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Don Shirley - Shirley
Cadence CLP3037 [1960]   Reissue of the earlier Cadence CLP1009.

An Improvisation Based on the Story of Orpheus in the Underworld

The Journey
(Dies Irae) Expectation
The Condition
Susser Tod (Sweet Death): Warum? (Why?)-Reconciliation




          It is impossible to describe Don Shirley's music without analyzing Don himself; and in analyzing, we tend to categorize because we then have a ready frame of reference. Although our age may not have produced the Renaissance Man, Don Shirley probably comes as close as any other human being in our time to that ideal. His musical talents could almost be over∑ looked from an academic standpoint if one realizes that, in addition to his Doctorate in Music, he is the holder of Doctorates in Psychology and Liturgical Arts, speaks eight languages fluently, and is considered an expert painter, as well.
          Like most musicians who are true innovators, Don Shirley the arranger-composer has always been classified in various pigeonholes such as "Jazz," "Classical," "Jazz-oriented Classical" or "Classically-oriented Jazz," but always half-heartedly and with many reservations. His work cannot be catalogued in a particular school of musical composition. Each song is more than just a new arrangement; it is a composition in itself, using the familiar song melody as part of its framework. Though the melodic and harmonic structure of a song by Jimmy McHugh may suggest to Don Nineteenth Century romanticism and not Twentieth Century Hollywood, the melody is always there forming the basic fabric of his arrangement, at the same time inspiring counter-melodies.
          Don's piano style reflects many different influences, yet these are all governed by his own inscrutable and unyielding individuality. He may suddenly quote the familiar style of Garner or Ellington or Shearing. Still these polite tributes are never more than just that, for this is one more device of Don's using his music to create the atmosphere he chooses. "There are three ways to enjoy or to interpret music, from a listening point of view: emotionally, intellectually, and a combination of the two. I have tried to utilize all three, contingent upon the quality of the tune chosen." His choice of using the piano as a stringed rather than as a percussion instrument gives him a flexible and marvelously expressive voice to combine emotion and intellect in the subtlest way.
          The extent of Don's formal training is clearly revealed in his fabulous technic. He began playing piano at the age of 2Ĺ, and by the time he was 9 he had been invited to study at the Leningrad Conservatory, where he was to spend a great part of his youth. And yet he was to abandon the piano while still quite young.
          It was while in Chicago as a psychologist that Don "tripped" back into a musical career. He was given a grant to study the relationship, if any, between music and a juvenile crime wave which had suddenly broken out in the early 1950's. Working in a small club there, he used his knowledge and skill to perform experiments in sound, whereby he proved that certain tonal combinations affected the audience's reactions. No one in the audience knew of his experiment, or that students had been planted among them to gauge their reactions.
But Don Shirley the pianist became a sensation. Appearances in New York followed, notably at the Basin Street, where Duke Ellington first heard him. Here started their warm friendship which was highlighted by Don's performance in 1955 of the premiere of the Duke's Piano Concerto at Carnegie Hall with the NBC Symphony of the Air. An appearance on the Arthur Godfrey Show launched his career nationwide.
          Don has composed three symphonies, two piano concerti, a cello concerto, three string quartets, a one-act opera, works for organ, piano and violin, a symphonic tone poem based on "Finnegan's Wake" and a set of "Variations" on the legend of Orpheus in the Underworld.
          All indications seem to be that Don Shirley's favorite career is that of musician, and his material that of our country, our time, and the richness of a many-faceted personality.

An Improvisation based on the story of Orpheus in the Underworld
                    Recorded at WGN Studios
                    Chicago, Illinois
                    December 17,1955

GENESIS 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.
MISFORTUNE 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.
LITANY 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.
THE JOURNEY 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.
PLEADING 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 telling 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."
RETROSPECT (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.
EXPECTATION (After his pleading he retires to another nearby section to await the decision of the Court.)
THE CONDITION 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.
WARUM? (WHY?) 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.
SSSER TOD (SWEET DEATH) 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.
RECONCILIATION 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 Komroff