b Riding East: Opus 4: Purgatorio

Friday, August 25, 2006

Opus 4: Purgatorio

Opus 4

I attempt to set a limited chamber orchestra to text from Dante's Purgatorio, specifically Canto I and Canto XIX. These were technically the first pieces I wrote (excepting the first piano prelude), virtually all completed between October and December of 2005, prior to much of my early training in theory. The first three pieces, set to Canto I, are more or less complete; the second four pieces (written first), set to Canto XIX, are not complete.

When I first started meeting with Dr. Jonathan Berger, we decided to look at text in order to compose a song cycle. It was an interesting point in my life to explore this idea. I had just begun the process of transitioning out of my career, and was struggling to make sense of what I'd done and what I might do next. Thank goodness I'd come across Mark and Terry, my "coaches"!

One question that recurred: what is the point of the journey? I'd been so goal-driven throughout my life: point me at the next hill and I can't wait to begin marching. I would climb to the top. Reaching the peak, rather than pausing to reflect, I would seek out the next hill. Find Italy? Find Paradise? And who is Beatrice?

I was haunted by Dante's dream in Canto XIX of Purtagorio, such vivid poetry. Initially, Dante sees an image of a stammering, crippled woman. Yet as 'the sun revives', Dante discovers instead a lovely siren, singing the most soothing and comforting song. Is the image false, the siren only tempting Dante? I long for the song of the siren. I'm tired of the journey, and question the point of reaching the next 'destination'. I wonder whether Dante felt the same way.

Calliope Arise (Calïopè Surga)
Calliope Arise Score
Calliope Arise Original Score

Dante summons Calliope to ‘accompany my song with those same chords whose force so struck the miserable magpies’. Calliope’s voice arrives in the final bar.

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto I, 1:12
Copyright © Princeton Dante Project

To run its course through smoother water
the small bark of my wit now hoists its sail,
leaving that cruel sea behind.

Now I shall sing the second kingdom,
there where the soul of man is cleansed,
made worthy to ascend to heaven.

Here from the dead let poetry rise up,
O sacred Muses, since I am yours.
Here let Calliope arise

to accompany my song with those same chords
Whose force so struck the miserable magpies
that, hearing it, they lost all hope of pardon.

Oriental Sapphire
Oriental Sapphire Score
Oriental Sapphire Original Score

Oriental Sapphire (Dolce Color d'Orïental Zaffiro): In Dante’s first moments on Earth (again), he notices ‘the sweet color of oriental sapphire’. The pentatonic keys (and Dante’s world) change every few bars – only Calliope’s voice (motif on partial iv7-v7-i in pentatonic a-minor) is constant.

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto I, 13:18

Sweet color of oriental sapphire,
hovering in the calm and peaceful aspect
of intervening air, pure to the horizon,

pleased my eyes once more
as soon as I had left the morbid air
that had afflicted both my chest and eyes.

The Fair Planet
The Fair Planet Score

‘The Fair Planet (Lo Bel Pianeto) that emboldens love’: Dante is struck with Earth’s intrinsic beauty. In contrast to Oriental Sapphire, where the key varies and the melodic line is constant, in the Fair Planet the melodic line is implied by the harmonic progression.

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto I, 19:27

The fair planet that emboldens love,
smiling, lit up the east,
Veiling the Fishes in her train.

I turned to the right and, fixing my attention
on the other pole, I saw four stars
not seen but by those first on earth.

The very sky seemed to rejoice
in their bright glittering. O widowed
Region of the north, denied that sight!

‘Femmina Balba’ I, II, III, IV: The Stammering Woman, Song of the Siren. UNDER CONSTRUCTION.

Femmina Balba I
Femmina Balba I Score

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto XIX, 1:9

In the hour when the heat of day,
cooled by earth and at times by Saturn,
Can no longer temper the cold of the moon,

when geomancers see their Fortuna Major rise
in the east before the dawn,
which does not long stay dark for it,

there came to me a woman, in a dream,
stammering, cross-eyed, splayfooted,
with crippled hands and sickly pale complexion.

Femmina Balba II
Femmina Balba II Score

This cello duet (need to fix the score -- sorry) was improvised by midi keyboard input. I don't use this technique often.

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto XIX, 9:15

I looked at her, and as the sun revives
Cold limbs benumbed by night,
so my gaze gave her a ready tongue

And then in very little time
straightened her crooked limbs
And tinged her sallow face as love desires.

Femmina Balba III
Femmina Balba III Score

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto XIX, 16:24

And with her speech set free
She started singing in a way
That would have made it hard for me to turn aside.

'I am,' she sang, 'I am the sweet siren
Who beguile mariners on distant seas,
so great is their delight in hearing me.

I drew Ulysses, eager for the journey,
With my song. And those who dwell with me
Rarely depart, so much do I content them.'

Femmina Balba IV
Femmina Balba IV Score

Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto XIX, 25:33

Her lips had not yet closed
when there appeared a lady at my side,
Holy and alert, to confound her.

'O Virgil, Virgil, who is this?'
she asked, indignant. And he came forward
With his eyes fixed on that virtuous one.

The other he seized and, ripping her garments,
laid her front bare and exposed her belly.
The stench that came from there awoke me.


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