Words and Music 13 – Il Cor Tristo

In the late nineties I was producer for the Naxos Audiobook recordings of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in a new English translation by Benedict Flynn.  The reader was the extraordinary Heathcote Williams who died in July 2017.

I knew nothing at the time about Heathcote, his poetry, his political writing or his acting; but I quickly found out that he was the kind of person who commanded respect and attention without needing to say very much.  This was also true of his reading.  When he began to read the first lines of Inferno I was mesmerised.  I hadn’t anticipated the slowness of delivery or the richness and seductiveness of his voice.  He drew the listener in, and made the hardest of lines sound magical.  And all this while often not fully understanding himself what he was reading.  In those cases he would sometimes stop, sigh and ask me: ‘Roger – who is this speaking now?’  Sometimes I was stuck for an answer, having been carried along by the magic of his voice and temporarily lost the plot myself.

The Divine Comedy, written by Dante between 1308 and 1320, is an epic narrative poem describing an imagined journey by the poet through the regions of the afterlife.  There are three books: Inferno (Hell) Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Paradise), comprising a total of 100 ‘cantos’, or chapters, each consisting of around 140 lines divided into three-line stanzas with a strict rhyme scheme (Terza Rima).  The Inferno is perhaps the best known part of the trilogy, because the incredible images presented there have captured the imagination of every generation of readers since its publication: sinners arranged according to the gravity of their sins on terraces around a pit which spirals down to the centre of Hell, where Dante discovers Lucifer himself.  People are turned to trees, pulled apart by demons, wrapped by snakes, buried head down with flames burning their feet.  At the centre of Hell Dante finds, not fire, but a frozen lake in which the worst of all sinners are encased up to their neck.  Those whose sins were simply terrible have their faces bowed towards the ice.  Those whose sins were even worse look upwards, so that their tears freeze over…..

During his journey, Dante meets many historical figures, some from antiquity and some quite recently deceased (and thus with contemporary relevance for Dante’s first readers). For the most part these characters are described or commented upon in passing; in some cases they speak directly to Dante.  There is only one instance of a soul telling Dante the whole story of how they came to be there, and that is the story told by Count Ugolino (Inferno XXXIII).  He is one of those trapped in the frozen lake, where Dante finds him eating the back of the head of the soul in front of him.  Intrigued by this, Dante asks for an explanation, and Ugolino, raising his head from ‘his savage meal’, gives it in full.  He describes how he was imprisoned with all his family in a tower in Pisa, on the instructions of his enemy Archbishop Ruggiero.  It is Ruggiero on whose head he has been feasting.  Ugolino tells how, after weeks of incarceration in the tower, his entire family starved to death before his eyes, before he too eventually succumbed to hunger.  There may be a suggestion that he ate his own children, which would explain why he finds himself in the lowest rung of Hell.  As I heard Heathcote Williams reading this moving passage, I began to think how exciting it would be to bring this tale to life in music.  But the tale is told over about 150 lines of verse.  How would I do that?

Since the 1970s I have experimented with a variety of ways in which detailed narrative can be preserved in a musical context. I have discussed this in earlier blogs in relation to, for example, Samson and The Song of Abigail.  In those pieces I opted for Japanese inspired chant (in the case of the music theatre piece Samson) and a combination of chant and spoken text (in the case of the voice and ensemble piece The Song of Abigail).   By the time I had an opportunity to attempt a musical version of Ugolino I had, in Pierrot Lunaire – 50 Rondels Bergamasques (2001), shed most of the modernist characteristics of my earlier music.  In part this may have been influenced by the fact that I was writing for unknown a-capella voices, and for the Hilliard Ensemble, who made a point of warning composers away from writing extended techniques for them.  But it was also a response to the somewhat antique simplicity of Giraud’s verses (see Words and Music 9 and 10).  In any case, the directness of the musical style pleased me, and also pleased the Hilliard Ensemble, who later commissioned a new work specifically for themselves.  They wanted something for a concert in the Sagra Musicale Umbra festival in Perugia, which would be a programme of Renaissance settings of Petrarch by Pisaro and Arcadelt.  Dante was perfect for this.  In Pierrot Lunaire I had fretted over whether to set the poems in French or in English, finally deciding to use both.  This time, given that I was writing for a programme of Petrarch settings, and for a premiere in Perugia, the question of which language to employ was easily answered.  Translations of Dante always fall short in terms of the power of his writing.  The strong Italian word endings which make the Terza Rima possible cannot be replicated in English, and translations invariably lack the rhythm and beauty of the original.  The biggest question for me was how to keep a conventionally sung piece musically interesting, while at the same time allowing the power of Dante’s language to remain the main focus. It was important to me that the text should remain intact, and that an Italian speaking audience should be able to follow the words in performance.  This meant no counterpoint and a primarily syllabic setting.  And because the Hilliards’ USP is the distinctive blend of the four voices (counter tenor, two tenors and a bass), I leaned towards close harmony and largely homophonic textures.

One of the problems in setting these verses is the constantly changing ‘voice’. The principle narrator is Dante himself, describing his journey and everything he encounters along the way in great detail.  This includes reported speech prefaced by ‘he said’, ‘said I’, ‘then I heard said to me’ etc. The reported speech, in the voice of the character speaking, sometimes also includes further reported speech within itself.   Here is an example of how frequently the narrative voice can change; the last two lines are speech within a speech:

Io avea già i capelli in mano avvolti,
 e tratto glien’avea più d’una ciocca,
 latrando lui con li occhi in giù raccolti,
 I already had his hair twisted in my hand,
 and had pulled out more than one clump,
 he barking, with his eyes held down,
quando un altro gridò: “Che hai tu, Bocca?
 non ti basta sonar con le mascelle,
 se tu non latri? qual diavol ti tocca?”.
when another cried out, “What’s up,Bocca?
 Haven’t you made enough noise with your jaws,
 but you must bark? What devil is at you?”
“Omai”, diss’io, “non vo’ che più favelle,
 malvagio traditor; ch’a la tua onta
 io porterò di te vere novelle”.
“Enough,” said I, “I don’t need you to speak,
  accursed traitor; for I’ll record  your shame
  and carry back true news of you.”
“Va via”, rispuose, “e ciò che tu vuoi conta;
 ma non tacer, se tu di qua entro eschi,
 di quel ch’ebbe or così la lingua pronta.
“Begone,” he answered, “and write what you like;
  but be not silent, if you get out of here,
  about that one who just yelled out at me.
El piange qui l’argento de’ Franceschi:
 “Io vidi”, potrai dir, “quel da Duera
 là dove i peccatori stanno freschi”
He moans here about the Frenchman’s money:
 “I saw”, you can say, “him of Duera,
  there where the sinners are put to freeze.”.

I suppose the model for the piece I wrote – Il Cor Tristo – was the dramatic madrigals of Monteverdi; pieces like Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, which is problematic as a drama precisely because the story is told in large part through third person narration.  I can honestly say, however, that I did not consciously refer to that piece, but rather I instinctively adopted Monteverdi’s way of characterizing the different levels of narration.  Simply put, a rather neutral chord in various inversions forms the basis for mundane narrative passages and speech tags, sung in four part homophony, while first person speech and moments of heightened drama have more melodic content, and often feature a solo voice supported or echoed by the other three.  I surprised myself by writing a lot of the piece in f minor, to the extent that only in the third and final movement did I concede the use of key signatures, and then only because the slow pace of the music means that key changes are not too frequent.  I could have gone back and inserted key signatures in the first two movements, but the truth is that I had not been thinking in terms of keys while composing them and I felt it would have been pedantic.  Not once have the Hilliard Ensemble suggested that key signatures would help, so I have left the score that way.

After the premiere in Perugia, the festival director congratulated me on the clarity of the setting, pointing out just one wrongly stressed word.  That pleased me, because I had been very careful about correct scansion, and with Dante’s archaic Italian that is not always straightforward.  I was greatly helped in this by my PhD student at the time, Marco Visconti Prasca.  Marco, in fact, saved me from a potentially very slippery banana skin.  I had decided to use a phrase from the text as the title for the piece: ‘Il Tristo Buco’ (The Pit of Sadness).  When I told Marco this, he shook his head and explained that in modern usage ‘buco’ means something other than ‘pit’: “You call your piece The Sad Arsehole”.  While perhaps a good description of me, that probably wouldn’t have gone down so well.


Il Cor Tristo on ECM records  

Hear excerpts here

Heathcote Williams reading the Opening of Inferno on Naxos Audiobooks    












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