Monday, March 12, 2012

Liszt - Dante Symphony - Inferno

The full title of Liszt's work is A Symphony to Dante's Divine Comedy.  Liszt began sketching themes for this work as early as 1840. He worked on fragments of it until he laid it aside. In 1855 he took up the work again and completed almost all of it by the end of 1856.  Liszt played the piano version of the work to Wagner, who praised it but suggested some changes.

Liszt had originally conceived the work in three movements, Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.  Wagner talked Liszt out of writing a symphonic work that portrayed paradise, as he thought no composer could do paradise justice. Liszt agreed, and retained the first two movements and added a Magnificat  in place of the Paradise movement.  The first performance was held in Dresden in 1857 with Liszt conducting, and it was a disaster. Lack of rehearsal was the cause, but Liszt didn't give up on the work and conducted it again in 1858.

The work has not been one of Liszt's most popular. It is an innovative work, as most of Liszt's compositions, and makes use of different forms, musical scales and harmonies. Along with his Faust Symphony (finished in 1854) these two works are more like groups of related tone poems than symphonies, at least in structure. The Faust Symphony to me is a more balanced work, the three sections having much more in common with each other in material and length. The Dante Symphony's strongest movement to me is the first one, Inferno.  The second movement is also very good, but the very short Magnificat that follows it tends to throw the last two thirds of the work out of balance to my ear. That doesn't mean the Magnificat isn't good, it most certainly is and is very innovative in Liszt's use of the whole tone scale. Perhaps if Liszt had kept to his original plan for a Paradise movement the work many have been even better.

Inferno begins with a depiction of the gates of hell itself with a slow introduction for brass. Liszt repeats the motif 4 times, each time slightly varied and the first three lines and the ninth line written on the gates of hell are written over the notes in the score:

Through me is the way to the sorrowful city,
Through me is the way to eternal sorrow,
Through me is the way among the lost people.
Abandon all hope you who enter here.

There is a chant recited by the trumpets and horns, the tempo quickens and the music makes a rapid descent that depicts Dante and Virgil descending into hell. As Dante goes through the circles of hell, the music evolves into waves of noise, violence and borderline hysteria, probably one reason why this work is none too popular; Liszt's depiction of hell gets pretty noisy in places.  After the second circle of hell, Liszt takers part of a previously heard motif and relates the story of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo, two lovers that were contemporaries of Dante, who wrote their story into his Divine Comedy.  The pair were murdered by Francesca's husband (who was also Paolo's brother) before they could repent of their sin, thus they are doomed to hell for eternity, clutching each other in their misery.  Francesca tells Dante the tale before they are swept along the torrents of hell with the other lost souls, and Dante faints.  Liszt's music depicts the heartache and passion of the story in music that is in vivid contrast to what has gone before.

After what amounts to the lengthy interlude of the telling of the story of Francesca da Rimini,  Dante and Virgil resume their journey and the music returns to the inquietude of the beginning.  Snatches of music that has been heard before return, in a twisted recapitulation of the beginning. It isn't until these are heard that we realize Liszt has used his own version of sonata form for this movement.  The music picks up momentum as it hurtles through the circles of hell until the final horrible vision of Satan himself is seen chewing on the bodies of the damned.  The music builds into a loud, shrill climax, then with five chords the bottom falls out and the music ends.

I first hear this symphony more than thirty years ago, and Inferno has been one of my favorite pieces ever since, and it made me a ‘fan’ of Liszt. It was my introduction to Liszt besides the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 I heard Bugs Bunny play in the old cartoons. The power of the piece, the sheer visceral reaction from the loudness of the beginning and end coupled with the tenderness of the middle Francesca da Rimini section still sends chills up the back of my neck. And I do admit that it is the Inferno movement I listen to the most. The other two movements seem anti-climatic to me.  I do better to listen to them without the first part .

1 comment:

  1. For a thrilling novel check out...

    Liszt's Dante Symphony