La Divina Commedia
Sounds from an otherworldly elsewhere
“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”, goes the ominous inscription on the hellgate in La Divina Commedia. This masterpiece by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) pictures a virtual journey through the hereafter. In hundred cantos, Dante travels through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio), and paradise (Paradiso). MAfestival 2017 follows in his footsteps for a musical pilgrimage from Hades to heaven.
In our musical underworld, Orpheus claims centre stage. The story of the mythical singer-songwriter resounds in iconic settings by Monteverdi and Charpentier. But the festival also focuses on the distressing metaphor of war as an inferno. Just like Dante in his own time, Heinrich Schütz, William Lawes and many other composers survived tumultuous war years. It is only posthumously that their music can silence the guns. The Missa L’homme armé by Cristóbal de Morales is one of the most beautiful polyphonic masses echoing the age-old song of the armed man.
In purgatory, repentant souls beg for mercy. Their fragile hymns and penitential psalms inspired innumerable composers, from Charpentier and Scheidemann to Andriessen and Foccroulle. In the ethereal firmaments of paradise, angelic choirs chant, and the harmony of the spheres prevails. What this harmony really sounds like will be demonstrated in a lecture by Katrien Kolenberg, a professor of astrophysics specialising in cosmic music.
The closer Dante gets to his ultimate destination, the more the symbolic and theological import of his magnum opus increases. MAfestival 2017 zooms in on two protagonists of La Divina Commedia who irradiate the poem like a diadem of divine light: the Virgin Mary, who is celebrated in Josquin’s Ave Maria; and the Messiah Himself, whose ultimate sacrifice is central to Liszt’s Via Crucis. The magnificent Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is a fitting apotheosis to this festival edition.
The illustrious Beatrice accompanies Dante on his journey from mortal to celestial paradise. Sometimes his idealised lover is presented as a flesh-and-blood female, at other times as a symbol of divine wisdom. A comparable resonance between carnal and spiritual love fuels The Allegory of Desire, a programme focusing on the Song of Songs in Eastern and Western traditions. Celestial love and its hellish torments, finally, feature prominently in the courtly troubadour repertoire: Bertrand de Born, Arnaut Daniel, and other “orpheic” minnesingers who pass before our eyes in Dante’s Commedia, should not be absent on the festival programme.
What awaits us after death? Will the “otherworldly elsewhere” (Jeroen Brouwer’s term) resemble what Dante forestalls? Pending a conclusive answer, we’d better make the best of it in the here and now. This mission will keep man in motion, in eternal pursuit of joy and mercy. For some, the quest revolves around spiritual, intellectual or corporeal development. For others – like the refugees who land in Europe – it remains a life and death reality. The dreamt-of paradise and the dreaded inferno are often much closer than we want. But if Dante could teach us one thing these days, then it is that we should never despair – in spite of all warnings.
Translation: Stefan Grondelaers