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Paradiso, from Dante

Thomas Adès wrote the three-part orchestral score Dante in 2019-21 for the ballet The Dante Project created by choreographer Wayne McGregor for the UK’s Royal Ballet.

N.B. This program note pertains to both the Inferno Suite and Paradiso by Thomas Adès.

Thomas Joseph Edmund Adès was born in London, England, and lives there and in Los Angeles, California. He wrote his three-part ballet score Dante in 2019-2021; the whole and its parts have a complex commissioning history. The full score was commissioned for the Royal Ballet, Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, Music and Artistic Director, and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden Foundation. Inferno was co-commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra for concert performances. The premiere of Inferno was given by Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, on May 10, 2019. The premieres of the other two parts, Purgatorio and Paradiso, came as part of the premiere of the complete ballet The Dante Project, Wayne McGregor, choreography, with the orchestra of the Royal Opera House and singers of the London Symphony Chorus, Adès conducting, at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden on October 14, 2021. The artist Tacita Dean designed the production. The Inferno Suite, 8 of the full act’s 13 movements, was premiered by L’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia under Gianandrea Noseda’s direction in Rome on January 22, 2021. First Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of music from Dante: March 24-26, 2023.

The score of the Inferno Suite calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (B-flat and A), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (with 2 rototoms), percussion (3 players, playing variously glockenspiel, tubular bells, triangle, clash cymbals, suspended cymbal, anvil, tam-tam, whip, large rattle/ratchet, snare drums, 2 tenor drums with snares, bass drum with mounted cymbals, concert bass drum), harp, grand piano, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration of the suite is about 19 minutes.

The instrumentation of Paradiso is as above with the following differences: 3 clarinets in A (2nd doubling E-flat clarinet, 3rd doubling bass clarinet); percussion (3 players: crotales, glockenspiel, xylophone, tubular bells, 2 tuned gongs, triangle, tzeltzel (sistrum or metal shaker, or miniature clash cymbals), clash cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, small side drum, wood chimes, bass drum); female choir (six parts). Duration of Paradiso is about 24 minutes.

I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was a Florentine who lived about 20 of his 56 years in exile but whose life and work were forever tied to the city of his birth. An accomplished poet in his 20s, he composed La vita nuova (“New Life”) in 1294 in tribute to Beatrice Portinari, whom he had loved since childhood. He and Beatrice married other people; she died in 1290 at about age 24. When, half a lifetime later, Dante composed his Divine Comedy in the years before his death, Beatrice was again central to his thoughts. As the protagonist of his poem, he made it through his ordeal directly through Beatrice’s intervention in Heaven. She assigned the shade of Dante’s great Roman predecessor Virgil to guide the pilgrim through Hell and Purgatory, then she took him into Elysium herself.

Dante’s three-part epic Commedia (or Comedia) was immensely influential from the start, not only for such literary successors as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Joyce’s Ulysses, but for other arts. Portraits of the painter himself exist by Giotto, Domenico di Michelino (see page 31), and Botticelli, to name just a few, and artists across centuries depicted Dante’s intricate, circle-within-circle conception of the three realms of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Inferno was the basis for a film as early as 1911, and there have been many since. In music, familiar Dante-inspired works include Franz Liszt’s Dante Symphony for orchestra and Dante Sonata for solo piano, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini, and Giacomo Puccini’s comic one-act opera Gianni Schicchi as well as Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s “film opera” La Commedia. The multi-layered richness of the Commedia ensures its continued use as a source of inspiration for artists in all forms. In modern media, there are graphic novels and multiple video games based on the poem.

The timing of Thomas Adès’s Dante, his score for Wayne McGregor’s ballet The Dante Project, corresponded roughly to the 700th anniversary of Dante’s poem, the first parts of which were completed by the late 1310s, and of his death in 1321. Rather than call the work The Divine Comedy, the creators wanted to give themselves leeway to create a narrative that reacted expressively and emotionally to Dante’s text rather than adhering consistently to its narrative details. Dante, after all, uses the story of the pilgrim’s journey through the three realms as a framework for commentary on a wide range of big subjects—science, religion, geography, politics, social mores, love, and his own status as a political exile.

The Dante Project fits with Adès’s own sense of the epic over the past two decades or so, when much of his compositional energy has gone to extended undertakings in opera and other large-scale works based on sources with already far-reaching presence in our culture and delving into deep philosophical questions. In opera, he successfully took on Shakespeare’s late romance The Tempest for an opera commissioned by the Royal Opera Covent Garden as well as the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel’s 1962 masterpiece The Exterminating Angel, a co-commission from the Salzburg Festival, the UK’s Royal Opera, Danish Royal Opera, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Totentanz, a 35-minute orchestral work with baritone and mezzo-soprano solos, sets a text accompanying a 15th-century frieze of the “Dance of Death” between the skeletal Grim Reaper and individuals representing all facets of society. He previously contemplated the cosmos in such works as In Seven Days, his 2008 piano concerto on the Biblical creation myth, and his “Voyage for Orchestra” Polaris (2010), named for the North Star.

Adès was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first, and so far only, Artistic Partner from 2016 until the end of last season (with a hiatus for the pandemic-affected years 2020-2021). Along with conducting the BSO on multiple occasions, he also led the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, directed the TMC’s Festival of Contemporary Music, and performed as pianist with the orchestra, in chamber music, and in recital. He led the BSO and TMCO in many of his own works, including Totentanz and the 2019 premiere of the BSO-commissioned Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, written for Kirill Gerstein. His Air, a violin concerto composed for Anne-Sophie Mutter and co-commissioned by the BSO, was premiered by Mutter under the composer’s direction in August 2022 in Lucerne. Andris Nelsons, Mutter, and the BSO give the American premiere April 20-22 at Symphony Hall and will perform the piece at Carnegie Hall in New York on April 25. (Adès’s live recordings with BSO of Totentanz and the piano concerto under the composer’s direction were released by Deutsche Grammophon.)

For a composer whose first violin concerto was titled Concentric Paths, Adès will long have recognized kinships between aspects of his own large-scale formal predilections and Dante’s cosmology. All three of Commedia’s realms, not just Hell’s axiomatic nine levels, are modeled on the idea of circles within circles. Hell’s levels descend from the largest to the smallest in a vast pit, each lower level representing a different, worse class of sinner. Purgatory is a terrestrial mountain, rising in levels to the point at which the purged soul, over eons, finally reaches the entrance to Elysium, or Paradise. Paradise, the cosmological and philosophical inversion of Hell, expands infinitely as a kind of amphitheater, its souls ranked by their closeness to the point that is God. Dante based his conception, part of it novel, on centuries of scientific and theological speculation from Ptolemy to Thomas Aquinas.

In the three parts of his ballet score, Adès mirrors Dante in moving from the claustrophobic, fretting energy of Hell through the striving, elongated timespans of Purgatory to the timeless, expansive wonder of Paradise. Inferno, not just because it’s first, has long been the most popular and the most interpreted of the three canticles. In Hell we find extremes: lurid, skin-tingling descriptions of torture visited upon the very deserving next to empathy-inducing, tragic romances retold by some of its sufferers; allusions to Classical mythology and Christian orthodoxy eliding with workaday gossip and complaint touching on contemporary Florentine politics and life; and pathos next to biting satire. This mosaic gave Adès leeway in creating a score for Inferno that veers sharply among contrasting moods. In the ballet, Inferno is fully half of the evening-length work, its thirteen movements touching on most of Hell’s realms of sin, along with focused movements for Charon, Ferryman of the underworld (from Classical mythology) and Francesca da Rimini with her lover Paolo (13th-century Italian lovers, the basis of Tchaikovsky’s tone poem).

What the Inferno Suite retains primarily is the sense of contrast and quick movement, though omitting such juicy passages as “The Gluttons—in slime” and “The Deviants—on burning sand.” The opening four movements remain. The Pilgrim’s panic at finding himself lost in a dark wood gives way to the buzzing irritations of the orchestra in Hell’s antechamber, where we encounter those without praise or blame whose lack of commitment has doomed them to an eternity without possibility, “stung by wasps.” In the ballet, the chamber-musical Ferryman movement, featuring English horn, is primarily a pas de deux with the Pilgrim and his guide, Virgil, looking on. In the deep melancholy of the Pavan of the Souls in Limbo we hear a clear musical “cycle,” a falling phrase repeated with small alterations that recalls passages in other Adès works. The phrase’s eddying reflects the permanent changelessness of the souls in Limbo, who by cosmic misfortune of birth were denied the chance to accept Christ and thus have no access to Paradise.

We move several levels downward to the comedic Adagio of the bad Popes, buried heads down in the Eighth Circle (Canto XIX) for the sins of seeking temporal power or buying spiritual grace. There are mock-Viennese Waltz touches here, reflecting the smarmy nature of the encounter, but soon we descend into conflict. The Pilgrim meets the Hypocrites in coats of lead: tuba and trombones weigh down the fragments of scales that exhaustedly attempt their brief ascents. The touch of individual melancholy in solo cello seems to reflect the Pilgrim’s learning of the “future” defeat of the White Guelphs, his own allies. There is humor value in the Schadenfreude of the circus polka-like next scene of Thieves being devoured by serpents—turning to ash upon being bitten, they immediately regenerate to die in again in agony. In the final scene, also the final scene of the ballet’s first act, we encounter in a lake of flaming ice Satan himself, whose great hairy legs Virgil and Dante painfully climb to reach the surface of the earth at the base of Purgatory.

In these performances we do not hear Purgatorio, the second part of Dante. That movement, illustrating Dante and Virgil’s ascent through those scouring their souls of sin, fascinatingly features throughout prerecorded singing from the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem. Founded by Jewish immigrants from Aleppo, Syria, in 1901, the synagogue is famous for the hazzanut-style liturgical singing Adès uses in this episode of the opera.

The Divine Comedy’s overall trajectory from dark to light, Hell to Paradise, is reflected in Dante’s poetry and in the details of the drama. In Adès’s music for the ballet, the Pilgrim’s increasing lightness and awareness of God’s plan is reflected in the ecstatic music at the end of Purgatorio in which he takes leave of Virgil and meets, for the first time, the heavenly Beatrice. Paradiso’s episodes, performed without pause, feature recurrent, “cyclical” musical figures and follow a cosmological conception that Dante based on known, scientifically ground astronomy. There is a gradual build through the first four movements and the cycling, rising scales of Venus, small resets marking the change of orbit. With the sun, the music moves appreciably to the lower range, breaking apart briefly before returning to the overlapping arpeggio/scale figures and expanding in both directions. Mars features quick, vibrating detail behind the foreground voices. Jupiter, the realm of the sixth heaven, is surprisingly ethereal; in this passage we also meet the constellation of the Eagle (Paradiso, Canto XX). Beatrice and Dante ascend the Golden Ladder to the seventh heaven, Saturn, the music existing at the highest and lowest ranges of the orchestra. The arpeggio motif speeds up in the strings over the sustained backdrop of brass for the Fixed Stars. Motion nearly stops as we enter the Empyrean, the chorale-like music flooded in ecstatic, active light. Dante’s mind is “struck by lightning” before he might view the center of the final circle, but his wish has been fulfilled in realizing the love that guides the universe.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Director of Program Publications.