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.

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.

Francesca da Rimini

By Maya Pritsker

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

To be a Russian composer at the end of the nineteenth century and not to write operas would be rare indeed. Sergei Rachmaninoff first had success in this genre with Aleko (1892), an opera written as a graduation piece and produced soon after by the Imperial Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. In 1897, after the unexpected failure of his First Symphony, he accepted a conducting post at Mamontov’s Private Opera in Moscow, learning quickly on the job and becoming a friend and collaborator to the young bass Fyodor Shalyapin. At this point, it seemed only natural to ask Modest Tchaikovsky—playwright, opera librettist, and brother of the great composer—for his help with a new opera project, based possibly on Shakespeare’s Richard II. Instead, Modest offered Francesca da Rimini from Canto V of Inferno, the first part of Dante’s La divina comedia.

Rachmaninoff, not one to be intimidated by the inevitable comparisons to the symphonic poem on the same subject by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, agreed. He knew and loved the story, and immediately laid out some of ideas for the opera. In a way similar to Tristan und Isolde, Francesca’s story spoke to the trends of fin-de-siécle art, which had a fascination with everything medieval as well as with the subjects of love and death, sin and innocence. Not by coincidence, this same story was transformed three years later into a highly successful verse tragedy by Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938).

In 1900 Rachmaninoff began composing Francesca and Paolo’s love duet. However, almost six years passed before he finished the opera. These were years of profound changes in his personal and creative life, and also ones of important opera experiences. In 1902 he and his young wife Natalia spent part of their honeymoon in Bayreuth, where they heard various works by Wagner. An engagement with Mamontov’s Opera eventually led to an invitation to become a conductor at the Bolshoi Theater. It was just prior to his debut season at the Bolshoi that the composer found reason to return again to his languishing libretto.

As it happened, in 1903 Rachmaninoff started another short opera, Skupoy rytsar (The Miserly Knight), based on Pushkin’s poetic drama (he had in mind his friend Shalyapin for the title role). He needed a one-act opera to complement The Miserly Knight for a possible production during his season at the Bolshoi. He rushed to finish Francesca. This may possibly explain why Rachmaninoff accepted a libretto that eventually proved to be the opera’s shortcoming.

Most of Canto V of Dante’s Inferno describes Hell’s second circle and its various inhabitants. When the souls of Francesca and Paolo appear, Dante does not tell their story in detail, assuming the reader’s familiarity with it. Francesca was the daughter of a Ravenna notable and in 1275 married the unattractive and lame Malatesta, son of the leader of Rimini’s Guelf Party. After discovering that she was carrying on an affair with his younger brother, Malatesta killed them both. Dante himself had a personal connection to the story, for he found refuge in a house of Francesca’s nephew in Ravenna.

The picture that the poet creates is visually and emotionally rich, yet laconic. In Dante’s version, not enough happens or is spoken of for an opera, so the librettist must recreate the drama. Unfortunately, Modest Tchaikovsky produced a libretto full of cliches and, in Rachmaninoff’s opinion, too few words for the most important scene, the duet of Francesca and Paolo. Though not completely satisfied, Rachmaninoff began work on the opera. Ultimately, he could not avoid the libretto’s trap: the opera lacks structural balance (the Prologue is longer that the rest of the opera) and seems static. But he overcame the banality of the libretto’s language and created a sincere, engaging, and intense interpretation of Dante’s images, abundant with moments of sheer beauty and truth.

Musically, Francesca’s style is remarkably unified. It is a perfect blend of the best of Tchaikovsky’s traditions—a richness of melody deeply rooted in Russian urban and art song, and emotionally precise and nuanced orchestral writing that reveals the subtlest implications of feelings and events—somewhat Wagnerian in terms of harmony, sonorities and symphonic development. And yet the opera has Rachmaninoff’s unmistakably dark tone, his signature combination of “heightened emotional temperature” and restraint that perfectly serve the plot. His skillful use of a few leitmotifs, thematic “bridges” and the key motif of a minor second which permeates the score serve as the opera’s binding elements.

Among the most effective sections are the Prologue (especially the orchestral introduction) and the Epilogue—both masterly shaped pictures of Dante’s Inferno. One can almost physically experience the gloom and horror of this deserted place with its black rocks and gray skies. The dramatic monologue of Malatesta in the first scene presents, through an expressive declamatory style above the dark, nervous orchestral background full of dotted rhythm, the complex character of a medieval warrior, torn between love and suspicion, hope and hatred. The musical image of Francesca with her descending leitmotif and restrained phrases is the epitome of tenderness, sadness and quiet grace, which gives way to an open passion at the climax of her duet with Paolo in the second scene. Starting with the beautifully orchestrated, spring-like theme of Francesca, the scene is remarkable for its slowly mounting tension, building up through several emotional waves to a unique 51-bar orchestral episode signifying Francesca’s and Paolo’s embrace, during which the mood gradually darkens as a premonition of tragedy. It is interrupted by Malatesta’s strike and immediately changes into the music of the Inferno in the brief Epilogue.

Rachmaninoff conducted the premiere of Francesca da Rimini and Skupoy Ritsar at the Bolshoi theatre in January of 1906. Neither opera gained real popularity, not only because of problems with librettos and staging, but also because of the premieres’ timing. Russia was in the midst of its first revolution (1905-1907), and Rachmaninoff soon left for Germany, where he spent about two years. Then World War I broke out, followed by the October Revolution, and Rachmaninoff’s eventual emigration to the West. Francesca da Rimini remained part of the Bolshoi’s repertoire into the 1960s and 1970s, but was almost unknown in the West. Perhaps only now, with renewed understanding of fin-de-siécle art, and orchestras and opera companies willing to present unfamiliar music, has the time has come for this lyrical, imaginative and beautiful opera.