Dante – Dark, light and music

17th and 18th century music might seem a long way from Dante’s Divine Comedy, a complicated poem written a good four centuries earlier about a journey through one particular version of the medieval afterlife. The torments of the damned, a funnel-shaped hell stretching down to the centre of the earth, the Mountain of Purgatory sticking up on the other side of the globe with ranks of souls painfully purging themselves in order to get to Paradise, and then Paradise itself, where Dante  sees the hosts of the blessed but also is given some serious philosophical and doctrinal lessons – it’s not obviously got much to with Benda, Vivaldi and the other composers on the two programmes. Dante was probably little more than a name for all of them, since he was largely out of fashion even among the literati from the later Renaissance till the Romantics rediscovered him.

And yet there are points of contact, parallels, moments when we can feel Dante and these composers have similar artistic ends in view. Take Hell to begin with. Dante is not just listing torments and telling us his readers how dreadful are the consequences of sin. Hell is a place of contrasts and conflicts, with one scene set against another, one sinner against another, a place where Dante’s emotions are often in conflict with each other, where he is disoriented by divine judgement which can go against human feelings of sympathy or almost of identification, where the mood changes rapidly from one moment to the next. Hell, Dante insists, is dark in every way – visually gloomy, at times pitch-black, except for infernal flames and fires, aurally characterised by wailing, screaming, bestial cries – but it  can be a place of malevolent vulgar comedy, as when Dante and his guide Virgil have to deal with a band of vicious devils not all that good at keeping the sinners they are in charge of suffering as much as they should. At other moments the tone is that of high tragedy, or of elegiac sadness, though, as you might expect, the sense of oppression, of the sheer weight of evil becomes more intense the further down Dante and Virgil travel. The culmination is the encounter at the centre of the earth, that is as far away from God as you can get in Dante’s scheme of things, with Satan, who has nothing of the heroic connotations he has in Milton’s Paradise Lost, being reduced to an unspeaking, almost inanimate state, mechanically chewing the souls of the three arch-traitors Brutus, Cassius and Judas in his three mouths and fanning with his leathery wings the wind that keeps the bottom of Hell frozen over.

To express all this Dante explicitly seeks out as much harshness and unpleasantnes in language as he can, but he also creates a poetry that has many shifts of tone, drawing the reader into the infernal world and providing a series of intense pleasures, not least in its visual and aural qualities. Here we can feel is a dark poetic music, at times we might feel a turbulently diabolic one, though we have to recognise that in saying that we are making musical analogies that Dante himself would not have recognised – the actual music he knew being quite different in nature. All the same the Inferno, we feel, is not all that far from the Music from the dark side the AAM offers.

Most readers of Dante enjoy Hell. It is harder to enjoy his Paradise. But that is the goal of his journey and all the way down into hell he is in fact moving forwards, or in his terms, upwards, since it is by going on past Satan that he comes out on the other side of the world and can start climbing Purgatory. From now on he and the souls he meets have blessedness in their sights and once he is in up in Paradise, guided now by the soul of his beloved Beatrice rather than Virgil, he can come as close to experiencing the actual state of blessedness as is possible for a human being still in an earthly body. For Dante an essential component, perhaps the essential component of blessedness, is knowledge – knowledge of Christian truths, of morality, of the workings of God’s creation. To know is to participate in the divine being and in the love that it emanates into the world. None of this comes easily, and Dante freely admits that his readers might well lose themselves and not be able to take in the ‘bread of the angels’ he is privileged to offer them. But what he offers is as much clarification as he can  and a very different kind of music from the one he offered in Hell. Now the emphasis falls on light, the light of heavens, the light we see on earth, the light of knowledge and of God, all coming together if by no means in any straightforwardly graspable manner. But there is an insistence on the harmonisation of all these forms of light, with a corresponding insistence on musical harmony. Souls dance and sing as well as offer learned discourses and Dante is repeatedly overwhelmed by the music as well as as by the light.

His own poetry is represented (and Dante repeatedly says that failure is inevitable) as a struggle to find appropriate expression for what he saw and heard. In practice this means the creation of quite remarkable poetic structures, often extending over several of the hundred cantos into which the poem is divided (in hell cantos had tended to be isolated or clash with each other). One of the most remarkable comes in the Heaven of the Sun, where Dante meets the souls of lovers of wisdom. Among them enveloped in light (like almost all the souls of the blessed Dante meets) is St Thomas Aquinas, who emerges from a first circle of twelve dancing souls. Thomas, a Dominican friar, tells the story of St Francis,  and then denounces the corruption of the Dominican order. Then comes St Bonaventure, a Franciscan, who tells the story of St Dominic, and then denounces the corruption of his own order, the Franciscans. The interlocking parallelism is then further developed, in what it is suggested is an expanding series of circular movements, represented through amazingly beautiful dance and light imagery as much as through the evolving narrative of the journey. We are, obviously, at the antipodes to the conflictual, diabolic music of the Inferno, with even earthly corruption being somehow (though not at all pacifically) absorbed into the overall positive vision.

In all this angels have important parts to play. One had appeared briefly in Inferno to open the gates of the city of Dite which had been diabolically barred to Dante and Virgil. Others had acted as keepers of the entrances to the various different levels of Purgatory. These had human form if with added wings and splendour. In Paradise their role in the workings of the universe becomes clearer and, as with the souls of the blessed, any human form they have is enveloped in light. Angels thus keep the universe going. They transmit divine love (in effect divine energy) from the Godhead itself to the stars and planets and hence keep them moving around the earth, as well as transmitting other forms of divine love to earth itself. Angels, for Dante, are thus part of his science as much as of his theology, not pretty decorative figures at all, nor simply poetic fancies. Perhaps in that regard, if some of the music on AAM's Angels and saints programme is angelic, it has some of Dante’s seriousness too!

© Peter Hainsworth 2015