Dante’s Inferno

By Leon Botstein

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

The choice of sources of inspiration for musical composition makes for a fascinating study, especially when a source is one of the great and canonic works of Western civilization. Like Shakespeare, Dante poses a daunting task for the composer. How is one to translate his masterpiece La divina commedia (finished in 1321, the year of the author’s death, and originally entitled La commedia; the adjective divina was added posthumously), a work so seminal to so many generations of readers, into another art form without losing its resonance and enduring meaning? Many great composers found success with Shakespeare. Dante, however, has not proved to be as effective a source for good music. Precisely for this reason, Dante, a great figure who apparently crosses into musical circles with reluctance, offers a exciting opportunity to consider the relation between poetry and musical Romanticism, and the intertwining of reading and listening publics in the second half of the nineteenth century, when Liszt and Rachmaninoff composed the works on tonight’s program.

In both Germany and Russia, the idea of poetry aspiring to music was already well established by the 1820s. The more musical the poetry and the further it moved from prose, narration and description, the closer it seemed to come to music, the most infinite and abstract of the arts. Much poetry strived to a musical condition in which words lost their ordinary meaning within the formal construct of poetic form. In this respect, Dante possessed a special appeal to Romantic poets who, though they certainly created narrative masterpieces, focused on the sound and rhythm of language as much as on its signification. Dante’s work is an allegorical narrative, but its musicality has been identified as one of the poet’s most salient achievements. For the nineteenth century, then, Dante’s cantos regained a popularity they had not had since the Italian madrigal composers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries set his texts to music. The English Romantic poets felt a particular attraction. Byron’s Manfred, for example, owes much to Dante.

By 1830, music had developed an elaborate autonomous logic defined by Viennese classicism. But composers were confronted by a new and growing audience whose love of music derived in large measure from opera and theater. With the craze for Rossini and bel canto in the 1820s, the public increasingly demanded more than mere musical logic in some abstract sense; they wanted a concrete relation between music, narration, and illustration. As poetry moved from prose to music under the aegis of the Romantics, music ironically drifted toward prose and theatrical narration, away from an abstract condition. As in the novels they read, listeners wanted music to function as a psychological drama of inner thoughts and emotions. The popularity of Liszt’s virtuosic elaborations on operatic themes and the extent to which the traveling virtuosi of the 1830s and 1840s created their own sense of theater shocked many cultural observers, who decried declining standards and popular vulgarity in the subordination of music to storytelling and showmanship. This is the essential conflict that came to dominate the 1850s. Liszt and Wagner inclined toward the narrative and dramatic; others, like the young Brahms, were proponents of “absolute” music, or music which was without reference to programs or stories. In this contentious aesthetic environment, the two works you hear tonight tell their own ambiguous tale, and by virtue of the very text they used, draw into question both sides of this conflict.

Franz Liszt first attempted to express Dante in music with his piano works composed in the 1830s. At this point in his career, Liszt was known for a virtuosity grounded in two kinds of theatricality. The first sort can be understood as exquisite charisma revealed by technical feats and moments of extreme bravura. The second derived from Liszt’s fascination with literary narrative and visual images—extra-musical inspirations. Much of his work contains implied or real storylines, pervaded by philosophical implications and spiritual meaning. Toward the end of his life, Liszt affected a self-conscious image as a spiritual priest. His ethereal later works suggest a desire to reach a metaphysical sensibility through music. In Dante’s poetry, perhaps Liszt found both of the primary characteristics of his music: the great story and the metaphysical. Dante’s text is of course a highly detailed travel narrative, replete with a vast array of characters, vivid description of the landscape, adventure, and social commentary. That this narrative takes place in hell, purgatory, and heaven and that every person and detail are both historical actualities of fourteenth-century Florence and highly charged allegories makes the metaphysical level of the work compelling.

Why, then, did Liszt, encountering a work that seemed to combine perfectly his two desired goals of the narrative and the metaphysical, fashion a symphony, rather than an opera or more explicitly literary form? He does not even use any words of Dante but rather inserts the generic text of a Magnificat. His grand ending or coda is certainly bombastic in a Lisztian way, but the alternative second ending before the bombast suggests Liszt’s own ambivalence regarding his penchant for vulgarity and dependence on theatrics. Perhaps what he discovered in composing this Symphony (which he was not able to finish according to his original plan) was that the representation of Dante was best achieved without direct citation of the poetry itself. When faced with the profound musicality of Dante’s language and the infinite layers of meaning behind the explicit narrative, Liszt chose instead to make his own representation mystical, and only imply connection to the well known text and suggest ideas that unfold continually as if through a kaleidoscope. In the forty or so minutes of the Dante Symphony, Liszt leaves it to his literate listener to provide a synthesis between music and text. In this way, he obliquely achieves the cumulative affect of Dante’s poetry. Music provides an intensified résumé of the experience of reading a text decompressed by the listener who shares the composer’s intimate attachment. Despite his bombast, Liszt, the champion of program music, proceeds in a remarkably abstract way to comprehend Dante’s imaginary world.

Not everyone shared this approach. Many composers who set Dante tackled the episodic structure and essentially undramatic quality of the text by writing operas nevertheless. They focused upon the only section that contains a potentially operatic subject: Canto V, the story of Paolo and Francesca. Between 1804 and 1857, when Liszt’s symphony was first performed, there were already more than twenty Italian operas already composed based on this story, a fact not lost on Liszt himself. From 1804 to 1876, when Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky wrote his legendary Symphonic Fantasy, no fewer than thirty-six operas and cantatas took the subject of Francesca. Mercadante and Goetz are the two best known composers of this nineteenth-century operatic engagement.

Indeed in retrospect, despite the many subsequent attempts to render a musical account of Francesca after Tchaikovsky by such varied composers as Paul Klenau, Henri Pierne, and the American composer Arthur Foote, it is ultimately Tchaikovsky, with his intense, hot-blooded romanticizing of the story, who succeeds in terms of narration—again in a genre that does not make explicit use of text. Although Rachmaninoff was undeterred by Tchaikovsky’s achievement, in his own treatment he returned to the older convention of rendering a full operatic account of the Francesca story. Unlike his brother, Modest Tchaikovsky chose to incorporate direct textual references into his libretto. The disparagement of this libretto highlights the risks of attempting to transfer some of the greatest poetic text in the world into another medium without circumspection (something Boito and Verdi also learned in regard to Shakespeare). Indeed, the entire opera has been subject to some severe criticism as unbalanced (the Prologue and Epilogue are longer than the main body of the opera), and static (the only real action is in the course of the magnificent duet). But given the context of settings of Dante, it might also be argued that Rachmaninoff recognized that to do justice to Dante, the conventional operatic mode cannot suffice. The text is indeed sung, yet it is the orchestra that provides some of the work’s greatest moments. If anything, the opera seems to minimize the presence of words as literal purveyors of meaning in general. The lovers do not express the development of their emotion directly, but rather through the act of reading a story about other lovers, while the symbol of authority itself is rendered completely mute in the non-speaking role of the Cardinal. Perhaps what has been dismissed as improper treatment of operatic convention in this otherwise conventional story is an attempt by Rachmaninoff to comment upon the conventions themselves, and upon the elusive power of Dante’s language.

Rachmaninoff (and his predecessor Tchaikovsky) developed elaborate and powerful musical means to convey meaning well beyond word and image. His Francesca da Rimini, like Liszt’s Symphony, suggests the way even the most apparently programmatic music inclines toward expression. The music becomes “absolute” in the sense that it impels the listener to engage the imagination in a multitude of meanings and interpretations—just as Dante’s poetic text does. In reading Dante, both of these great composers recognized that the essence of Dante’s language lay not in the story or sequence of events alone, but in what the informed reader, who shared the author’s knowledge of the people, events, and universe to which the text refers, made of it all. Both composers therefore extended the presumption of their own knowledge to their listeners, and created surprising works that are best understood through common knowledge of the implied source. Like Paolo and Francesca inferring secret meaning from their book, the listener provides the narrative coherence to the music. Whether either of these composers captured Dante by these means depends in part on the listeners own relation to the text. It is the peculiar magic of music, however, that allows these works to make their point even to the listener who has yet to read the Commedia.