The Legacy of Orpheus in Twentieth Century Art Forms

Kandinsky's "Composition 8"

By Angelina Muñiz-Huberman

Translated from Spanish by Andrea Labinger

One way of reviving the arts and humanities in general, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has been to update ancient myths. Orpheus will always be a central figure: a touchstone. The ambiguity of his legend, its philosophical meaning, its poetic symbolism, its interconnection with various art forms, the underlying life-love-death metaphor, and the voyage to the infernal and occult are just a few elements of its interpretive possibilities.

Orpheus is present in the world of creative spirituality. He is a recurrent motif in painting, sculpture, music, opera, dance, poetry, the novel, film, and theater.

With the advent of Romanticism and the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, the theme is revived as a source of infinite variation. It is related to innovative esthetics, as in the poetry of Rilke, the painting of Kandinsky and Paul Klee, the music of Debussy, Schönberg, and Alban Berg; and Laban’s theory of dance. In literature it remains a constant motif: to offer just one contemporary example, it is the guiding principle in the work of Canadian writer Robertson Davies. In dance, there is Lina Bausch’s outstanding choreography Orpheus and Euyidice by Glück.

Orpheus’s Sentence

As long as Orpheus’s legacy exists in the arts, there will be a contradiction. His descent to the underworld meant nothing because there was no rebuilding. Orpheus did not rescue Eurydice, and his sentence was to create the song of despair. As his act was essentially useless, he had no choice but to dedicate himself to the consecration of art in all its fragility

The legend of Orpheus alludes to an instant when time stands still, a time when error and loss might still be reversed. It is, furthermore, the moment of decision, the moment when the canticle that must not be desecrated emerges. It relates to the theme of deliberate sacrifice. Even beforehand, Orpheus senses that he will not recover Eurydice: his soul’s voyage will be in vain. The price of his impatience is solitude for the rest of his life. He will practice his art at the edge of silence, while his followers multiply. If it was sight that caused him to lose the realm of love, it will be through hearing that he acquires the realm of order. Creating order from music will allow him to imagine Eurydice’s presence before him.  He receives the sign of the revelation and abandons an anticipated behavior.  Then he leaves logic behind.  The lines of drawing, melody, and poetry intersect, setting each other free.

Orpheus advances from darkness into light. His penetration into the shadows is a sign that hope awaits. It is the sign of birth. The delicate resonance of a melody is heard after his first dream, before sunrise. And it is heard when the realm of death already lies behind him and dawn is about to break. His pact with the gods has been shattered, and all that remains are the creative forces themselves: the poet, the musician will understand that revelation comes from within and its sign is luminosity unveiled.

Those who follow the Orphic path will be marked by a mystical sort of art, the kind that passes tests and is presented naked, deliberate, and liberated. It aspires to deep stylistic concentration: to a selection of governing principles carried out in Esthetics. But the first rule is an intimate, ethical commitment to artistic sincerity. One might say that it is an art of the arts. An art of arts followed only by those creators who are tested by rejection, by perseverance in their convictions and the acceptance of the halo that marks them.

Orphism is related to other philosophical theories, like those of Pythagoras, in which the union of music and numbers reflects a metaphysical abstraction. Time and space are images of the number. Art is desire and will as expressed in time and space, and its primordial feature is rhythm.  Dance, music, and poetry drift through time: they struggle to capture an eternal moment, an eternal place. Their ephemerality is proof of their nostalgia.

Orpheus and the Word

The word on Orpheus’s lips acquires dimensions of the unpredictable, the arbitrary, the unexpected. It distorts logic and thus makes us feel uneasy. It meets with Aristotle’s rejection and Plato’s indecision. But it is Plato who sentences the poet and assigns him his distinguishing mark, a mark that will become an onus over the centuries. The moment of liberation arrived with the acceptance of the desacralization theory, the notion that in art all transgressions are admissible.  Canons were dismantled, and now Orpheus returns rebellious and ready to unleash the Furies . Laws were broken, and the result was the discovery of new fields of limitless creativity.

The twentieth century artist was annoyed by law and order, mental prisons, tiresome repetitions, stagnant concepts. He returned to the Orphic myth, lost in time and mystery, for inspiration. From that moment on, the representation of reality ceased to be imperative and other perspectives, new sounds and colors, other rhythms and sensations, took precedence.  Only those arts that were anchored in totalitarian ideologies, like communism and fascism, which tend to be conservative and fearful of innovation, opposed these winds of change. But the new winds would shake and refresh all trees that were ready to bear fruit. Nothing could stop them, and the paths leading to forbidden worlds, far from sinking into obscurity, began to emit light.

From time immemorial, the word has been given to those who risked descent in search of an inferno that was no longer fearsome, but loved. Marcel Proust pledged his work to a quest for lost love. Virginia Woolf became enmeshed in the ambiguity of her passions and the proximity to madness. James Joyce employed the inferno of the word, to untangle it and convert and contort it into what would become modernity. Because in the word and its musicality resides the key to Orpheus’s lyre.

Music and Other Art Forms

The return to unity lies dormant in nineteenth century art theory. It was believed that the various disciplines could be explained universally. Abbé Lacuria (1808-1890), in his book Les harmonies de l’être, exprimées par les nombres (The Harmonies of Being, As Explained by Numbers), presents the synthesis of the arts from a Pythagorean perspective. The concepts of being and nothingness use the numerical series to define creation. God himself, in order to establish distance between his being and nothingness, resorts to a mathematical comparison. The principle of duality sets the basic rule. Each concept and its opposite aspires to its own harmony. In a later work, Lacuria, the first theoretical interpreter of Beethoven’s symphonies, uses hermeneutics to explain his ideas. The nine symphonies represent the composer’s process of spiritual ascent. They may be compared to the nine rungs of a ladder. The first rung is empty because Beethoven’s Symphony No.1 is a continuation of the style of Mozart and Haydn. The second rung announces the birth of the Sun. The third, under the sign of Mars, is draped in a mantle of tears. In the fourth, the Sun shines brightly. The fifth is shadowed by a cloud, while the Moon emerges, framed by six stars. The sixth rung, corresponding to the Pastoral Symphony, is surrounded by a rose bush and crowned by a Sun. The seventh and eighth rungs are compared to lightning bolts among the clouds; while in the ninth, the lightning denotes glory and reveals the celestial vision achieved (Godwin 129ff).

To his Pythagorean knowledge, Abbé Lacuria adds another common element of his era:  a fascination with Egyptology. He compares Beethoven to a sphinx in the desert, one whose mysteries we will never be able to decipher.

These mystical currents have very ancient roots in Western thought. The so-called Orphic Hymns belong to this tradition, with the advent of Neo-Platonism they acquire force.  In The Republic, Plato sanctifies the study of harmony. During the Middle Ages, musica speculativa was considered part of the study of philosophy. This term included music theory and its principles, while praxis was omitted. It was based on an esoteric approach together with ideas taken from theosophy, hermeticism, alchemy, and Cabala, along with the Orphic-Pythagorean tradition. Topics of investigation included the harmony of the angelic orders, the music of the spheres or planets, the zodiac, the elements, body and soul, hidden connections in nature, the secrets of numbers, the power of sound, and the moral responsibility such power confers.

According to Abbé Lacuria’s theory, the School of Chartres (twelfth century) is an example of interest in such studies. Three centuries later Marsilius Ficinus, Cabalistic scholar and translator of Plato and of the Corpus Hermeticum, revives the Orphic tradition and attributes music with magical and sacred character.

In Elizabethan England, Robert Fludd applies these principles in his works, affirming that planetary movements are related to certain musical tones, in accordance with Hellenistic tradition. If Descartes tends to deny hermeticism, Leibniz might be said to employ it in a figurative sense, and his mention of the harmony of the universe may be a metaphor. His notion of the clave universalis established a way of knowing that transcends the apparent reality of things in search of a hidden reality that might be its true essence (Rossi 15-20).

In contrast, the case of Isaac Newton is the most explicit insofar as the theory of arts and the doctrine of correspondences are concerned. He attempted to pair colors with musical sounds.  Although his initial framework consisted of five colors (red, yellow, green, blue, and violet), he added two more (orange and indigo) in order to “divide the image of the spectrum into parts more elegantly proportioned to one another” (Godwin 10). In this way he established a parallel with the seven musical notes, in which the “proportions” of the colors are the equivalent of the intervals in the key of D. Thus, Newton linked the Pythagorean concept of the harmony of the spheres to music and color as a universal whole.

Subsequently, the Symbolist poets went a step farther in experimenting with the idea that the vowels have certain characteristic colors associated with them, as Rimbaud suggested (A=black, E=white, I=red, O=blue, U=green). Equally well known is Rubén Darío’s poem, “Sinfonía en gris mayor” (Symphony in Gray Major, in Prosas profanas).

From the rise of Romanticism in the  nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth there is a resurgence of the theory that music has an essential role as a path to knowledge, independent of its artistic, expressive, and communicative character.

It is in France where the ancient philosophers are once again studied in relationship to Orphism, Pythagorism, and Neo-Platonism. The phenomenon appears not only in music, but also, notably, in literature. Authors like Gérard de Nerval, Georges Sand, Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo, and poets such as Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé are drawn to sources from the so-called occult sciences: alchemy, Cabala, spiritualism, and mystical experiences, together with the mythical figure of Orpheus. In some cases, drugs play a part in the process of creative transcendence.

These tendencies influenced not only Romanticism, but also later movements like Symbolism, Surrealism, and the avant-garde in general. In cinema, the influence is striking in German Expressionist films like Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen’s The Golem, the first version of which dates from 1914, and a second, more widely recognized version in 1920. Years later, in 1950, Jean Cocteau directs Orpheus, with extraordinary performances by María Casares and Jean Marais. In 1958 the Brazilian film Black Orpheus, directed by Marcel Camus, recreates the Neo-Platonic theme under apparently very different, but still impactful, circumstances.

Similarly, the legacy can be detected in operas like Glück’s Orpheus and Eurydice, which remains in the repertoire. Other Orpheus-obsessed musicians include Telemann, Monteverdi, Serafino dall’Aquilano, Marco Cara, Bartolomeo Tromboncino, Filippo de Lurano, Michele Pesenti, Angelo Poliziano, and in the nineteenth century, Franz Liszt , all under the aegis of Orpheus.

In The Lyre of Orpheus, the final novel of his series The Cornish Trilogy, Canadian writer Robertson Davies recreates the myth yet again. Beginning with E.T.A. Hoffman’s epigraph about the Orphic lyre that “opens the door to the underworld” (Davies 739), we are made aware of the powerful magic of music as an element of pure abstraction. “Surely it is in the mind that we humans truly live . . . the mind, which is not the creature of the clock but of those moving planets and that vast universe whose mysteries are still, in the main, unknown to us  . . .” (Davies 991). Once more, the theory of correspondences makes its appearance. We continue to listen to the music of the Orphic-Pythagorean spheres.

In the academic world there is also a descent to the infernos when scholars such as Frances Antonia Yates or Gershom Scholem take on the investigation of the occult sciences, hermeticism, alchemy, and Cabala as sources of knowledge.

Satie and Debussy

In the new world of perception that is revived by ancient traditions, two musicians, Erik Satie (1866-1925) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) expound their esthetic theories based on knowledge of forgotten sources. The former, affiliated with the Rosicrucians and considered to be the order’s official composer, combined legendary themes with innovative musical concepts that departed from Impressionism in favor of a simpler melodic line. In so doing he attempted to reveal the occult world of symbolic meanings through a musical language stripped of all excess and directed toward the expression of the essential.  The latter, also associated with occultist ideas and the figure of Orpheus, served as his guide. Fauns, tritons, sylphs, and water nymphs inhabit Debussy’s music, giving rise to a harmonic blend of the known and the unknown in which tradition comes face to face with the new, emerging tonality. His music emphasizes the use of short phrases, unusual chords, and emphasis on the timbre of the instruments as opposed to their orchestral function. Further, his friendship with poets like Verlaine and Baudelaire sustains him in his quest for tone and structure. And finally, the influence of Impressionist painting leads him to consider his music as part of the same current.  One must not forget that the Impressionist painter M. Baschet made an extraordinary portrait of the musician.

Speculative Music and Modernity

The Orphic-Pythagorean influence reached unprecedented extremes with certain early twentieth-century French theorists. Wagner was enthroned as “officiating for God before the mystery and symbols” (Emile Bernard, qtd. Godwin 199), only to be deposed after the outbreak of World War I. Other approaches related music to Egyptology and Cabalistic interpretations.  A system of correspondences with other arts was established, and musical notes became tinged with color. Despite his arbitrariness, Paul Gauguin, a friend of speculative art advocate Emile Bernard, was familiar with the latter’s theories and, under his influence, devised harmonic equivalents for the colors of the spectrum. However, these speculative theories remained practically unknown. Their most notorious aspect, perhaps, might be the idea that the universe is a mirror that reflects the meditative efforts of the human mind and, as such, joins the various art forms in a unifying totality. The ancient ideal of reuniting the arts once more in an indissoluble whole is inherent to these theories. Thus Orpheus’s yearning for music as the great master of both divine wisdom and human understanding are brought together: a meeting point between numbers and emotion. In another field, modern physics, I will mention only that its questions also pursue an interpretation of the paradoxes of our universe. 

Theodor W. Adorno and Alban Berg

It is interesting to note that Theodor W. Adorno, one of the great twentieth century thinkers, was a highly knowledgeable conisseur and music critic, a pianist and composer who belonged to Schönberg’s circle and who studied under Alban Berg.

The influence of music on Adorno’s literary style and philosophical concepts was fundamental. He chose Alban Berg as his model, analyzing his entire oeuvre. He himself confesses that there is an intersection between his intellectual development and Alban Berg’s approach to composition. He admits that his deepest desire is to develop a prose similar to the way in which Berg elaborated his String Quartet Opus 3. He considers the work of his master and friend as “coming from another planet” while at the same time including the nostalgic power of memory. Berg’s Violin Concerto impresses him as being the appropriate way to esthetically resolve the integration of a Carinthian folk song with dodecaphonism. For another philosopher, María Zambrano, the concerto “originates from the set of notes within the range of the instrument for which it is written. Orpheus’s lament must have resounded in the fundamental notes of the human voice in the purest, simplest mathematical form: the sacred first number of the canticle” (Zambrano 110).  In his analysis of Alban Berg’s work, Adorno was also guided by his auditory skills, thus enabling him to perpetuate the teachings of Orpheus.

Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky

Orphic-Pythagorean principles can be applied to painting, as well. We might say that Paul Klee’s painting adopts a rhythmic foundation among its postulates. The concept of balance is reflected in the elements he chooses:  horizon, scale, tower, and arrow are all outlined in a world structured according to chromatic harmony.  Thus, the capacity for choice in artistic matters merges opposites. In the artist’s words: “Thought is the father of the arrow: how can I increase my range over this river, this lake, that mountain? The ideological capacity of man to penetrate earthly and supernatural spaces at random – in contrast to his physical prostration – is the origin of human tragedy. This combat between power and prostration implies the whole discord of human existence. Half winged, half imprisoned – that is man” (n.pag.).

The same lament as that of Orpheus, who cannot reconcile desire with reality and thus loses any territory gained.

For Vassily Kandinsky, art is the quest for spiritual perfection. The various elements must combine into a harmonious whole, despite being antithetical:

“Perhaps with envy and with a mournful sympathy we listen to the music of Mozart. It acts as a welcome pause in the turmoil of our inner life, as a consolation and as a hope, but we hear it as the echo of something from another age long past and fundamentally strange. The strife of colors, the sense of the balance we have lost, tottering principles, unexpected assaults, great questions, apparently useless striving, storm and tempest, broken chains, antitheses and contradictions – these make up our harmony. The composition arising from this harmony is a mingling of color and drawing, each with its separate existence, but each blended into a common life, which is called a picture by the force of internal necessity” (Kandinsky 65-66).

Once more, the arts intertwine and absorb one another’s vocabulary in their desire for mystical union.

Rudolf Laban and Choreosophy

Steeped in Neo-Platonic theory and hermetic art, Rudolf Laban, an innovator in the field of dance, introduces an original concept at the beginning of the twentieth century: choreosophy. He is concerned above all with emphasizing the wisdom derived from dance, a return to nature, spiritual values, the reconciliation of opposites, integration of different human abilities, and the recognition of dance as a cultural, ethical, and educational value.

In creating choresophy, Laban takes into account the correspondences and analogies between the various art forms, such as movement and the emotions, music and dance. He is especially interested in creating works of total art, for which reason he may be considered as another example of a drive toward “universal art.” As Miriam Huberman has indicated, choreosophy combines musical, philosophical, esthetic, mythological, and occultist concepts in dance form. It proposes a means of initiation that seeks to return to the original sources.

Thus, contemporary art could not be explained without the Orphic legacy, perhaps because it is an art that attempts to disentangle itself from bindings and narrowness, an art that not only denies, but also rejects Aristotelian patterns and aspires to a complete liberation of the imprisoned spirit.

Works Cited

Davies, Robertson. “The Lyre of Orpheus.” The Cornish Trilogy.New York: Penguin, 1992.

Godwin, Jocelyn. Music and the Occult. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1995.

Huberman, Miriam. “Rudolf Laban and the Concept of Choreosophy.”  MA Thesis. Laban Center for Movement and Dance, London 1990.

Kandinsky, Vassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Painting in Particular.The Documents of Modern Art. Vol. 5. Trans. Francis Golffing, Michael Harrison, and Ferdinand Ostertag. New York: George Wittenborn, 1970.

Klee, Paul.  Pedagogical Sketchbook, trans. Sibyl Peech. New York: Nierendorf Gallery, 1944.

Rossi, Paolo. Clavis universalis: El arte de la memoria y la lógica combinatoria de Lulio a Leibniz. México DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica:, 1989.

Zambrano. María. El hombre y lo divino.  México DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1986.


Angelina Muñiz-Huberman (Hyères, France, 1936) has lived in Mexico since 1942. She teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and is a guest lecturer at international universities. She is the author of 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays. Some of her literary themes are Jewish mysticism and Cryptojudaism.  Her work has been awarded with major prizes and translated into various languages. Some of her titles published in English are:Enclosed GardenThe Confidantes, and A Mystical Journey.  She is included in The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories;With Signs & Wonders; The Scroll and The Cross; The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature; Miriam´s Daughter, Jewish Latin American Poets, among other anthologies. At present Angelina Muñiz-Huberman holds a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Culture and the Arts (Mexico).

Andrea G. Labinger  specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction.  Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela.  Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001) received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and Other Stories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007.The Island of Eternal Love, her translation of Cuban novelist Daína Chaviano’s La isla de los amores infinitos, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in 2008.  More recently Labinger has published The Confidantes, a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s Las confidentes (Gaon Books, 2009) and Death as a Side Effect, a translation of Ana María Shua’s La muerte como efecto secundario (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), Forthcoming titles include Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (University of Nebraska Press) and Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis). Please visit Andrea’s website at:


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