A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy

By Bernard Jacobson

Written for the concert Dante’s Inferno, performed on Jan 25, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Liszt was perhaps the least abstractly inclined of the great composers. Where Chopin’s piano works, for all their wealth of poetic and patriotic feeling, are for the most part purely musical in inspiration, Liszt took specific sources in literature, the visual arts, religion, history, folklore, or topography as jumping-off points for most of his compositions. The majority of his thirteen symphonic poems took rise from the work of a range of poets that included Shakespeare, Byron, Schiller, Hugo, and Lamartine. But Liszt was not the man to shirk the grandest of projects, and it was the two most widely celebrated classics of Western literature, Goethe’s Faust and Dante’s Divine Comedy (just Commedia in the original), that furnished the matter for his two most imposing orchestral works, the symphonies on those subjects completed in the 1850s.

First performed in Dresden on October 7, 1857, the Dante Symphony always seems to be regarded as the lesser work of the two, but this writer has never understood why, finding its inspiration more compelling and characterful than that of the more obviously brilliant Faust Symphony, and the composer himself regarded it as a work of at least equal importance. Having dispensed with his original idea that the music should be illustrated by projections of paintings by Buonaventura Genelli, Liszt eventually laid the symphony out in two parts, the first a representation of the Inferno, the second evoking the Purgatorio and ending with a setting of the Magnificat for women’s or boy’s voices.

For all his vaulting ambition as an artist, Liszt was no megalomaniac, and the substitution of this choral close for any attempt at a portrayal of Paradise was his response to the doubts about the feasibility of such a project expressed by Wagner, to whom the work was unofficially dedicated. But there can be no doubting either Liszt’s profound involvement with the spirit of Dante’s poem or the vividness of his musical reaction to it.

At the outset, trombones, tubas, and lower strings declaim the rhythm of the words Dante read at the gates of Hell (which are inserted into the score over the notes) “Per me si va nella città dolente: Per me si va nell’eterno dolore: Per me si va tra la perduta gente” and this is followed by a fearsome proclamation led by horns and trumpets of the famous line “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.” The main movement, beginning “Allegro frenetico,” becomes more and more bloodcurdlingly infernal, but it also finds room (like Liszt’s earlier Dante Sonata for solo piano) for an “Andante amoroso” reverie on the fatal passion of Paolo and Francesca, voluptuously stretched out in spacious 7/4 measures and tempo rubato.

No less complete, in the second movement, is the deeply if inconsistently religious Liszt’s imaginative identification with the conception of Purgatorio. He clearly understood it as a place of hope rather than torment, setting the scene in an introduction that spotlights solo horn and woodwinds in melodic lines of refreshingly diatonic coolness. But if they are to be saved, the souls in Purgatorio have spiritual work to do, and their travail is delineated in a slow Lamentoso fugue that seems, in its lugubrious textures and dragging rhythms, to incarnate the very notion of effortful self-examination and penitence. In the absence of a representation of Paradise, the Magnificat that follows, its textures enveloped by harp arpeggios and enriched with the tones of a harmonium, makes a suitably ethereal conclusion.