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  • Writer's pictureCharles Arrowsmith

Essay: Dante by Thomas Adès and the LA Phil (Nonesuch Records)

Updated: Oct 14, 2023

Liner note for the world premiere recording of Thomas Adès's Dante by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. Released by Nonesuch Records, April 21, 2023.


Thomas Adès, 2019–20

Dante’s vernacular epic the Divine Comedy (the Commedia) is a journey to the stars, from the frozen depths of hell to the blinding sublimity of heaven. Virgil, Roman poet of the Aeneid, is Dante’s sherpa on his descent through hell and his climb up the mysterious mountain Purgatorio. There, he is delivered unto Beatrice, a woman from Dante’s real life rendered divine in poetry, who accompanies him through paradise towards the vision of God that brings the poem to its end — in T.S. Eliot’s breathless summation, “the highest point that poetry has ever reached or ever can reach.” Seven hundred years after Dante’s death, answering a joint commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Royal Ballet, composer Thomas Adès has become for concertgoers a second Virgil-Beatrice, marshaling a full-strength orchestra to transpose the Commedia into his own remarkable musical language.

The cosmology and vast scope of the Commedia place enormous demands on anyone seeking to adapt it. Musical works inspired by Dante have typically focused on isolated characters or episodes — Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, for example, or Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasia Francesca da Rimini. Liszt, a devotee of the Commedia, recast the Inferno and the Purgatorio as a diptych by turns frenzied and exquisite in his Dante Symphony, hitherto perhaps the most prominent version of the poem in music. Adès goes a step further, adding a complete Paradiso ballet — though he acknowledges his debt to his Hungarian forebear: “Dante had Virgil to guide him through, I had Liszt. And there couldn’t be a better guide to Hell than Liszt.”

The Commedia’s complex topography, encompassing both the vertiginous verticality of Inferno and the helical mesmerism of Paradiso, is a great subject for Adès’s musical imagination. His perception of music as a kind of terrain took root early and has arguably become a central feature of his orchestral music. Listening to Schubert, Stravinsky and Smetana as a child at his grandmother’s house, he remembers the pieces having “physical dimensions”: “I didn't feel them as music, I felt them as landscape.”

Throughout his career, Adès has explored extremities of pitch, dynamic and texture in forging metaphors for both underworld depths and celestial heights. The orchestra has become, in his music, a vehicle for journeying through space and time. Early indications of his cosmic interests could be heard in the compulsive oscillations of Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths,’ whose very name suggests a flight path through space. The theme was developed in the orbital progress of Tevot (a Hebrew word that connotes at once a musical measure, Noah’s ark and Moses’ cradle) and the astral pointillism of Polaris (a “Voyage for Orchestra”). Closer to earth, the piano concerto In Seven Days recounts the creation myth of Genesis from the ocean floor up, while Totentanz translates a medieval frieze depicting the Dance of Death into a diabolical oratorio of divine judgment — good preparation, perhaps, for Dante.

Recalling his first encounter with the Commedia, in Dorothy L. Sayers’s translation, Adès describes being struck by the geography of the poem. “The physical depth of Hell and the height of Paradise,” he says, “Purgatory as a magic mountain in the southern hemisphere, therefore upside down, and the no-holds-barred imagery, all took my breath away.” Dante is a musical rendering of this landscape — and a transcendental journey through it.

It is a colossal piece of music. As the New York Times declared after the L.A. premiere of Dante in 2022, it’s “one of the rarest creatures in classical music: a new evening-length work.” It’s also an epic new ballet — a first for Adès — designed for a large troupe of dancers and orchestrated in Romantic Technicolor. But while the economics of performance will sadly limit full stagings of The Dante Project, as it was known in Covent Garden, Dante is certain to become a performance staple, with or without the choreography by Wayne McGregor and art direction by Tacita Dean that accompanied its celebrated debut in London in 2021. This world premiere recording by the LA Philharmonic, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel, was made at concerts performed in April 2022 at the Walt Disney Concert Hall without dancers.

I. Inferno

Dante begins with a terrifying pincer movement as sawing strings and panicked trumpets mount an aerial attack while an ominous chromatic ascent launches in the lower brass and basses. “Abandon Hope” conjures a petrifying vision of the gates to the underworld. Adès, taking his cues from Liszt, establishes for his hell a fiercely dramatic musical lexicon and a percussive, syncopated grammar.

Inferno, which makes up half of Dante’s running time, finds Adès in antic mode, quoting Liszt and Puccini and Berlioz, filtering conventional forms of dance music through his own distinctive rhythmic and harmonic complexities to represent the changing scenes of the Inferno. In the musical vignettes that follow the jump-scare opening, Dante and Virgil journey through hell and encounter the damned in all their variety: the selfish and the gluttonous, the suicides and the deviants, the fortune-tellers, simoniac popes, hypocrites and thieves.

Dividing the Inferno into thirteen episodes gives Adès ample scope for varying texture and register. The sinuous cor anglais solo that accompanies the ferryman, Charon, who transports Dante and Virgil across the Acheron and into eternal darkness, offers an unsettling change of pace early on, while the “Pavan of the Souls in Limbo” — a lament for those who lived virtuously but without faith, and who must therefore remain in hell — finds moving musical analogues for the restiveness of its subjects in fluctuating time signatures and unresolved serial motion.

For all its portentousness, Inferno is often a riot, a cavalcade of rambunctious Romantic pastiches, executed with devilish brio. Adès takes wicked pleasure in perverting a world of balletic sweetness perhaps redolent for many listeners of excursions to The Nutcracker’s toyland. “I thought that the most exciting thing for a ballet would be the eerie sense of doing it quite traditionally, but in hell,” he said; “to remind people of the world of Tchaikovsky but then take them somewhere else.”

When Inferno premiered as a standalone work in 2019, there was applause at the triumphal fortississimo ending of the dance of “The Thieves.” But in a Dantescan turn of logic, Inferno has one final lesson — a warning to remain ever on guard against evil. Here, in its chilling coda, at the deepest level of hell — colossal, three-faced, encased in ice, clawing and biting at Judas Iscariot and the murderers of Julius Caesar (in Dante’s worldview, the most appalling of traitors) — lies Satan.

There is no further to go in hell.

II. Purgatorio

We emerge into starlight and an eerie new soundscape. For a minute, white noise — breeze, maybe, or a seashore: woodwind without reeds, brass with mouthpiece inverted, strings damped, a thunder tube breathing raggedly in the percussion. Then, a voice: the pre-recorded sound of a khazan (cantor) incanting baqashot, or pre-dawn prayers. This Sephardic custom, rarely observed now, is closely associated these days with the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem, built as a place of asylum for Syrian Jewish émigrés — and the origin of this recording. (Also, as its name suggests, a venue with a familial connection to our composer.)

The voice of the khazan is a gateway to Dante’s purgatory, where the penitent purge themselves of sin in preparation for entering paradise. Adès has spoken of this movement, with its desert-wind opening, as a kind of “cleansing… after the high emotions, tension and colours of Inferno.” And just as the demotic Tuscan dialect in which Dante wrote the Inferno shifts into an increasingly abstract and elevated register as the poem proceeds, so Adès progressively introduces new colors to his musical palette in Purgatorio. After the horror-movie stylings and pagan frivolity of the first movement, we are introduced to Middle Eastern inflections, music in a somber, more stately register.

The prayers provide an apt musical throughline for the listener — as Adès has himself observed, “Purgatorio is the most full of singing: hosts of souls drift by singing the Psalms.” But they are more than mere illustration. If Inferno is episodic, Purgatorio has a clear arc. Instead of a series of dramatic encounters, there is a growing sense as the baqashot develop that we are moving through stages in a process — a process, perhaps, of sanctification. “The Healing Fire,” which places the recorded voices in poignant counterpoint with the strings in an exquisite cantabile arrangement, feels like the musical embodiment of this idea.

“The Earthly Paradise,” with its flutes, tubular bells, glockenspiel, harp and strings, strikes a chord of enchantment as the music builds towards its uplifting conclusion. “The Heavenly Procession,” a simple heroic theme introduced on the trumpet before being taken up by the flutes, piccolo and finally the recorded voice, gives way to “The Ascent,” a finale scored majestically and sonorously in B major — a key Adès has elsewhere claimed has “a divine glow.” We end as we began: in the light of the stars.

III. Paradiso

From its opening flourish, Paradiso envisions a third utterly distinct musical world. Tremulous figures in the strings are soon joined by a half-discerned phrase in the winds, its shape evolving with each fresh iteration. The development of this emerging theme in the course of the ballet frames the music of paradise as a kind of glorious algorithm, a machine in perpetual search of divine resolution.

Paradiso, for our composer, is “dazzling, strange, almost pure geometry.” Its subject, per Dante, is that which, by its nature, cannot be described in words. This obliqueness of meaning offers Adès an opportunity to explore on a vast canvas a number of ideas that have long been central to his music, including his fascination with spirals, the instability of musical notes, and the “magnetic forces” within them. Everything builds towards the revelatory perfection of paradise.

“[T]he moment a note is written down, for me,” Adès has said, “it immediately starts to move, it starts to slide down the page or up the page or move around. The extent to which you bully it and push it towards stability — that’s what creates the energy in the piece and defines its position relative to reality.” So it is in Paradiso, in which arching figures rise and fall in different rhythms, time signatures and keys, pursuing elusive stability, seeking perfection; as metaphor, it’s entirely in tune with the Commedia.

The fructuous restlessness of Adès’s music in this movement generates what might be described as an ecstasy of musical anticipation. The ascendent harmonic journey is also a celestial one — past the moon, the planets and the sun towards the “Fixed Stars” and, ultimately, the “Empyrean,” the fiery heavenly sphere. As we approach the end of the journey, a long-suspended deliverance at last begins to feel inevitable.

The surprise advent of an offstage female choir just as the music is poised on the threshold of resolution (a callback to Liszt) is a moment of pure theatrical magic — of revelation, almost. Then, in the last, divine climax in C, a key Adès once described as “a human key… the people’s key,” the orchestra is finally irradiated by the percussion. A downpour of blinding sound brings the curtain down — and thus Dante transcends.

It has often been noted that the three cantiche of the Commedia conclude with the same word: “stelle,” or “stars.” They are what Dante sees when he emerges from hell; when he stands ready to ascend to heaven; and in the closing lines of the poem, when his understanding of love and God reach their inexpressible apotheosis. The critic Eric Griffiths was moved by this feature of the poem to suggest that “Dante had stars in his ears.” It’s a stroke of fortune for the great Italian poet, seven centuries after he himself merged with the stars, to have found in Thomas Adès a composer similarly inspired.

—Charles Arrowsmith, August 2022

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