Music for Dante: The Divine Comedy II

July 9, 2021

Louis Andriessen was a Dutch composer who passed away earlier this month. News of his death caught my attention because I recently became aware of his opera, completed in 2008, based on Dante’s Divine Comedy.

La Commedia clocks in at a little under two hours, and is divided into five parts: the first three are based on the Inferno, the fourth on the Purgatorio, and the last, and longest, on the Paradiso. It is therefore a nice example of a contemporary piece inspired by the full swath of the Comedy. The libretto draws also on a number of other sources, including Dutch poets, the Song of Songs, and even Dante’s little-known Convivio.

When approaching a contemporary piece based, at least in the early going, on the torments of Hell, one braces oneself for an onslaught. It was gratifying, therefore, to find that Andriessen’s music in La Commedia — and I might mention that this is the first of his pieces that I’ve heard — is generally quite tuneful and, though it bristles and grinds at times, its general tendency is to fall fairly easily on the ear. I was pleasantly surprised. The opening moments, composed of modern street noises and sirens, are but a passing dream, and we are soon enough engulfed in music.

The entire piece is available to stream on YouTube, thanks to Nonesuch Records. Here is the first movement, based on Inferno, Cantos 8 and 9, in which Dante and Virgil cross the river Styx and approach the City of Dis.

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The second section, entitled ‘Tale From Hell’, draws on Inferno Canto 21. Dante is in the eighth circle, and encounters the ditch of the corrupt politicians, who flounder in a pool of hot pitch, pushed beneath the surface by trident-wielding demons if they attempt to rise to the surface. It’s a rather cheering scene, really.

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The third section is simply called “Lucifer”, and it is, of course, based on the final Canto of the Inferno, with a substantial additional text in Dutch, for which I lack a translation.

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When we move to the Purgatorio, Andriessen focuses on Canto 8, the last canto before Dante begins his ascent, and in particular on the ominous passage in which a serpent slithers into Ante-Purgatory, only to be arraigned and chased off by angels. The music of this section veers into big-band jazz territory, which strikes me as an audacious and not entirely successful choice, but, then again, most people like jazz more than I do.

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The final section draws liberally on many different cantos of the Paradiso. It is very lovely for the most part: ethereal and majestic. There is a long central section, however, based on Cacciaguida’s speech in Cantos 15/16, in which the text is spoken (in Dutch) over a groovy jazz rhythm. Again, others might like this more than I did.

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Although there were some aspects of this piece that I didn’t care for, it is still an interesting and serious engagement with Dante’s poem, and I’m glad to have made its acquaintance.

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