Sometime in 2005 or ’06 I asked my friend, pianist Read Gainsford, if he might be interested in having me write a piece for him. He responded positively and I began looking for a possible theme or subject (I write pieces with “generic” titles like Sonata or Concerto relatively infrequently). I knew I probably wanted to write a multi-movement piece, as the only piano pieces I had written as an adult were two single-movement pieces, both, if not actually short, not long, either. I had in mind three movements, with a total duration of 15-20 minutes. This, naturally, turned into a five-movement work of about half an hour’s duration.
Somewhere I came across a reference to the “five rivers of Hades.” Like most people, I had heard of the River Styx, and might, if pressed, also have come up with the name Lethe, but I had no idea there were actually five rivers in the Underworld of Greek mythology. I looked them up, and found wonderfully evocative names, along with very interesting descriptions of the rivers and their roles in the afterlife. I was surprised not to find any other compositions on the subject, as it seemed like such a natural one for musical exploration.
If I have done the task I set myself, surely there is no need to describe the music itself, so I will simply give some information about the different rivers and hope that the movements will live up to their titles. I should mention, however, that as I was writing The Five Rivers of Hades I was very much thinking of Read’s extraordinary interpretive and emotive range on the piano, as well as his impressive technique, and I deliberately stretch these to the limits.
There are many different versions of the Greek myths containing references to these rivers, so my explications should not be taken as definitive.
Most people associate the River Styx with the ferryman, Charon, who rows the dead from the land of the living to the underworld, but in many versions of the myth, he rows their souls over the River Acheron (River of Sorrow or Woe) instead. Charon would only take those who were buried properly with a coin in their mouths to pay the toll. The others were condemned to wander on the riverbanks for all eternity, never allowed to enter Hades.
Phlegethon was a River of Fire which burns eternally, but does not consume. It was believed that criminals were consigned here, and many believe that this myth is the origin of the most common Christian concepts of Hell.
Cocytus was the River of Lamentations. The souls of the unburied were left to wander its shores.
The name “Styx” comes from the Greek stuegin, hate, hence the name River of Hatred. Its waters were poisonous even to the dead. In the versions of the myth in which Charon rows the deceased over Styx rather than Acheron, it is this quality which prevents them from simply wading or swimming into Hades, thus making the ferry trip necessary. To swear by the River Styx was the strongest oath any of the gods could make. The mere mention of its name caused an oath or promise to be irrevocable and life-binding.
Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness, was the only peaceful one among the rivers of Hades. Also called the River of Oblivion, the souls of the virtuous were allowed to drink from its waters to make them forget their past lives, and so be content with their place among the dead.