One of the more morbid traditions of classical music is its focus on death anniversaries: 1991 was a big year for Mozart (particularly in the business of Requiems). The cancellation of so many #Beethoven250 concerts in 2020 was half–but only half–jokingly bright-sided by the fact that all of the programs could be resurrected for 2027.
The declaration of 2021 as a Year of Dante—in recognition of the 700th anniversary of the medieval poet and philosopher’s death—feels more right. This is, after all, the author who devoted three books to exploring souls in all three possible Catholic afterlives: Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. This playlist comprises a comparatively paltry 432 years of music, but offers a tour through the musical receptions and revivals of one of literature’s most enduring figures, whose allegory for the human experience constantly re-circles into relevance.
Luzzasco Luzzaschi: “Quivi Sospiri” (1576)
Dante’s preference for writing in the Italian vernacular over the more scholarly Latin not only changed the course of literature, but also contributed to a shift of similar scale in vocal music. Florentine Camerata member Vincenzo Galilei was a fan, and set Ugolino della Gherardesca’s lament from Inferno to a vocal work in the early 1580s. That score is lost, but what did survive from this era was a five-part madrigal by Ferrara-based composer Luzzasco Luzzaschi, set to six lines from Inferno’s Canto III:
“Now sighs, loud wailing, lamentation
resounded through the starless air,
so that I too began to weep.
Unfamiliar tongues, horrendous accents,
words of suffering, cries of rage, voices
loud and faint, the sound of slapping hands—”
As the following lines of the stanza suggest, Luzzaschi’s setting is a whirlwind of monody, rendered through a chromatic lens that balances Dante’s grotesque imagery with the unsettling beauty of his terza rima. It’s a precursor to the combination of harmony and horror that would take shape in opera the following century.
Claudio Monteverdi: “Ecco l’atra palude” from “Orfeo” (1607)
The catharsis afforded in opera owes much of its DNA to the catharsis found in The Divine Comedy, which Dante himself described as best “literally understood” but also “allegorically intended.” Not surprising, then, that Monteverdi would slip a reference to Dante in his first opera, based on Ovid’s legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Alessandro Striggio’s libretto brings Orpheus to the gates of the underworld, guided by the character of Speranza. She tells Orpheus she must leave him there to continue on his own, for a law inscribed on the threshold of the kingdom declares: “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
Gioachino Rossini: “Nessun maggior dolore” from “Otello” (1816)
For the better part of two centuries, Dante fell out of fashion with composers and librettists—though he still had devotees in the likes of Lorenzo da Ponte, who referenced Inferno while writing the libretto for “Don Giovanni.” This changed in the 19th century, when the image of The Divine Comedy’s solitary hero made a perfect avatar for the Byronic protagonist of the Romantic era. A Dante publishing boon took place simultaneously in France and Italy between 1800 and 1840. The Beatrice archetype became a fetish for fashionistas. In the literary world, Mme de Staël praised Dante for his ability “to paint before the eyes what occurs in the depth of the soul,” and Stendhal called him a “romantic poet par excellence.”
In music, much of this adulation centered on Inferno’s story of Francesca da Rimini, a noblewoman brokered into a loveless marriage who finds comfort in the arms of her brother-in-law—to fatal consequences. The lovers are condemned to an eternity of swirling in a ceaseless storm, the physical manifestation of their runaway lust. “Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria,” Francesca tells Dante: There is no greater sorrow than to recall our time of joy in wretchedness.
Rossini cribs this line for his “Otello,” setting it as a gondolier’s ballad that opens the final act, one where Desdemona is forced to confront past joy and present wretchedness before her marriage and life are both destroyed.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: “Francesca da Rimini” (1876)
Tchaikovsky was even more fixated on Francesca’s epitaph, making three settings of “Nessun maggior dolore” and quoting the line often in his personal letters—a shorthand for his depressive episodes. The largest manifestation of this obsession was his 1876 symphonic poem, which combines his own tendencies towards heart-on-the-sleeve orchestration and restless yearning with the unmistakable influence of Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle, which Tchaikovsky had seen that same year at Bayreuth. The “Rheingold” leitmotif factors into the fraught “Walküre”-like opening, signifying the destructive power of desire (as opposed to Wagner’s portrayal of the destructive desire for power).
Tchaikovsky was a gay man in a country that criminalized (and continues to criminalize) homosexuality; where “Francesca da Rimini” truly excels is in its themes of forbidden love and the fallout thereof. In depicting the fires of hell and personal torment, the work presages the climaxes of the “1812 Overture” and the psychological terror of “Pique Dame” in service of that one line that seems to encapsulate the whole of Inferno. The tender pleasures of his lovers, which whirl around one another in a middle pas-de-deux for woodwinds and strings, are that much more pitiable bookended by his orchestration of wretchedness.
Riccardo Zandonai: “Francesca da Rimini” (1914)
Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest supplied the libretto for Rachmaninoff’s 1905 operatic adaptation of Francesca’s story. However, the more successful version came the following decade via Italian composer Riccardo Zandonai, who took as his source text a dramatization written by Gabriele D’Annunzio for his own lover, Eleonora Duse. The theatrical backbone to this version calls to mind similar turns in previous generations, particularly “Tosca” (Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” also owes its plot to Inferno). To a large extent, Zandonai continues in this tradition, with full-throated passion and a desperate sensuality that would have made even Dante blush. Added to the mix, however, is the honey-coated-razorblade of Straussian orchestrations. Love duets gleam and glisten, but their shadows never cast so far as to keep the tragic outcome of the story completely out of sight. Zandonai’s talent for chromaticism and tendency towards having the text dictate the rhythm feels like Luzzaschi’s madrigal coming full circle, three centuries later.
Franz Liszt: “A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy” (1857)
One night in the summer of 1845, Franz Liszt and poet Joseph Autran found themselves in an empty church in Marseille. Autran was to be best man at the wedding of his friends; Liszt had volunteered to play the cathedral’s organ for the occasion. The bride and groom never made it to the altar that night and, taking advantage of the empty space, Liszt—according to Autran—“improvised, a passionate and magnificent symphony upon Dante’s Divina Commedia,” a work that the pair had been discussing earlier on.
“In succession he led me through the Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise,” Autran would later recall. The music “spread itself in the empty church with an overflow of sonority that at times became terrifying.”
How much of this improvisation made it into the composer’s “Dante Symphony” 12 years later is uncertain, but the basic structure—along with a roaring excess of sonority—carries over, bringing the listener through Inferno and Purgatorio, while stopping short of Paradiso. The redemption at the end of Dante’s Divine Comedy is only hinted at in the final “Magnificat” chorus, a bombastic balm alluding to the healing power of the Eternal Feminine. If the final bars sound a bit like the final redemptions of “Lohengrin” or “Tannhäuser,” that’s understandable: Liszt dedicated this symphony to his future son-in-law.
Franz Liszt: “Après une lecture du Dante” (1849)
No composer of the Romantic era was more closely associated with Dante than Liszt. Balzac described the composer as “fire and Dantesque grandiosity.” Liszt began writing a precursor of sorts to his “Dante Symphony” in the summer of 1839, following the birth of his son Daniel to his then-lover Marie d’Agoult. Liszt had pinned the same transcendental hopes that Dante affixed to Beatrice like a corsage onto d’Agoult, but their relationship was showing signs of its inevitable decay. The tone of that wilting blooms in what eventually became the “Dante Sonata,” with flashes of nostalgia among hellish tritones, resolving into a finale that shows Liszt to be at his best when molding mystical, musical meaning out of his own personal demons.
Rued Langgaard: “Dantes Helvede” (1951)
If there was a spiritual successor to Liszt as both a virtuosic iconoclast and devotee of Dante, it’s Danish composer Rued Langgaard. The influence of The Divine Comedy is found throughout his works, both in terms of deliberate reference (the 1937 piano sonata “Flammekamrene”) and creative DNA (it’s hard to divorce Dante’s version of hell from Langgaard’s only opera, “Antikrist”). “Dantes Helvede” is a comparative blip of a work, an organ fantasia that clocks in at just under four minutes. It’s a white-knuckled ride, one that dives into the fray without any preamble and cuts to the heart of the poet’s opus: the fallibility of man, and the immortality of narrative.
Michael Radulescu: “Versi (Dante)” (1991)
The Divine Comedy ends in the Empyrean, the highest of the heavens where, guided by Beatrice, our hero glimpses the light of God. Canto XXXIII opens with St. Bernard’s prayer to the Virgin Mary on behalf of Dante, “this man who, from within the deepest pit the universe contains up to these heights has seen the disembodied spirits, one by one.” Bernard beseeches that Mary allow that Dante, “by lifting up his eyes…may rise higher toward his ultimate salvation.” Merging Beatrice and Bernard, Michael Radulescu sets this prayer for soprano voice. In lieu of offering an ecclesiastical showstopper, the vocal lines navigate the crevasses of the upper register and infuse this supplication with mystery and monody.
Claude Vivier: Lettura di Dante (1974)
Vivier’s studies in Europe under Karlheinz Stockhausen were what marked, as he described it, “the true beginning of my life as a composer,” and represented a rebirth of sorts following his earlier works. Written at the end of his time in Darmstadt, Vivier’s “Lettura di Dante” doesn’t explicitly adapt The Divine Comedy. Rather, it recasts Paradiso within the composer’s own biography of the ecumenical and the ecstatic in service of his vision of art as “a sacred act, the revelation of forces, the communication with these forces.” It also luxuriates in the circuitous capacity of the human voice with a sense of play that speaks to both the comedic and the divine.
Salvatore Sciarrino: “La voce dell’Inferno” (1981)
In scoring a 1988 television broadcast of The Divine Comedy for the TV station RAI, Salvatore Sciarrino cautioned that “the tempest of [Dante’s] words cannot be doubled by a tempest of sound.” The idea of setting the whole of the work to music, word-for-word seemed, to him, no more than “accumulating a mountain of music—meaningless, the work of a dilettante or maniac.” A prelude of sorts to the score that he would eventually write for RAI took place seven years earlier with “La voce dell’Inferno,” which lets the words of Dante’s text take the wheel, haunted by an underscore of growls, screams, ghostly orchestral impulses, and celestial creaks. Sciarrino’s terrifying manipulation of the most wholesome instruments is a reminder that the greatest horrors are, at their core, utterly human.
Tod Machover: “Hyperstring” Trilogy (1996)
For Tod Machover, the early ’90s were a self-described “particularly turbulent” time in his life, one that began with a divorce and continued through family crisis and illness before the composer emerged on the other side, remarried, and with a new vision for music that included the hypercello (an acoustic cello where the performer’s wrist and bow are fitted with sensors connected to a computer that responds in time to the cellist’s playing, creating an added layer of sound). Machover had worked with hyperinstruments before, but the cello had been created specifically for Yo-Yo Ma. The composer marked the occasion with “Begin Again Again…,” a work that offsets the digital impulses of the instrument with a sense of the organic in the instrument’s warm resonances. He soon wrote two works to turn “Begin Again Again…” into a triptych, all written with Dante in the back of his mind: “Song of Penance” for hyperviola and “Forever and Ever” for hyperviolin, premiering the complete trilogy in 1996. As Dante crosses from one circle to the next, each player oscillates through repeated lines that eventually give way to a sense of renewal and new beginnings.
Jacob ter Veldhuis (JacobTV): “Paradiso” (2000)
Though it’s hard to think of a period since the Romantic era in which Dante’s works haven’t found fertile musical ground, the first decades of the 21st century have been especially rich for recharting the territory of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso with a fresh eye for allegory. JacobTV’s poppy video oratorio “Paradiso” opens with a heady collage of vintage NASA broadcasts and a score full of Copland-like exuberance. It feels almost embarrassing to listen to in 2021 for how bright-eyed and optimistic it is, but it’s hard to resist the sublime melodicism as Dante and Beatrice journey through the circles of Heaven. Wonder is as essential to The Divine Comedy as wretchedness.
Louis Andriessen: “La Commedia” (2008)
Sitting opposite JacobTV on the spectrum of sentimentality is Louis Andriessen with “La Commedia,” less of an opera than a tightly-constructed matrix of references—Dante, yes, but also 17th century Dutch poetry and the Old Testament. The music is pure id, careening between Jerome Robbins jazziness, Venetian Baroque, and primal screams as it suits the story, and carrying all of the contradictions that can be fathomed in a psyche as complex as Andriessen’s. If works like Sciarrino’s were bent on making the whole something other than the sum of its parts, “La Commedia” does the opposite: It illustrates the full cabinet of wonders contained within Dante’s text. ¶