Music and Dante

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Music and Dante

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Jul 20, 2013, 12:11pm

I am curious as to why Dante is reflected so little in wider culture compared to other great writers , and particularly so little in music. We have the Liszt symphony and sonata , the Ricardo Zandonai and Rachmaninov operas Francesca da Rimini, and the Tchaikovsky symphonic poem of the same name and the brilliant Puccini Gianni Schicchi opera, and that is about it. And all taken from Inferno and three from canto 5 alone !

As a comparison Tolstoy has at least five operas that I know of and a gazillion film and tv series ! So what give folks ?? Is our favourite poet just too transcendental for adaptations or what ? Answers on a postcard please.

Jul 20, 2013, 2:01pm

A postcard indeed! I believe that the answer lies in Dante's extraordinary density of idea, images, and structures. In pure sound, these simply cannot be replicated, or even hinted-at. With the exception of the operas you mention -- where Dante actual gave a ready-made plot -- the most that musicians seem able to do is to recreate a sense of sublimity appropriate to the sense of the sublime which we experience dopo lettura di Dante. Incidentally, have you actually seen or heard Rachmaninoff's FRANCESCA? I found it quite a yawner, and wrote about same in one of my works which I gather I'm not supposed to name lest I be accused of cadging free promotion. Tutti auguri, -- Goduardo

Jul 22, 2013, 9:10am

I am not really convinced by that though, there is very little if anything that music cannot represent . Some of the pinnacles of our civilisation are the creation in music of the most sublime and ineffable thoughts and subjects. Take for example The Creation by Haydn , or The Seven Last Words Of Our Saviour From the Cross by the same composer . Then you have the marvellous Sofia Gubaidulina version Seven Words on the same subject.

Or the final part of Goethes Faust recreated by Mahler in his 8th Symphony , to attend a live performance is a wonder of the age , enough (nearly) to make one reconvert ! But alas we don't seem to have a Haydn or Mahler for Dante ?

Yes I have seen the Rachmaninoff work and I have it on CD, not the best opera ever written or even the best thing Rachmaninoff has written but a perfectly respectable piece , I actually like it. What did you say about it ?

Jul 22, 2013, 9:43am

Bruno, I understand what you are trying to say, on the metaphysical level. This is, of-course, an ancient point of discussion, going back as far as Amphion, Jubal, and Orpheus. But surely you don't mean that statement literally that "there is little if anything which music cannot represent." Please tell me the key-signature, tempo and instrumentation for a Trio Sonata about my trip to the bank this morning. I repeat my contention, which is simply this: you can create experiences, induce feelings, which are equivalents to the experiences and feelings found in other media, but you simply cannot, say, use organized sound to represent (per esempio dantesco) the hierarchies of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Or again, the workings of grace, by definition, transcend the possibilities of pure sound to capture and communicate them.
Another example, this time apart from Dante. Think of the legends of Orpheus, how he charmed the very stones. Now think of all the many composers, great and not so great, who have tried to represent Orpheus' magical power in their own music. I can't think of one which isn't an absolute yawner. Of-course, Offenbach is a special case, but his intention was something quite other (pure entertainment), and paradoxically, he succeeded far better than those (as diverse as Hovhaness and Liszt) whose aspirations, and indeed purely musical gifts, were vastly higher.
As to somebody being converted by music, this is an oft-used image, but I radically mistrust that kind of enthusiasm, well-intended though it may be. Does that mean, for instance, that that vast majority of poor souls who fail to warm to PARSIFAL -- a work which I love, and probably know far better than you, as student, collector, and writer for over a half-century -- are damned? Or are you trying to tell me that a roomful of people who are, say, 100% touched by FIDELIO won't immediately leave the theatre and (most of them) resume their swinish social and political ways?
We love the arts and artists for what they are. They gain no lustre for being falsely credited with powers which they were never intended to have.
Incidentally, you mention Mahler, whom I also enjoy immensely, though the "Symphony of a Thousand' doesn't quite induce the spiritual orgasm you hint-at. Somewhere, Theodor Reik writes a very convincing passage about the seductive temptation to feel that we KNOW EXACTLY what Mahler was thinking. It is enough to have the work to contemplate, to study, and to enjoy. Finally, while I don't disagree with you that we lack a Haydn or even a Mahler, I think there have been plenty of people of sufficient greatness during my life-time who could have tackled Dante, but simply chose not to: Richard Strauss, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Alan Hovhaness, Benjamin Britten, even Sibelius, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich. They just travelled other paths.
Pace, -- Goduardo. PS. I am frightfully busy, but my remarks can be found beginning around page 250 of my Harmony Junction.

Jul 22, 2013, 10:20am

Returning to your original post, Bruno, I think it's important to keep in mind that the many masters who have somehow written music somehow involved with literary greats like Vergil, Cervantes, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Aeschylus, the Evangelists, and all those cats, were not so much attempting to translate those verbal masters into musical terms (essentially impossible) as they were writing, say "music for people who like Vergil", or whoever. After all, there is a reason why Dante was a writer rather than a composer (though we know he played and sang, which assumes at-least some ability to improvise), and why Monteverdi was a composer rather than a poet, or sculptor. Notwithstanding all the blather of "music appreciation" teachers -- up to and including fat-heads like Bill McGloughlin on syndicated FM -- music is NOT sonic architecture, any more than a sonnet is a verbal painting (except metaphorically), or a ballet a danced sculpture. We can make useful comparisons, and see analogies, but when all is said and done, music is organized sound, and its most important ideas are musical ones, not the emotional or intellectual ones which the composer may carry.
The relationship between words and music is an endlessly fascinating one, and gets into questions of (of for instance) how was it that Debussy was a genius both at the writing of prose, and yet didn't write texts for his own works. Conversely, how does it happen that Frederick Delius, another bona fide genius, and speaker of six or seven languages, could have almost continually bad taste in the selection of texts. Let us rejoice, however, at the significant number of composers who were alive to the power of extra-musical ideas: Machaut, Wagner, Schoenberg, Finzi, to name but a few. And then there were, by contrast sublime creators who could barely write a letter -- like Bruckner. It's all very strange and wonderful. Thanks for kicking-off this discussion!

Jul 22, 2013, 11:21am

Harry - I am joking on the reconversion comment , I assumed the nearly in brackets would give the game away , but I was too subtle for my own good. As for meaning the statement literally - of course I do. Anything can be represented musically - that is imho,including a trio on you bank trip . I am not saying I could do it but any composer worth his/her salt could do it no problem . The issue is not can it be done , but how well can it be done. But we digress into a music discussion as opposed to a Dante discussion.

I was just curious for thoughts as to why Dante had not attracted more composers .

Jul 22, 2013, 11:56am

Yes, you're quite right about the digression. BUT, since you've opened the door, you can only be glad that so far only I have walked through it. I have no reason to retract the answer I gave initially. To which I must add a friendly disagreement about the remark "any composer worth his/her salt". There are Heavenly tiers of composers to whom this would never have occurred, and I can only assume that you would grant at-least a pinch's worth of salt to Schubert, Stravinsky, Virgil Thomson, Buxtehude, Bruckner, and Bartok, JS Bach, and Hindemith -- to name only few whom everybody knows, and omitting likewise the great geniuses outside the comparatively small world of Western art-music
A point to ponder. In the hue and cry after "representational" music -- a phenomenon which has been roundly denounced by geniuses from the Renaissance through Stravinsky -- how much do listeners lose in trying to figure-out the alleged representations when they should be simply LISTENING? Example from out mutual friend Mahler. In the Finale of the G-major Symphony, there is the famous episode of the bleating sheep,underneath the sung text describing Heaven. Those who know the work look forward to it, and those whop don't are often startled by it. But how much can you remember or even describe, of what precedes or follows? An earlier example. Much flap-doodle has been written -- but significantly, none of it by the Master himself -- about the allegedly Trinitarian message of the "St Anne" triple fugue. What can this mean to somebody who's never heard of the Trinity? Or are we to take all the Three-Part Inventions as having the same message, simply because of the three parts. Absurd.
Back to Dante. Some of us love him for it, but many others find his emotional vocabulary (n all his work) and righteousness (I am think mostly of the C) more than a little unsettling, not mention those who find it -- quite wrongly, I believe -- a little absurd in the Twenty-First century. Those who don't swing with that are unlikely, unless flat-out commissioned, to take a whack at music for him. Look, even Liszt gave up before Paradiso, and not even his most ardent admirers thought it much of a loss.
Pace, -- G
One more time. When I taught music history, my goal was for my students to know what they heard, and not what they thought I thought they should hear. Those who get that straight are the blessed ones. I regret that it seems to be a terrible rarity these days, and the ten-thousand times ten thousand commentators, A & R men, talking heads on the Met broadcasts, even some of composers -- seeking to finess their musical poverty with verbal sleight-of-hand -- only keep the air fouled with bad ideas.

Jul 22, 2013, 1:54pm

This is just the old Hanslick Wagner contra Brahms argument Harry and the horse has truly bolted on that one, at least everywhere except in the Hallowed Halls of Academe. I could just as easily give you a who's who of composers in support of ''representational music'',but to what point ? Let's just agree to disagree and get back to Dante.

Jul 22, 2013, 3:41pm

I wouldn't know about "the Hallowed Halls of Academe", never having been formally employed higher than Adult Ed @ a community college. I have however, actually read Hanslick. How 'bout you? I have also published a long book which is difficult to understand with even a minimal knowledge of Wagner. So I don't exactly know whose colours I am supposed to have on that particular horse. I do know, however, that the horse, if bolted, certainly hasn't gotten out of sight, and I commend to your attention anything on this subject which you can find by the contemporary American composer John Melby.
Do you know the "Parnasso" fresco of Rafael, in the Stanza della Segnatura? I think that captures this business very well. I have no problem at-all imagining Wagner AND Brahms palling around in a more comprehensive and loving Poets' Paradise than ours here is likely to be. Funny how stern Dante looks in that crowd of celebrants.
Incidentally, I promise not to bother you again. I realize that I have broken a principle I stated in my Profile, to wit, not to engage with LTers whom I know only pseudonymously or anonymously. That's not to pry: you privacy is your business, and I have no designs on the family silver. It's just my belief that candour in some things might reasonably be associated with candour in others. Peace to you, and by all means, let us keep searching for music for Dante. The fact that our efforts are so far fruitless is no argument that they must necessarily remain so. Tutti auguri, -- Goddard

Jul 22, 2013, 4:52pm

Whoa right there Harry ! Of course I have read Hanslick , why otherwise would I reference him? I never said Wagner or Brahms or Bruckner for that matter would have a problem with each other . I just referred to,what to many, is a manufactured difference perpetuated by some , mainly Hanslick, between Wagner and Brahms as to the nature of music. Just out of interest why would you assume I have a minimal knowledge of Wagner ?

Jul 22, 2013, 7:18pm

I am sorry to be coming late to this discussion; real life does tend to get in the way, sadly. I think I agree with you both. Let me explain: I think there is almost nothing in the human experience which cannot be expressed in music, and in that sense, I agree with brunolatini. But music of course cannot relay such details as the good Mr. MacDonald's trip to the bank. However, can we say that music could not convey the spirit of such a thing? If I may introduce such a plebeian form, consider the 'patter song' from your garden variety Gilbert & Sullivan - these pieces convey quite well the spirit of scurrying about at our daily tasks. Provided the trip to the bank was trivial, I think such a thing could express it quite well. Now if the trip was more monumentous certainly a different music would be required. To sigh the first mortgage, to close out the account of a departed loved one - certainly we can agree that such things could well be captured in music?

As to the details, well surely not, but then again, we must ask to what degree such details are truly part of the human experience (in the manner in which I am invoking it, at least)? And it is also true that a piece of music that could, or did, distill the essence of such a simple event, could likewise be equally evocative of a similar spirit in altogether different circumstances. And to this I would say that, in any case, the listener should indeed be listening, but also, one hopes, feeling. I'm no fan of abstract art, but I do understand that where the artist may express one emotion onto the canvas, the viewer may see another one. But the artist has expressed, and the viewer beheld, and something wonderful has happened in each event. If your symphony, Harry, speaks of emotions or experiences as the present themselves to you, and I, hearing it and knowing nothing of the circumstance, feel different emotions or experiences as I immerse myself in the music, have we not both touched something fundamental and human and real? No, I don't think the listener needs to be able to follow along measure for measure, in the events that inspired you, nor should they try. But then again, would it really be the details you wanted the listener to apprehend, or merely that larger, deeper, truth conveyed by the language of music?

To your original question, however, I have wondered the same. Certainly I think there are pieces of music which could convey quite splendidly some of the feeling of Dante (for example I find Holst's The Planets to be most fitting for the spheres in Paradiso), but certainly we would likely disagree (possibly vehemently) on which ones. I wonder if it is not that very same....vastness in Dante's work that makes of it altogether too deep an ocean for even the bravest composer to plumb?

At any rate, I will be quick to confess I have not a fraction of the musical knowledge either of you possess, but I do hope neither of you is put off the intent of this group? I have enjoyed having both of you here, even if only briefly so far), and I do hope to hear more from both of you.

Jul 25, 2013, 12:39pm

Indeed Raven and Harry that is the beauty of music , we can have differing interpretations and still not fall out over it. Olivier Messiaen might have done something special with Dante-

Mayo 4, 2014, 4:13am

All music elucidates Dante.

Mayo 6, 2014, 11:01pm

>13 anthonywillard: And that, my good man, may be the truest comment of all!