|Dante and the Divine (Gustav Doré)|
I recently finished teaching Dante's Divine Comedy
. Predictably, I made much of how the poem uses music. Hell
has only unholy noise: crashing stones, groans, shouts, and, famously, a demon who "made a trumpet of his ass" in Inferno 21
. When Dante and Virgil finally make it to Purgatory, they are welcomed with the blessedly familiar sounds of the Te Deum. Unsurprisingly, Paradise features the poem's most dense and ecstatic music. As Dante ascends further into heavenly light and heavenly truth, he is also, increasingly, surrounded by singing. Dante's paradise is filled not only with "the glory of the One who moves the universe" (Paradiso
I:1-2) but with saints who dance for joy, and angels who sing in more-than-human voices. The music of Dante's Paradise is dense, sweet, and unlike anything he has ever heard, though it often sets liturgical texts that he knows very well.
Thanks to a student, I recently learned that the Swiss composer Helena Winckelman
has taken on the challenge of imagining and creating music for Dante's quintessentially indescribable Paradise. 18 voices, an unsurprising harp, and a delightfully surprising contrabass clarinet sing melodies that, especially at the beginning, circle each other like the circles of Paradise. In the close textures of the music -- several sets of harmonies overlapping with each other, sometimes with combination tones -- there is something of a sense of human incapability. Winckelman's use of spectral composition techniques is not only an aural adventure; it's also a homage to Dante. Turning light into language is what Dante is doing throughout Paradiso
, trying to express the inexpressible, pushing his chosen medium of expression to its limits.