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In his long composing life, Charles Wuorinen has drawn on an extremely wide range of intellectual and musical inspirations, including many from science and literature. The Dante Trilogy is among his most ambitious compositions, its source one of the great works of the Western intellectual canon. The three ballets each correspond to one of the books of Dante’s Divina Commedia: The Mission of Virgil to Inferno, The Great Procession to Purgatorio, and The River of Light to Paradiso; although rather than attempting to mirror the whole of Dante’s narrative, Wuorinen’s music relates to the detail and atmosphere of the books.
By David Denton
Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938)
The Dante Trilogy
Charles Wuorinen wrote The Dante Trilogy between 1993 and 1996 for Peter Martins and the New York City Ballet, for whom he had previously written his cello concerto Five and the Mozart-inspired Delight of the Muses. The three Dante ballets each correspond to one of the books of the Commedia: The Mission of Virgil to Inferno, The Great Procession to Purgatorio, and The River of Light to Paradiso. For practicality's sake, each ballet exists in both chamber and orchestral versions. The chamber version of The Mission of Virgil is scored for two pianos, The Great Procession for six players (flute/piccolo, violin, clarinet/bass clarinet, cello, percussion, and piano), and The River of Light for thirteen players (flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, three percussion, harp, piano, celesta, violin, viola, cello, contrabass). The chamber version of The Great Procession was written for the New York New Music Ensemble on a commission from the Christian Humann Foundation; the New York City Ballet commissioned the orchestral version.
In his long composing life, Wuorinen has drawn on an extremely wide range of intellectual and musical inspirations, including many from science and literature. The Dante Trilogy is among his most ambitious, its source one of the great works of the Western intellectual canon. Almost seven hundred years after its composition, Dante's Commedia remains one of the supreme poetic expressions of Christian culture, mixed liberally with Classical myth, literature, and history. This great synthesis in three parts has fired the imaginations of innumerable of the poet's successors in all the arts, inspired in part by what scholar and translator Allen Mandelbaum, commenting on the Paradiso, calls "the stupendous symbiosis between philosophical stringency and poetic technique that is one of the [poem's] chief triumphs."
Charles Wuorinen's music relates to detail and atmosphere, rather than attempting to mirror the whole of Dante's narrative; the composer knows that any such attempt must fail to respect the scope of the poet's achievement. In describing The Mission of Virgil, Wuorinen makes a point of letting us know that its episodes are not meant to be taken as illustrating the action or even the personalities or archetypes we encounter in the Inferno: "Rather, certain isolated incidents, relationships, images, remarks, names are made the springboard for a musical fabric which also reflects certain basic aspects of the poem's word-structure: its eleven-syllable lines, its three-line stanzas, its rhyme scheme, its obsession with the number seven, and so forth." And of The River of Light: "…the music is in no sense narrative, indeed hardly even referential at all."
Although obscurity is not the point either — any more so than in Dante, in spite of the density of the poem — only some of the structural details are immediately apparent, mostly on a grosser scale, but these can be rather satisfying. Wuorinen picks up on Dante's frequent use of textual and narrative echoes, that is, specular or mirroring moments. Within the Commedia these round off and contain individual cantos, groups of cantos or ideas (for example, the nine circles of Hell dividing into groups of three), and connect even between books to tie together the entire poem (the description of Satan at the end of Inferno being mirrored in that of the Griffin near the end of Purgatorio).
The Mission of Virgil is a ballet in seven parts with a Prelude, and the third, fourth, and fifth episodes each have three inner divisions. On the largest scale we can hear a definite relationship between the Prelude and the final episode [Track 8], Journey through the Center: that is, travel toward, and then away from, Hell. Similar expressions of form linked to the idea of motion occur on a smaller scale as well. In the fourth episode , Paolo and Francesca, short passages in swirling triplets, marked in the score "Arrival" and "Departure" (and themselves made up of a doubled phrase) flank the bulk of the movement ("Story"), which corresponds to Francesca's narrative. The first episode , The Flight from the Three Beasts, is all motion. This is Dante's Canto I, in which the Traveler, lost in a dark wood, attempts to climb a sunlit hill and is hindered by a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf before encountering Virgil.
The episodes The Mission of Virgil  and Paolo and Francesca involve specific stories-within-the-story that make up most of the Commedia. The Mission of Virgil relates to Virgil's narrative of Beatrice's arrival in Limbo, where Virgil spends eternity, to enlist the poet's help in leading Virgil through Hell and Purgatory. The "Story" central section of the Paolo and Francesca (da Rimini) episode refers to Francesca's tale of her doomed love for her brother-in-law and their murder at the hands of her husband. Both of these passages show extremely flexible rhythm and phrase and might suggest a similar choreographic approach, although The Mission of Virgil is relatively calm, while Paolo and Francesca gradually builds to a breathless climax.
In Limbo (episode three; ), which is Dante's Canto IV, Wuorinen divides the movement into five parts: opening (a stately march) and closing (a feeling of suspension) transitions, plus passages for the unbaptized but virtuous Poets (beginning about 0:24), Warriors (1:16), and Philosophers (2:15), whose ranks include Homer and Ovid, Electra and Hector, Aristotle and Ptolemy. The three central sections are clearly delineated by tempo and character.
In the fifth episode , Monsters of the Prime, Wuorinen brings together three of the book's monsters. This episode begins with a falling chromatic scale deep in the bass and sharply accented, an early warning of which we had already in the Prelude. This figure separates one monster from another. The first, Geryon, comes from Canto XVII, where that "effigy of fraud" guards the Hell of the usurers within the seventh level. One musical feature here is a four-pitch cluster in the highest range of the keyboard. Nimrod (appearing at 1:43) is the Biblical Giant who sinned by ordering the building of the Tower of Babel. He and Antaeus (3:17), two of the giants guarding the lowest circle of Hell, are encountered in Canto XXXI. The Antaeus section features many single-pitch tremolos. The sixth episode  of The Mission of Virgil is devoted solely to Satan himself. This episode combines some of the musical details of the three earlier monsters; it too ends with the foreboding chromatic bass figure. Wuorinen's music for these monsters suggests not only the initial fear of the Traveler but the irony and even humor with which Dante treats the reader's encounters with them.
To conclude the ballet, episode seven  is not only a musical bookend to the Prelude but perhaps a consideration of the relief the two travelers must feel after the intensity of the first part of their journey and their curiosity about the further mysteries they will find revealed as they move forward.
Whereas in The Mission of Virgil Wuorinen touches on events and characters from throughout Inferno, the second ballet of The Dante Trilogy, The Great Procession, is linked mostly to one canto, XXIX of Purgatorio. The ballet is in seven sections plus a brief refrain that occurs four times. The positioning of the refrains gives the eleven-part work a symmetrical overall shape. Seven and eleven are, of course, both important numbers for Dante. The first five main sections pertain to the procession itself: the seven great candelabras probably representing the seven-fold nature of God (the Trinity plus four, the number of the world); the 24 Elders, authors of the books of the Old Testament; the two-wheeled Chariot, representing the Church; the Griffin, thought to mean Christ; and the Seven Virtues, represented by women dancing on either side of the chariot. Much of this Dante took from the Biblical book of Revelation. The sixth and seventh parts are The Departure and The Unveiling — the departure of the procession, and the lifting of Beatrice's veil.
The opening of the piece is scored for vibes with piano, joined quickly by the other pitched instruments in a short passage reminiscent of The Mission of Virgil Prelude. The main body of the movement is in a new tempo, the texture complex but the forward motion deliberate, even march-like. Another brief (ca. 18") passage of a faster tempo leads to a cadence. Next is the refrain: no matter where it occurs, the refrain ratchets up the energy of the piece for its short passage, about twenty-five seconds. One gets the feeling of excitement and anticipation.
The second episode, The Elders, features linear writing with much direct and implied imitation in fragments and phrases. The movement is about two minutes long, with a constant tempo. The Chariot follows. The meter is a flowing 9/8, which is unique in this piece (9/8 is also the meter of the start of The Unveiling but the tempo, and effect, are quite different). The Chariot is divided into two parts, about 2'05" each, with each beginning with the piano figure at the start of the movement. The second part is not a repeat of the first, although some of the figures are revisited.
After another statement of the refrain, we reach the central and longest movement of the ballet, The Griffin, which in the procession pulls the chariot. This is the most contemplative and solemn of the episodes. It also hinges at the middle, where a short tolling chorale is flanked by brief active passages. The Griffin, part lion, part eagle, is meant to represent the two-part nature of Christ (man and deity).
Following the refrain is The Seven Virtues, which is cast throughout in 7/8, although the texture is light and flowing, without being locked down to this asymmetrical meter. There is a clear relationship between this movement and The Seven Lights in tempo, duration, and mood. The Seven Virtues are the three Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love, and the four Cardinal Virtues, Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice. Prudence has three eyes.
The following movement, The Departure, is linked by tempo, mood, and its position within the symmetry of the whole to The Elders, although in this episode ensemble groupings are more prevalent and there is little of the imitative writing of the earlier movement. The departure of the procession take place at the start of Canto XXXII, after Dante has been washed clean of the memory of sin by the waters of the River Lethe and is allowed to continue into Paradise.
After a final iteration of the refrain comes The Unveiling. The righteous Beatrice has remained veiled while chastising Dante for various reasons; at the end of Canto XXXI the three Theological Virtues, as a body, sing to Beatrice to reveal her mouth to Dante. Along with her eyes, Beatrice's mouth is, to the poet, her great beauty, and seeing it thus a high reward. This movement is unique and has no pairings with other movements of the ballet, although it balances its opposite, The Griffin, also a unique movement. The Unveiling also has a clear structure in two parts of equal length, with, at the very end of the piece, a very short coda referring back to the refrain.
Wuorinen describes the final ballet of his trilogy, The River of Light, as "reflective of aspects of Dante's cosmology, and on a more mundane level of his versification technique. And of course it is suffused with my response to the extraordinary beauties of the poem itself, and what it means to convey." Wuorinen's treatment of the poem in this ballet is in keeping with the poet's evolving approach. Unlike the first two ballets, there is no indication in the score of any specific link between a musical passage and a specific episode in Paradiso. The piece is a single movement whose largest structures are delineated by changes in tempo and harmonic movement, defined further by instrumentation and character. Here are a few things to listen for to help clarify the larger form.
The piece opens with a transparent passage at a moderate tempo, somewhat piano-heavy but involving the whole ensemble. The first three sections come together as a group, linked by tempo, and each section has a particular timbre, for example the crotales in the third part.
The next two sections are paired: The first is sustained and calm, with a balanced, transparent use of the ensemble. This is followed by the most intense music yet at a much faster but closely related tempo.
The next, stand-alone section is the most energetic and aggressive music of the piece. It hinges in the middle, following the recurrence of the piano solo (echoing from earlier in the piece). Winds and strings push the action while percussion and piano take brief virtuosic turns. A tom-tom break at the end of the movement mirrors the piano's outburst.
The next short section has a much slower tempo with a foundation of heavy accents, solemn, dark, and ritualistic. This section ushers in a long series of passages of a nature more subdued than in the first half (or so) of the ballet. There is no greater contrast in the piece than between this hushed music and the powerfully majestic final three minutes. Strongly accented, tolling chords in piano and percussion form a backdrop for long and lyrical melody in near-unison in oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello, while the piccolo plays flourishes in the stratosphere. It's a remarkable way to end the piece, and draws together all the energy of the whole trilogy with high and solemn drama. It is difficult not to link this particular passage with the end of Paradiso, Dante's arrival in the Empyrean and the achievement of his heart's desire.
Robert Kirzinger is on the staff of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as a writer, editor, and pre-concert speaker. He is also a composer.