Academic journal article Italica

Twentieth-Century Musical Interpretations of the `Anti-Music' of Dante's Inferno

Academic journal article Italica

Twentieth-Century Musical Interpretations of the `Anti-Music' of Dante's Inferno

Article excerpt

While Dante-protagonist travels through Hell, he describes his experience with rich, vivid imagery. In this imagery he features music, often reporting his impressions first aurally and then visually. For example, as he enters Hell, he relates that it is filled with cries:

   Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai
   risonavan per l'aere sanza stelle,
   per ch'io al cominciar ne lagrimai.
   Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,
   parole di dolore, accenti d'ira,
   voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle
   facevano un tumulto, il qual s'aggira
   sempre in quell'aura sanza tempo tinta,
   come la rena quando turbo spira. (1) (III, 22-30)

He devotes three full terzinas to the sounds of the wailing, and mentions what he sees almost as an afterthought when he asks Virgil, "... Maestro, che e quel ch'i'odo? / e che gent'e che par nel duol si vinta?" (vv. 32-33).

The musical sounds Dante features in Inferno, however, are not the traditional musicals sounds to which we are accustomed. Rather, they consist of a kind of `anti-music,' a music that is antithetical to human music. Dante himself does not use this term; it was coined by Edoardo Sanguineti:

   In the Inferno, we are not dealing with a simple and absolute absence, an
   inert lacuna, which is determined and cultivated in functional opposition
   to the rich musical development of the two later canticles. More precisely,
   this contrast should be regarded as ... a calculated difference between
   various `soundscapes'. In fact, the soundscape of Hell has specific
   characteristics that cannot be reduced to a mere musical emptiness.
   Instead, they are resolved ... in a meditated meaningful plenitude of
   `anti-music,' primarily in a vocality oriented towards disharmonic
   harshness and acoustic unpleasantness ... the sound space is occupied
   almost exclusively by screams and lamentations or, to be precise, by a
   degraded human and demonic vocality in the inevitable register of crying
   and teeth grinding. (2)

This perverted type of music is so horrible that it is overwhelming and Dante must ultimately cover his human ears (XXIX, 43-45). What makes it so horrible is that it is truly `anti-music' in that it represents a perversion of everything that is conventional to music. Completely lacking in order, it is usually composed of cries and lamentations (a perverted form of vocal music); it is sometimes even produced by body parts (a perverted form of instrumental music); and it is often connected to writhing bodies (a perverted kind of dance).

The primary `music' or `anti-music' of Inferno is vocal; it is composed of the cries and screams of the souls. It is generally characterized by a musical crescendo-decrescendo. While Dante describes music immediately at the entrance to Hell, he does not describe a crescendo until he enters the circle of the lustful. Here he relates the "dolenti note" and "molto pianto" to the sounds heard in a storm at sea. The sounds get even louder as the souls "... giungon davanti alla ruina, / quivi le strida, il compianto, il lamento; / bestemmian quivi la virtu divina" (V, 34-36). The music continues to grow in loudness and intensity until just before the conclusion of Ugolino's story (XXXIII), when it finally dies in a dramatic decrescendo culminating with Brutus, Cassius, and Judas, who are mute and deaf, unable even to cry. (3)

Dante also uses musical images and references to song to describe the gloominess and the horrors of Hell. The lustful souls cry "come gru van cantando lor lai" (V, 46), the diviners are silent and weeping, advancing "... al passo / che fanno le letane in questo mondo" (XX, 8-9), and Virgil parodies a liturgical hymn traditionally sung during Holy Week in honor of the Cross in order to proclaim the presence of Satan (XXXIV, 1).

Another kind of `anti-music' Dante describes in Hell seems to be of an instrumental nature, yet it is rarely created by instruments. …

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