Posts Tagged ‘Dante Alighieri’

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Music for Dante: The Divine Comedy I

May 10, 2021

This post is the first in what I hope will be a series devoted to music inspired, in one way or another, by the poetry of Dante — principally, of course, by The Divine Comedy. There has been quite a lot of music written under his influence over the centuries, some of it fairly well-known, but most of it not, and I’m looking forward to exploring it.

I thought it would make sense to start with music inspired by the Comedy as a whole, and then later to focus on pieces written for particular panels of the triptych, and it probably also makes sense to start with the composer whom I most associate with Dante: Franz Liszt.

Liszt’s largest scale “Dante music” is the Dante Symphony, which premiered in 1857. It is a choral symphony written in two large movements; the first pertains to Inferno and the second to Purgatorio. (Perhaps at this stage in his life Liszt wasn’t much interested in Paradise.) The symphony doesn’t have a great reputation — but neither, for that matter, does any of Liszt’s orchestral music (or choral music!), most of which could be somewhat uncharitably described as lugubrious bombast. Still, it’s a big piece by a major composer, and it’s about Dante, so let’s have a listen. Here is the Frankfurt Radio Symphony under Peter Eotvos:


The Dante music by Liszt with the best reputation is his Dante Sonata for piano, also called by its full title, Après une lecture du Dante. I always thought Liszt must have written it after hearing a lecture about Dante, but apparently the French actually means “after reading Dante”. The sonata was inspired mainly by Inferno, though some of the music in the middle of the sonata may be attempting to evoke Beatrice. As with much nineteenth-century programme music, it’s pretty hard to say unless someone tells you. But it’s a wonderful sonata. Here is Arcadi Volodos performing the piece live:


Books briefly noted

July 17, 2013

Busy times, but here are brief notes on a handful of books I’ve read recently:

ciabbatoni-danteDante’s Journey to Polyphony
Francesco Ciabattoni
(University of Toronto Press, 2010)
264 p.

A scholarly monograph examining the place of music in the architecture of The Divine Comedy. Ciabattoni, a professor at Georgetown, sees Dante using references to music to deepen and enrich the political, moral, and religious themes of the poem. The basic claim can be briefly stated: in Inferno music is heard as a perverse parody of sacred liturgy, cacophonous and ugly; monophonic chant dominates Purgatorio, where it is a balm for wounded souls and an expression of spiritual solidarity; Paradiso enters the realm of polyphony, where the music of the spheres and a harmonious chorus of blessed souls express the unutterable beauty of beatitude. Speaking as a casual admirer of Dante, none of this strikes me as particularly surprising or controversial, but it is certainly valuable and interesting. Most intriguing was Ciabattoni’s observation that the cascading, intertwined vocal lines of polyphony serve Dante well as he approaches the highest heavens precisely because the complexity obscures the sung text, for the music is thus able to carry the soul beyond the limits of rational comprehension and into the realm of boundless love and beauty. Take that, Council of Trent! Ciabattoni develops his full argument in great detail.

hahn-signsSigns of Life
40 Catholic Customs and their Biblical Roots
Scott Hahn
(Doubleday, 2009)
288 p.

Catholics are sometimes accused, by their separated brethren, of importing a lot of non-Biblical baggage into their practice of the faith; I won’t say that Scott Hahn set out specifically to counter that accusation (though, given his background in evangelical Protestantism, it might have been in the back of his mind), but he has countered it nicely all the same. He examines forty aspects of Catholic religious and devotional life, ranging from broad thoroughfares like “the Mass” and “Baptism” to nooks and crannies like “Novenas” and “Scapulars”, devoting five or six pages in each case tracing it to Biblical sources. Quite apart from whatever apologetic value the book may have, it also serves as a helpful primer on the wonderful variety and richness of Catholic faith and life. What would life be like without pilgrimage, the Church calendar, sacred images, and the tabernacle? I don’t want to think about it. The book would make a suitable gift for a Catholic convert, for a non-Catholic curious about Catholic practices, or for a cradle Catholic who wants to deepen their understanding of the tradition. Written in an accessible, even conversational, tone, it is the sort of book one can pick up now and then, read a few pages, and then set down again. It would serve well as a basis for family catechesis, or (as I can personally testify) as occasional bedtime reading.

kelly-musicEarly Music
A Very Short Introduction
Thomas Forrest Kelly
(Oxford University Press, 2011)
130 p.

The designation “early”, in this context, refers to music that was rarely or never heard prior to a revival of interest in the mid-twentieth century — namely, music of the medieval, renaissance, and baroque periods, covering the years from roughly 1000 (coinciding with the invention of musical notation) to about 1750 or thereabouts. Bach is “early music”; Mozart, just a few decades later, is not. The book gives a nice introduction to the music of these times, pointing out the distinctive characteristics on the basis of which we carve it up into separate periods, and helpfully highlighting the performance challenges of the music, some of which survives only in ambiguous notation or assumes that players will improvise on the basis of the written score. Kelly, a professor of music at Harvard and long involved in early music circles, also devotes a substantial part of the book to a brief history of the “early music movement” of the past fifty years, which aimed to revive the repertoires, styles, and instruments of the past. He doesn’t shy away from skeptical questions about this quest for musical “authenticity” — after all, “period instruments” and “period playing” are all very well, but where shall we find a “period audience”? — but in my opinion the proof is in the pudding: without this music, and the dedication of those who try to bring it back to life, the world would be a much drabber place. The book is a pleasant little primer for those who love this music.

hurley-southSouth with Endurance
Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition, 1914-1917
The Photographs of Frank Hurley
(BCL Press, 2001)
244 p.

A couple of years ago, during an Antarctica-themed blogging blitz, I wrote about Ernest Shackleton’s ill-starred Endurance expedition to the South Pole, which ranks as one of the great survival tales in the annals of exploration. (See here.) Frank Hurley was the expedition’s photographer, and this beautiful coffee-table book gathers together the photographs that he was able to save from the hazards of ice and ocean. There is some background information given on the expedition and on Hurley, but naturally the pictures are the main attraction, and spectacular they are. Readers who want a good, detailed telling of the story should look elsewhere (specifically, to Lansing’s Endurance), but I would argue that this pictorial volume is an indispensable companion.

“…as hills are soaked by slow unsealing snow…”

November 9, 2011

A particularly good (even unusually good) poem at The Hebdomadal Chesterton today.

Camus: The Fall

April 22, 2010

The Fall
Albert Camus (Vintage, 1956; trans: J. O’Brien)
149 p.  First reading.

“A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.”

That is probably the most famous line in this book, but evidently we’re not intended to take it too literally.  The speaker, Jean-Baptiste Clamance, keeps spinning out sentences, and his theme throughout, in one way or another, is modern man.  The note of world-weary resignation, cultured disdain, and epigrammatic wit struck by the saying is fairly representative of Clamance’s style.  There’s more where it came from: “Anyone who has considerably mediated on man, by profession or vocation, is led to feel nostalgia for the primates”, “Hurray then for funerals!”, “Truth, cher ami, is a colossal bore”, “In a general way, I like all islands.  It is easier to dominate them”, “Truth, like light, blinds”, and similar sentiments trip easily from his forked tongue.

Clamance lives in the tawdry core of Amsterdam, at the center of the city’s nested circular canals — at the center, as he remarks at one point, of the Inferno.  He landed there after a long fall from grace: he had been a successful lawyer in Paris, fighting on behalf of the downtrodden and oppressed.  Now he plays a gadfly on the shadowy side of life, coaxing confessions from the wounded souls who wander his way.  He is a kind of modernist Socrates, who questions and provokes, but whose object is to elicit self-disclosure rather than objective truth, and whose method is calculated misdirection rather than honest argument.  He offers a therapy of resignation: acknowledge your own failings, and accept them.  One suspects that his concern for his interlocutor is not quite sincere.  “I pity without absolving, I understand without forgiveness,” he says, then adds, with a certain lack of decorum, “I feel at last that I am being adored!”

How did he come to this low estate?  Good luck piecing the story together.  The narrative, told in unordered fragments dropped here and there into his monologue (the book is one long monologue), is not easy to see clearly.  The fact that he lies, or at least claims to lie, about himself makes the effort more difficult, and perhaps pointless, but his descent seems to have been caused primarily by two things: a realization that his assiduous labour on behalf of the weak had in fact been only a selfish quest for the particular kind of recognition he craved, and a fateful and chilling encounter one night on the banks of the Seine that haunted his mind and punished his conscience ever after.

I wouldn’t want to present Clamance as a font of wisdom — like Nietzsche, many of his remarks would be best prefaced by a discreet negation — but there are occasions on which he says something worth remembering.  Consider these remarks on confession:

“. . .we rarely confide in those who are better than we.  Rather, we are more inclined to flee their society.  Most often, on the other hand, we confess to those who are like us and who share our weaknesses.  Hence we don’t want to improve ourselves or be bettered, for we should first have to be judged in default.  We merely wish to be pitied and encouraged in the course we have chosen.  In short, we should like, at the same time, to cease being guilty and yet not to make the effort of cleansing ourselves.  Not enough cynicism and not enough virtue.  We lack the energy of evil as well as the energy of good.”

This is a perceptive observation.  Confession of wrongdoing is a need of the human heart; ideally it is accompanied by contrition and a healthy resolve, but not always.  Sometimes, instead, one seeks out the company of those who also will not ask for repentance, who perhaps share the fault in question, and confession becomes merely the bond of a sad camaraderie.

There are some intriguing particulars dropped here and there in the book: Dante comes up more than once, and van Eyck’s The Adoration of the Lamb, a favourite of mine, has a prominent place in the story as well. I have a feeling that Camus might be using such things to say something subtle.  But what that subtle something is, I am unable to ascertain.  Such is the life of a blundering literary dunderhead.  Under other circumstances I might have paged back to dig a little more deeply, but I have had quite enough of this “false prophet crying in the wilderness” for the time being.  Farewell, Monsieur Clamance.  I shall not miss you.