Amazons in Classical Music: A Wonder Woman-Inspired Playlist

The blockbuster film, Wonder Woman has hit the theaters… and audiences are flocking to this story of the Amazon princess who sets out to save the world. Not surprisingly, the movie has rekindled contemporary interest in the mythological Amazons and turned them into somewhat of a pop-culture sensation.

In ancient Greek myth, the Amazons were a nation of warrior women living at the fringe of civilization, either along the Black Sea, in Libya, or on the Scythian plain. They were both fascinating and terrifying to the ancients, and their hold on the West’s imagination has never really faded.  Wonder Woman will no doubt help create the “standard” depiction of Amazons in the modern mind, but it is hardly the only one—given the popularity of Amazons in Western culture, there are many other depictions to explore.

Battle of Greeks and Amazons

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So in this spirit, allow me to provide a classical music playlist of works that prominently feature Amazons—particularly the most famous Amazon queens: Hippolyta, Antiope, and Penthesilea.

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Hippolyta

Queen Hippolyta is probably the most famous Amazon of all.  In ancient mythology, she was linked to Heracles (or in the Latin spelling, “Hercules”), who was sent to the Amazons’ realm to procure Hippolyta’s sword belt as one of his famous 12 labors.  But while the story of the Heracles’s labors was widely known across the ancient world, there was not a fixed text for the story; as a result, there was no universal consensus about what happened to the queen.  Some stories took the path of least resistance and had Hippolyta get killed off in the battle between Heracles and his men. Others have her giving the belt willingly, or explain that she survived the encounter to either invade Greece or marry an important hero.  Her fame in the ancient world was such that her name ended up being mistakenly used  in various other Amazon tales, whether or not she was originally part of the myth or not.  In the 1940s, William Moulton Marston capitalized on her fame he began developing the Wonder Woman comic book, turning her into Wonder Woman’s mother.

Heracles Battling Hippolyta and the Amazons

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Britten: A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream Many don’t realize that the framing story in Shakespeare’s great play is the marriage of Athenian Hero Theseus and the Amazon queen Hippolyta.  Their nuptials set everything in motion, and provide a metaphor for opposed forces coming together in partnership.  Britten’s opera is a delight that emphasizes the otherworldly aspects of the fairy kingdom that the mortals blunder into.

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Mendelssohn: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Mendelssohn’s treatment is far better known that Britten’s opera—at least the overture.  Listeners should delve into the rest of the music Mendelssohn wrote to accompany a staged version of the play.

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Antiope

Antiope was another noted Amazon queen. In mythology she was more closely associated with Theseus, in the same way that Hippolyta was originally linked with Heracles.  That said, they were frequently considered sisters, and their stories so frequently bled into each other that their names became synonymous.  In Greek Myth, Antiope was said to have battled with Theseus before marrying him, and later gave birth to a son named Hippolytus in honor of her sister Hippolyta. When DC Comics rebooted Wonder Woman in the 1980s, Antiope was cast as a sort of Vice-Queen to Hippolyta, who later established an independent Amazon nation of her own.  In the movie, she serves as Hippolyta’s second in command, and the Amazons’ greatest general.

Theseus and Antiope

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Vivaldi:  Ercole su’l Termodonte Vivaldi created an opera recounting Heracles’s attempt to secure the Amazon queen’s sword.  In terms of his characters, he flips the roles of Hippolyta and Antiope, having the later become the principal Amazon ruler.  The complete score was lost, although a large number of airas and duets survived, allowing modern musicologists to reconstruct this work.

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Sacchini: Renaud. This is somewhat of an outlier—instead of a classical setting, Sacchini’s 1783 opera recounts the story of a Crusader knight in the Holy Land during the First Crusade. Armide is a sorceress and princess from Damascus, who has a love-hate relationship with the titular character. Her followers vow to kill Sir Renaud, and plot with Antiope and the Amazons to trap and kill him.  The Amazons’ arrival is set to a highly stylized ballet at the end of the first act.

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Penthesilea

This third great Amazon queen was depicted by a wide variety of composers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In ancient mythology, she was considered to be the younger sister of Hippolyta, and became Queen of the Amazons when she accidentally killed her older sister while they were on a hunt.  Penthesilea sought to expiate her crime by achieving glory on the battlefield; she gathered a company of sisters-in-arms and went to the aid of the city of Troy during the Trojan War, the greatest war of the age. She arrived as the Trojans had finished Hector’s funeral, and vowed to kill Achilles in revenge. The Amazons fought fiercely and killed many Greeks until Achilles killed Penthesilea in single combat.  Aside from the traditional myths, Penthesilea’s popularity increased after Heinrich von Kleist published a tragedy in 1809 that reexamined the ancient myth, inventing a passionate affair between Achilles and the queen before their subsequent duel.  Curiously, Kleist takes reverses the characters’ fates, having Penthesilea kill Achilles before committing suicide in grief. She is listed as a character in Wonder Woman’s credits, but only plays a minor role in the movie.

Achilles Killing Penthesilea

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Dusapin: Penthesilea. This 2005 opera sets Kleist’s drama to music in an adaptation by Beate Haeckl. As Alex Ross wrote in his review, “Dusapin approaches the material with admirable restraint; the tone of the opera, which unfolds in an unbroken ninety minutes, is grave and meditative, with chantlike lines rising over extended drones and impressionistic washes of timbre.”

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Goldmark: Penthesilea Overture.  This 1876 work compresses the narrative arc of the myth into a single, 20-minute tone poem.  It is a prime example of late romantic exoticism.

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Schoeck: Penthesilea. This one act opera, which premiered in 1927, more explicitly sets the text of Kleist’s tragedy.  It is a prime example of pre-war expressionism, flirting with atonalism without fully abandoning tonality.

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Szymanowski: Penthesilea. This 1908 song for soprano and orchestra is… somewhat odd.  Rather than adapt Kleist’s text, the composer adapted the Nad Skamandrem (By the Scamander) scene of a drama by Stanisław Wyspiański, Achilleis. In this scene, Achilles washes the fatal wounds of Penthesilea in the Scamander River, momentarily reviving her. She speaks to Achilles, but after a few moments she expires, and he gently lowers her again into the water.

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Wolf: Penthesilea. Renowned for his song cycles, Wolf struck out in a very different direction for this tone poem, completed in 1885. Wolf compresses the narrative of Kleist’s tragedy into three movements, using orchestra alone to tell this story of love and war.

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3 thoughts on “Amazons in Classical Music: A Wonder Woman-Inspired Playlist

    • Yes, both works draw on the same basic story, but differ in their personae and various plot points. While we’re on the subject, Handel’s Atalanta would be a nice addition to this list. In Greek mythology, Atalanta wasn’t an actual Amazon, but her renown as a huntress and athlete are in keeping with the Amazonian tradition!

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