us not mix with his fire/ The desire of vainglory… It is in a tender bond/ That one finds the greatest happiness;/ Glamour, supreme grandeur/ Should count for nothing.” [1] Despite her manipulation by Juno and the inexplicable fact that Jupiter, the greatest god in all the universe, cannot transcend an oath of his own making, we are led to believe that Semele is at fault for her own demise. Semelé’s narrator claims that her mortal vanity, evident in her desire to prove that she was loved by an all-powerful god, is truly her undoing. If Semele had been privately satisfied with the love of Jupiter and unquestioning in her faithfulness, she may have survived.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729)

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre by François de Troy (1645–1730), late 17th/early 18th Century
Engraving by Juan Dolivar of the 1685 production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Roland, tragédie en musique at Versailles National Art Library, Paris

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the tendency to conclude with a “moral” lesson was common in French cantatas. Airs often reflected upon past events or shed light on the specific emotion of a character within the drama. Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre published Semelé, dedicated to the Elector of Bavaria, in 1715, as part of her collection of secular cantatas. Semelé is an extension of the seventeenth-century Italian “‘cantata,’” meaning “‘sung,’” a genre that designated a piece of music written for voice(s) and accompanying instruments (basse continue). By de La Guerre’s time, cantatas were often comprised of several movements, alternating between recitative passages and arias, marked by tempo and key changes. Cantatas were performed at Versailles and other royal residences, as well as in salon concerts at the homes of French nobles. De La Guerre navigated the complex power dynamic between nobility and the artist class throughout her lifetime. Educated in Louis XIV’s court as a child, de La Guerre learned to sing, compose, and play the organ and harpsichord.

At 15 years old, she was placed in the retinue of Madame de Montespan, a patron of the arts and mistress of the king, who socialized with leading intellectual and cultural figures of the day, such as Racine and Quinault. [2] In 1684, de La Guerre left the service of the court due to her marriage to organist Marin de La Guerre. She continued to compose, perform, and publish as a freelance musician, seeking financial support through noble patronage.

Throughout her career, de La Guerre published under her own name in a variety of genres, including sacred vocal music, instrumental works, ballet, and opera, or tragédie en musique. She is credited with composing the first opera written by a woman in France, Céphale et Procris. [3]

Portraits of Semele

I have chosen three images to depict Semele, creating a portrait-timeline that culminates in this tragic and deeply unjust moment in her story. The first is the work of Jan-Erasmus Quellinus (1634-1715), a Flemish painter from a family of famous artists, who specialized in history and portrait painting. Jupiter, Semele, und Juno depicts Jupiter’s pursuit of Semele, as Juno peers from the clouds above. Cupids, nestled in the left-hand corner of the work, point to the couple, as if to reveal their relationship. Jupiter’s body language is ominous and overpowering, while Semele appears to run from him. Our second image was painted by Pietro della Vecchia (1603-1678), a Venetian painter, who painted in a variety of genres, such as altar pieces and portraits. Jupiter and Semele depicts the violent instant when Jupiter reveals to Semele the extent of his immortal powers. Semele’s face is frozen in fear and pain while Jupiter’s lightning bolts rise above her. The image is disturbing, especially due to Jupiter’s imposing form, which aggressively looms over Semele’s reclined body.

Our last image is Semele by John Duncan (1866-1945), a Scottish painter and illustrator, best known as a proponent of the Celtic Revival in Scottish art. It depicts the titular figure in death, consumed by flames. It is important to note, however, that in this portrait, Semele is finally depicted as an individual. In my research, I often found it common to find images of Semele in relation to Jupiter: in a state of sexual rapture beside him, being pursued by him, or being killed by him. Rarely did I find Semele depicted as a person, an individual, alone. Duncan’s image is powerful in that Semele does not appear to be in pain, but rather illuminated. The flames do not harm her body but seem to expand her presence. Although Duncan’s portrait still represents her demise, I find Semele’s stare unsettling, as if to assert: I will not be consumed.

Watch

Semelé by Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre
Paula Maust, harpsichord
Christian Paquette, Baroque flute
Theodore Welke, theorbo

i.     Simphonie
ii.    Recitatif – Jupiter avoit fait un indiscret serment
iii.   Air – Ne peut-on vivre en tes liens
iv.   Prélude Bruit
v.    Recitatif – Mais, quel bruit étonnant se répand
vi.   Simphonie
vii.  Air – Quel triomphe, quelle victoire
viii. Bruit
ix.   Recitatif – Ah ! quel embrasement tout à coup m’épouvante
x.    Dernier Air – Lorsque l’Amour nous enchaisne

Notes

  1. Mary Cyr, “Introduction.” In The Collected Works – Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre. New York: Broude Trust, 2005, 13-15.
  2. Rebecca Cypess, Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. 2019. Accessed on November 24, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elisabeth-Claude-Jacquet-de-la-Guerre.
  3. Cyr, “Texts and Translations.” In The Collected Works – Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, 39.

Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre’s Semelé was performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, check out my projects.

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