HOME | About this Page | Your Comments | Contact

Don Shirley - Orpheus in the Underworld
Cadence CLP1009 [1956]   Later Reissued as CLP3037
The Journey
(Dies Irae) Expectation
The Condition
Susser Tod (Sweet Death): Warum? (Why?)-Reconciliation


Reissued on
Collectable Jazz Classics


       The four most important requisites of successful musical composition are:

1stly,  ample comprehension and command of the relations
          and associations of tone (harmony and counterpoint);
2ndly, an active and fertile imagination;
3rdly, an intellectual curiosity; and
4thly, the life-breathing attribute of emotional passion.

       Of these four, the last mentioned cannot be acquired; it must be innately present in the disposition of the individual; and consequently, it will be the subject of consideration in this album of musical improvisations.
       The word, improvisation, as used here, differs greatly in meaning from the manner in which it has been applied to popular music and/or Jazz. In the latter types of music the performer or performers have at least the chords as well as a melodic line of an already composed work on which to apply his or their special talents for purposes of variation. However, in the present work the artist has only his knowledge of musical structural design, an un translated version of the Greek myth, Orpheus, and an oil painting (on cover) . The Artist extemporaneously conceives a melody, thinks of what particular forms (of which there are dozens) the music should take on, choose a key and meter, then set out on a musical journey dictated by the text of Orpheus and the painting.
       This kind of process (perhaps minus texts or paintings) was consummated by 1770.
       "Audiences especially enjoyed hearing a pianist improvise. A quick fingered musician, well trained in the fundamental formulas, can easily learn to combine fragments of them into new permutations on the spur of the moment . . .the assured execution of any rapid musical passages that fell into well-understood patterns seemed admirable and delightful to audiences of the 1770's and the early 1800's . . .. For some forty years people kept on liking this sort of thing; finally Carl Czerny, Beethoven's diligent acolyte, published 'The Art of Improvisation' as his opus 200 . . .. With the advent of a newer pianistic style-fashion the taste for pubic improvisations began to wane; it became all but extinct after 1840."
       " . .. They were the same joined pleasures, substantially, that could be gleaned from an air with variations, plus the heady feeling of watching the man make it all up as he went along." (Men, Women and Pianos, by Loessee, pp 176-7.)

The following is an attempt at a literal translation of Orpheus In The Underworld, hence the clumsy English diction and awkward sentence structure:

Once long ago there lived a youth named Orpheus. The Gods loved Orpheus so much that they endowed him with two gifts: the gift of poetry and the gift of music. And the great God Apollo gave him a golden lyre.
Orpheus sang and played with such perfection that he cast an enchantment over everything about him. So moving were his songs and the mush: of his lyre that he even charmed the hard rocks and the whispering trees. Streams turned in their courses to follow him and wild beasts became gentle and gathered about
him in peace.

One day as Orpheus wandered through the woods he fell in love with a nymph called Eurydice. Their happiness was as beautiful as the sky and the sea. And Hymen, the God of Marriage, flew down from Olympus in his saffron-colored robe to wed them. But the joy of their love was quickly destroyed, for on
that very day, as Eurydice wandered in a meadow, she was bitten by a (poisonous) viper and died leaving Orpheus alone in consuming sorrow.

Orpheus now wandered aimlessly through the land playing sad tunes and singing of his grief. At length, unable to bear his sorrow any longer, Orpheus appealed to Jupiter to grant him permission to go to the Underworld to ask Hades for his beautiful bride. Such a thing. had never before been granted to a mortal.
but Jupiter conceded.

Orpheus started out at once on the long, dangerous journey to the World of the dead. In his search he passed all kinds of desolate, shadowy beings. He saw the Griefs, Avenging Care, the Pale Diseases, and Melancholy Age. He passed Fear and Hunger. He saw Toil, Poverty and Death. The Cruel Furies, gazed on him with ugly faces.

The strains of the golden lyre filled the Underworld and from every side the shadows, as under a spell, gathered around Orpheus.
Then Orpheus, standing before them, sang a song of sorrow. "O sovereigns of the Underworld, hear the words of my breaking heart. Love has brought me here. I have not come to seek out the secrets of your dark abode, I have come only to find Eurydice, my beloved, she who died before her youth was spent." Then Orpheus sang on teliing of his love and his loneliness. In the end he pleaded: "And so I sing, imploring you, tie once more the thread of her mortal life. Then when she has filled her time on earth she will return to you but until then give her back to me, this I beseech you."

(He then tells the court the dangers he Willingly underwent in order to get to his beloved Eurydice): He passed the Monster Briareus with his hundred whirling arms and the nine headed Hydra. Further on he saw the terrible fire-breathing Chimaera. He even encountered Tityus, the giant whose massive body covered nine acres. Any or all of this he would gladly do again if only he could gain the court's favor to take his beloved back to the sunlit world above.

(After his pleading he retires to another nearby section to await the decision of the Court.)

The members of the Underworld conferred and Hades could not deny Orpheus' plea. Very majestically they gave Orpheus permission to lead Eurydice out of the Underworld and back to the land of the living. However, there was one condition which they imposed; Orpheus would lead the way and she would follow, and never once was he to look back at her until they had both reached the sunlit world. And so Orpheus and Eurydice started on their happy journey homeward.

At last after many hours Orpheus saw the first faint light of day. In joy, he hurried on ahead but forgetting the warning of the Gods, he turned around. He smiled happily and held out his arms to receive her but suddenly she began to vanish like a vision fading. He had looked around too soon. Slowly she slipped back into the darkness.

BANDS 10 and 11
After many long days of wandering Orpheus died. At last his spirit was free from mortal ties and he descended to the Land of the Dead. He found his beloved Eurydice and together they roamed the fields and hills of the land of the shadows in everlasting happiness.

Donald W. Shirley and Manuel Komropp

NOTE: This work was performed at the Böesendofer piano. It will be interesting to note that Bands 9 and 10 could not possibly have been performed on any other piano mainly because of their lack of an extended bass range of seven keys.