Descent into Hades : a comparative study of underworld scenes in selected operatic settings of the Orpheus myth

This study examines the underworld scenes of the Orpheus operas of Claudio Monteverdi, Christoph Willibald von Gluck, Joseph Haydn, and Jacques Offenbach. The purpose is to discover what similarities, if any, occur among works dealing with the same basic material but composed in different times and different countries. The underworld scenes were selected for special emphasis because of the variety and imagination they have inspired in many composers who have treated this legend musically. A broad approach, designed for the convenience of the reader, is followed. The thesis provides background material on the Orpheus myth and the mythological underworld. Additionally, it presents a chapter devoted to Angelo Poliziano's La fabula di Orfeo. This play provided the stimulus for the first three extant operas, all of which deal with the Orpheus myth. Terms, mythological references, and geographical references which may be unfamiliar to some readers are explained; sketches of the librettos and translations of the underworld scenes are provided. Where relevant, other Orpheus operas are discussed briefly for purposes of comparison. The study discusses each opera and its underworld scene in a separate chapter. The final chapter compares the findings of the earlier chapters dealing with specific operas, and presents the author's conclusions. These are: 1) In general, there are more similarities among poetic settings than among musical settings of underworld scenes; 2) The most significant musical similarities among the four scenes examined in detail concern treatment of melody and timbre; 3) All of the four operas imparted structure to their underworld scene(s) by repeating one or more numbers or sections later on in the scene; 4) The quality of the libretto has a great deal to do with the quality of the finished product; 5) Scenes of contrasting conception can be equally effective.