A Comedy of Terrors

divine-comedy-2I’ve just finished reading Dan Brown’s novel Inferno. It’s another gripper from the American author, involving ancient symbology revolving around Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy. The last word of that title signals that it ends happily, not tragically; there’s nothing comedic about the work. It describes Dante’s tripartite journey across the nine circles of hell, through purgatory and finally to paradise. The first section, on which the novel focuses, is titled Inferno, and Brown makes several mentions in his thriller of the subsequent influence the subject matter had on artists in various disciplines. We focus here on some of the musical works included in that list, before taking in a selection of other infernal allusions that may enjoy a bit of stoking up.

franz-lisztFranz Liszt wrote both a single-movement piano sonata (8.550549) titled Après une lecture du Dante (After reading Dante) and a 3-movement Dante Symphony (Inferno•Purgatorio•Magnificat); he also made a transcription of the symphony for two pianos (8.570516), which was an easily transportable way of promoting symphonic works before recordings were available. Liszt dedicated the symphony to Wagner, whom he considered the equal to Dante. Here’s part of the first movement, Inferno, in the composer’s version for two pianos.

charles-wuorinen-2The American composer Charles Wuorinen wrote The Dante Trilogy (8.559345) between 1993 and 1996 for the New York City Ballet, the three ballets corresponding to the three sections of Dante’s poem. Wuorinen subsequently rescored the music for each, tailoring it for chamber forces, the first for two pianos, echoing what Liszt had done. The composer explains that he was not attempting to make literal translations of the content of Dante’s Inferno: “Rather, certain isolated incidents, images, remarks, names are made the springboard for a musical fabric which also reflects certain basic aspects of the poem’s word-structure: it’s eleven-syllable lines, its three-line stanzas, its rhyme scheme, its obsession with the number seven, and so forth.” Here’s the section titled Satan.

nicolas-flagello-2Fellow American composer Nicolas Flagello wrote his Dante’s Farewell (8.559296) in 1959, when he was at the height of his creative powers. It’s a dramatic monologue for soprano and orchestra. He left the piece in short score at his death in 1994, but it was orchestrated in 2013 by Anthony Sbordoni. It focuses not on Dante’s literary masterpiece, but on his real-life departure from his beloved city of Florence. Specifically, in the words of author Walter Simmons: “Dante’s Farewell  presents an episode in the life of the great Italian poet and statesman, told through the words of his devoted wife, Gemma. She recounts a nightmarish vision that came to Dante, warning him of danger to Florence, and of his painful decision to leave her and their children, and depart for Rome on behalf of his city-state, never to return.” Here’s Flagello’s vivid setting of the following extract:

“Through the night I heard him pace—a wraith of war and death…!! Up and down, down and up…I heard him pace…And as he paused in anguish and despair, the river roared, raucous beneath the stones of Ponte Vecchio! The river roared!!”

ge-gan-ru-2Composed in 2007, Ge Gan-ru’s String Quartet No. 5, Fall of Baghdad (8.570603), occupies a parallel universe to Dante’s infernal misery, featuring living souls, rather than dead sinners. Unorthodox playing techniques used in the work are described by the composer, including “…using glissandi and distorted sound to create the ’hellish’ effects; playing col legno [striking the strings with the wooden part of the bow] both in front of and behind the bridge for the Caliph’s drum and using extreme high notes on low strings for ‘moaning’ sounds.”

Here’s an extract from the first movement’s painful progression: Abyss: Screaming – Living Hell – Barbaric March – Abyss – Threnody.

gian-malipieroContinuing that thread of a more recent living hell, we finish today with Gian Francesco Malipiero’s Festival in Val d’Inferno (Festival in the Valley of Hell) (8.572409), which forms part of his Impressioni dal vero III, described by the composer as “a sustained effort to defeat the spectres and nightmares that were the aftermath of the tragedy I had lived through, and which obsessed my mind with black thoughts.”

The tragedy was the First World War: the Italian front was never far from the Venetian territories where Malipiero lived, and far more traumatic than the air-raids was the disastrous retreat of Caporetto late in 1917, when the Italian army was suddenly forced back 100 miles by the Austrians, and he and his wife were caught up in a chaotic stampede of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians. “The music I wrote then may reflect my agitation,” Malipiero confessed amid the ravages of another World War, in 1942, “yet I feel that if I have created something new in my art (formally and stylistically) it was precisely in that period.”

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