Saturday, October 19, 2013

Inferno and Liszt

Another notable composer inspired by Dante's Inferno was Franz Liszt (1811-1886), a Hungarian virtuoso pianist and composer probably best known for his 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, especially number 2 (listen to it; you've probably heard it before), and his transcriptions for piano of all of Beethoven's symphonies.  Although during his life he was known mostly as a concert pianist, he composed many works of his own and today his orchestral pieces are considered landmarks in the development of modern music.  Much more than Tchaikovsky, he was very influential on the next generation of composers, sponsoring people like Brahms, Dvorak and Smetana in their early careers.  As mentioned in my previous post, he invented the form of the symphonic poem.  Among his orchestral works is the Symphony to Dante's Divine Comedy (1856), a highly programmatic symphony in two movements, Inferno and Purgatorio (most symphonies have four) that follows Dante the pilgrim's journey to the underworld.  Here's the first movement:

This piece is very closely structured around the actual story, so I'll go through it piece by piece.  The first section, up to around 3:10 on this recording, describes the gates of hell in foreboding bass chords.  Beethoven's influence is obvious; the style throughout is that of Beethoven's later symphonies and he directly quotes him at, among other places 4:55 (from the 9th symphony).  The theme in the brass at 6:40 and several other places represents the words "lasciate ogne speranza voi ch'entrate", which are written below the trumpet part; it is played between most sections as a dramatic symbol of the loss of hope as Dante and Virgil journey deeper into Hell.  At 7:16, they enter the second circle, where the woodwind and harp parts represent the wind buffeting about the damned.  At 13:25, we get another rendition of Francesca and Paolo in the form of a duet between two violins--the score is marked "2 violinen ohne dämpfer", or "2 unmuted violins", while the rest are muted--which again romanticizes the sufferings of the damned (and definitely shows some pity for them).  The passage is marked in the score Andante amoroso which translates as "lovingly slow".  Of course, Liszt is a Romantic composer and he wasn't writing this piece in order to convey the same message Dante intended.  At 17:00, they descend to the next circle of hell, where the previous themes representing the sufferings of the damned are mockingly recited again, representing the taunts of the demons.  This is a device Liszt borrowed from Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which has a scene in which a coven of witches do much the same thing to the Dies Irae and other motifs of the piece.  As with Berlioz's Dies Irae, the themes build past the parodies to a terrifying climax, finally resolving in a very unconventional ending that jumps schizophrenically between keys.  Compared to the Tchaikovsky, this interpretation is closer to Dante's actual text, but it's still very romanticized and anything but didactic.  I think it does a very good job conjuring the mood of the Inferno, even if it misses the lessons, which was really probably Liszt's goal.

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