Almost every composer has been inspired to write at least one piece of music based on a work of literature. Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy has indeed inspired a great number of composers. One of these was Franz Liszt. He first became interested in the work in the early 1830’s upon being introduced to it by his mistress of the time, Marie D’Agoult.
First Liszt composed his Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata also knows as the “Dante” Sonata for solo piano. However, he always intended to write a large scale orchestral work based on the poetry. He didn’t do this until his most productive years during his conducting post in Weimar.
The “Dante” Symphony (Eine Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia) was composed during the same period in which Liszt composed his “Faust” Symphony. Liszt intended to write a seperate movement for each section of the Divine Comedy: “Inferno”, “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso.” However, Liszt’s friend and soon to become son-in-law, Richard Wagner convinced Liszt that it wasn’t possible for a mere mortal to portray Paradise in music. Thus, much to the detriment of the work, Liszt reconsidered the work and instead inserted a choral version of the Magnificat. It does not fit into the structure and texture of the symphony and many feel this explains its absence from the general symphonic repertory.
The first movement is in ternary form and seeks to portray the characters that Dante describes in his version of hell. Liszt illustrates his intent for the poetry and music to become one by frequently including verses from the poem underneath the score of the work almost as if it is set to be sung. Liszt’s orchestration paints a vivid picture with the use of low brasses and double basses followed by the high brasses as if echoing the inscription above the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter.” The first section of the movement reaches a thundering climax representing the emotional state of Dante as he begins his journey through hell.
The middle section of the movement focuses on the tragic tale of the lovers Francesca and Paola, a subject that would later be the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini. Liszt now uses the full sentimental power of the strings, flutes and harp as opposed to his crashing brass as in the first section. Following a cadenza for the harp, the finale proceeds with a crash once again. Here Liszt marks the movement as “blasphemous and sardonic.” The first movement finishes with an intense, blaring conclusion.
The second movement, Purgatorio, is far more quiet and reflective as Dante passes from the terrifying Inferno into the relatively blissful by comparison Purgatory. Liszt employs a reverent fugue based much on the descending melodic motif used in the first movement. After the women’s voices issue the final Magnificat, the movement ends in a state of tranquility. Liszt eventually composed a version that ends with a fortissimo passage, however, it is considered a radical alternative to the first version.
Liszt wrote a tremendous amount of programattic music, that is music that is intended to tell a story. In fact, he probably wrote more of this type of music than any other composer. He is considered the father of the now popular form of the Symphonic Poem. Indeed he was a true master at using his music to portray different stories or images.