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_FOR ORCHESTRA AND CHORUS OF SOPRANOS AND ALTOS_
The "Divina Commedia" may be said in a broad view to belong to the great design by which Christian teaching was brought into relation with earlier pagan lore. The subject commands all the interest of the epics of Virgil and of Milton. It must be called the greatest Christian poem of all times, and the breadth of its appeal and of its art specially attest the age in which it was written, when classic pagan poetry broke upon the world like a great treasure-trove.
The subject was an ideal one in Dante's time,--a theme convincing and contenting to all the world, and, besides, akin to the essence of pagan poetry. The poet was needed to celebrate all the phases of its meaning and beauty. This is true of all flashes of evolutionary truth. As in the ancient epics, an idea once real to the world may be enshrined in a design of immortal art.
To-day we are perhaps in too agnostic a state to be absorbed by such a contemplation. The subject in a narrower sense is true at most to those who will to cherish the solace of a salvation which they have not fully apprehended. And so the Liszt symphony of the nineteenth century is not a complete reflection of the Dante poem of the fourteenth. It becomes for the devout believer almost a kind of church-liturgy,--a Mass by the Abbe Liszt.
Rare qualities there undoubtedly are in the music: a reality of passion; a certain simplicity of plan; the sensuous beauty of melodic and harmonic touches. But a greatness in the whole musical expression that may approach the grandeur of the poem, could only come in a suggestion of symbolic truth; and here the composer seems to fail by a too close clinging to ecclesiastic ritual. Yet in the agony of remorse, rising from hopeless woe to a chastened worship of the light, is a strain of inner truth that will leave the work for a long time a hold on human interest.
Novel is the writing of words in the score, as if they are to be sung by the instruments,--all sheer aside from the original purpose of the form.
Page after page has its precise text; we hear the shrieks of the damned, the dread inscription of the infernal portals; the sad lament of lovers; the final song of praise of the redeemed. A kind of picture-book music has our symphony become. The _leit-motif_ has crept into the high form of absolute tones to make it as definite and dramatic as any opera.
The legend of the portal is proclaimed at the outset in a rising phrase (of the low brass and strings)
[Music: (Doubled in two lower 8ves.) _Lento_ (3 trombones and tuba: violas, cellos and brass)]
_Per me si va nella cit-ta do-lente; Per me si va nell'eterno dolore;_
and in still higher chant--
_Per me si va tra la perduta gente._
Then, in antiphonal blast of horns and trumpets sounds the fatal doom in grim monotone (in descending harmony of trembling strings):
[Music: (Chant in octaves of trumpets and horns) La-scia-te ogni spe-ran- - -za.
(Brass, wood and _tremolo_ strings)]
_Lasciate ogni speranza mi ch' entrate!_[A]
"Through me the way is to the city dolent; Through me the way is to eternal dole; Through me the way among the people lost.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!"
--_From Longfellow's translation._]
A tumult on a sigh (from the first phrase) rises again and again in gusts. In a violent paroxysm we hear the doom of the monotone in lowest horns. The fateful phrases are ringing about, while pervading all is the hope-destroying blast of the brass. But the storm-centre is the sighing motive which now enters on a quicker spur of passionate stride (_Allegro frenetico, quasi doppio movimento_). In its winding
[Music: _Alla breve_ _Allegro frenetico (quasi doppio movimento)_ (Theme in violins and cellos) (Woodwind and violas)]
sequences it sings a new song in more regular pace. The tempest grows wilder and more masterful, still following the lines of the song, rising to towering height. And now in the strains, slow and faster, sounds the sigh above and below, all in a madrigal of woe. The whole is surmounted by a big descending phrase, articulate almost in its grim dogma, as it runs into the line of the first legend in full tumult of gloom. It is followed by the doom slowly proclaimed in thundering tones of the brass, in midst of a tempest of surging harmonies. Only it is all more fully and poignantly stressed than before, with long, resonant echoes of the stentorian tones of lowest brass.
Suddenly we are in the dulcet mood (_Quasi Andante, ma sempre un poco mosso_) 'mid light waving strings and rich swirling harp, and soothing tones of flutes and muted horns. Then, as all other voices are hushed, the clarinet sings a strain that ends in lowest notes of expressive grief (_Recit., espressivo dolente_)--where we can almost hear the words. It is answered by a sweet plaint of other wood, in
[Music: _Quasi Andante, ma sempre un poco mosso_ _dolce teneremente_ (Clarinets and bassoons)]
questioning accents, followed by the returning waves of strings and harp, and another phrase of the lament; and now to the pulsing chords of the harp the mellow English horn does sing (at least in the score) the words,--the central text of all:
[Music: _Poco agitato_ (English horn, with arpeggic flow of harp) Nes-sun mag-gior do-lo-re che ri-cor-dar-si del tem-po fe-li-ce.[A]]
[Footnote A: "There is no greater sorrow than to be mindful of the happy time in misery."--_From Longfellow's translation._]
Other voices join the leader. As the lower reed start the refrain, the higher enter in pursuit, and then the two groups sing a melodic chase.
But the whole phrase is a mere foil to the pure melody of the former plaint that now returns in lower strings. And all so far is as a herald to the passage of intimate sentiment (_Andante amoroso_) that lies a lyric gem in the heart of the symphony. The melting strain is stressed in tenderness by the languor of harmonies, the delicate design of elusive rhythm and the appealing whisper of harp and two violins,--tipped by the touch of mellow wood.
[Music: _Andante amoroso. (Tempo rubato)_ _dolce con intimo sentimento_ (Melody in first violins; arpeggios of harp and violas; lower woodwind and strings)]
With the rising passion, as the refrain spreads in wider sequences, the choirs of wood and strings are drawn into the song, one group answering the other in a true love duet.
The last cadence falls into the old sigh as the dread oracle sounds once more the knell of hope. Swirling strings bring us to a new scene of the world of shades. In the furious, frenetic pace of yore (_Tempo primo, Allegro, alla breve_) there is a new sullen note, a dull martial trip of drums with demonic growls (in the lowest wood). The sigh is there, but perverted in humor. A chorus of blasphemous mockery is stressed by strident accents of lower wood and strings.[A]
[Footnote A: We are again assisted by the interpreting words in the score.]
Gradually we fall into the former frenzied song, amid the demon cacchinations, until we have plunged back into the nightmare of groans.
Instead of the big descending phrase we sink into lower depths of gloom, wilder than ever, on the first tripping motive. As the sighing strain resounds below in the midst of a chorus of demon shrieks, there enters the chant of inexorable fate. Mockery yields to a tinge of pathos, a sense almost of majestic resignation, an apotheosis of grief.
A state of tranquillity, almost of bliss, is in the opening primal harmonies (of harp and strings and
[Music: _Andante con moto quasi Allegretto. Tranquillo assai_ (Oboe _molto espressivo_) _Sempre piano e legato_ (Full arpeggic harp and muted strings)]
soft horns). Indeed, what else could be the mood of relief from the horrors of hell? And lo! the reed strikes a pure limpid song echoed in turn by other voices, beneath a rich spray of heavenly harmonies.
This all recurs in higher shift of tone. A wistful phrase (_piu lento_, in low strings) seems to breathe
[Music: _Un poco meno mosso_ (English horn, clarinets, bassoons, French horn)]
a spoken sob. Then, as in voices of a hymn, chants a more formal liturgy of plaint where the phrase is almost lost in the lowest voice. It is all but articulate, with a sense of the old sigh; but it is in a calmer spirit, though anon bursting with passionate grief (_lagrimoso_).
[Music: _Lamentoso_ (In fugue of muted strings)]
And now in the same vein, of the same fibre, a fugue begins of lament, first in muted strings.
It is the line of sad expressive recitative that heralded the plaint and the love-scene. There is here the full charm of fugue: a rhythmic quality of single theme, the choir of concerted dirge in independent and interdependent paths, and with every note of integral melody. There is the beauty of pure tonal architecture blended with the personal significance of the human (and divine) tragedy.
The fugue begins in muted strings, like plaintive human voices, though wood and brass here and there light up the phrases. Now the full bass of horns and wood strikes the descending course of theme, while higher strings and wood soar in rising stress of (sighing) grief.
[Music: (In double higher 8ves.) _With lower 8ves._ (Strings, with enforcing and answering wind)]
A hymnal verse of the theme enters in the wood answered by impetuous strings on a coursing phrase. The antiphonal song rises with eager stress of themal attack. A quieter elegy leads to another burst, the motive above, the insistent sigh below. The climax of fugue returns to the heroic main plaint below, with sighing answers above, all the voices of wood and brass enforcing the strings.
Then the fugue turns to a transfigured phase; the theme rings triumphant retorts in golden horns and in a masterful unison of the wood; the wild answer runs joyfully in lower strings, while the higher are strumming like celestial harps. The whole is transformed to a big song of praise ever in higher harmonies. The theme flows on in ever varying thread, amidst the acclaiming tumult.