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Saturday morning quotes 5.40: Dante

February 20, 2016

“It has been well said that the study of Dante is a liberal education. There is, in truth, scarcely any subject of interest left untouched by the transfiguring power of that master-hand. Theologian, philosopher, poet, statesman, historian, man of science, painter, sculptor, musician may all alike find an answering and inspiring note in the lines of the “Divine Comedy.” Nothing escapes Dante’s notice; and, among other things, the student is struck by the poet’s sensitiveness to sound in general.”

– Author unknown,“Music in Dante’s Divine Comedy”, The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular, Vol. 36, No. 629 (Jul. 1, 1895), pp. 446-448

Dante Alighieri (c.1265 – 1321) was a poet best known today for having made the leap from the usual Latin, writing a major work in the Italian vernacular.  La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) employs a carefully organized, highly symbolic format to describe a journey through Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven).  Dante’s elevating journey is an ascent rife with rendezvous among many historical figures, and fraught with sometimes terrifying encounters with creatures that symbolize human failings or merits.  With his divine example of femininity, Beatrice, as tour guide, Dante finally attains paradise, which is likewise described in great structural detail.

If Dante‘s journey were made into a film today (it has, but let’s just move on) it would be full of horrifying imagery and set to a soundtrack that leaves nothing to the imagination, which is how Hollywood shapes symbolic emotional content so that it may appeal to modern listeners. Using cliched orchestrated diminished scales and various degrees of demented dissonance to describe the symbolism of every scene, the audience is released from the onerous task of thinking for themselves and instead led by eyes and ears down the director’s supermarket aisles.

As it turns out, Dante created his own imaginary soundtrack in the text of La Divina Commedia through a host of musical references that complement the abundant literary devices.  But if we are guided by the received notion that music of the thirteenth century consisted mainly of the troubadour’s unsophisticated monophonic melodies, we would be mistaken. Francesco Ciabattoni enlightens us with evidence that indicates a more pervasive use of polyphony in Dante’s era. We quote from his  study, Dante’s Journey to Polyphony, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 2010

“In the thirteenth century the word organum was also employed to refer to any form of polyphony.  Ordinal books, Lives of the Saints, and libri usuali teem with expressions such as cantare cum organo and discantare…- formulae which instructed singers to improvise a second, a third, and, in some particularly solemn circumstances, even a fourth voice over the given chant…”

– Ciabattoni, p. 10

“Historical and musicological evidence tells us that Dante’s exposure to polyphony was such that we should actually be surprised if he had not made polyphonic songs an important element in his poem.  Indeed, we see that polyphony is employed for the distribution of grace, as an allegory of political peace, and as a complex symbol of the reconciliation between unity and multiplicity in the universe.  Furthermore, we note a clear musical design by which Dante fashions the soundscape of the three otherworldly realms [Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso] respectively structured by cacophony, monophony and polyphony.”

– Ciabattoni, pp. 11 -12

Apart from his rather conventional misinterpretation of how the lute figures in music of Dante’s time, Ciabattoni’s study sheds light on the uses and symbolic qualities of medieval music.  If we limit ourselves to surviving iconographic representations of musical instruments from the thirteenth century, it’s far too easy to draw hasty conclusions that the lute was only used to play single-line dance tunes.  However, there are also early depictions of  lutes played with the fingertips and, if we take into account disposition of left-hand fingerings, one can surmise that lutenists played polyphonic music far earlier than surviving notated examples lead us to believe.

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