Thursday, October 10, 2013

Medieval vs. Modern Views of Death

Continuing in the vein of my last post, I think that another example of the trend away from idealism and towards a cynical outlook is reflected in changing views of death, of which the Inferno is representative.  Inferno presents a very cut-and-dried, purportedly comprehensive account of the afterlife: Dante is sure that this the way things are, and that it is a perfect system.  I don't think that any modern artist, philosopher or even theologian would claim to have such a perfect apprehension of what happens after death, and I don't think that any secular philosopher would claim that whatever it is is perfectly just.  People have lost a lot of confidence and certainty somewhere along the line.  As my requisite example from early 20th century music, here is a recording of Rachmaninoff's The Isle of the Dead, of which Megan and I showed part during our presentation:

The piece has a programmatic structure:  the opening bass/cello figure represents rowers on a boat (Charon's ferry).  After a briefly hopeful beginning, the brass begins to quote the Dies Irae and the minor tonality returns; eventually, with the Dies Irae in the cellos, the rowing theme returns as the souls move on.  This represents a more Romantic view--somewhat confused, dramatic, and skeptical.  Again, we can see an evolution from more idealized forms to realistic or even grotesquely exaggerated depictions, and from certainty to confusion and skepticism, which is not unique to music.

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