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A Dante Sequence

Sunday 6 May 2007 22:15-0:00 (Radio 3)

Dante's journey from the infernal underworld to Paradise in The Divine Comedy has inspired writers and composers through the ages.

In this sequence, poems by WH Auden, Samuel Beckett, TS Eliot and Stevie Smith are interwoven with translations of the original by Benedict Flynn and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and music by Liszt, Messiaen and Salvatore Sciarrino.


1 hour 45 minutes

A Dante Sequence

Claire Higgins Claire Higgins

John Shrapnel John Shrapnel

A Dante Sequence

Readers: Heathcote Williams, Claire Higgins, John Shrapnel, Anton Lesser, and the late Bob Peck.

"Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them - there is no third." So wrote TS Eliot, for whom Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy was a life-long inspiration. The Florentine poet's masterpiece - a visionary journey from the infernal underworld of Hell to a paradise of universal harmony - was written in the early years of the 14th century, yet such is the power and timelessness of its poetry that its influence has permeated seven centuries of literature - much of it in the English language. Chaucer, Milton, Byron, Keats, Longfellow, the Brownings, Shelley, Tennyson, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, Stevie Smith, Samuel Beckett and WH Auden are among the many great writers who have echoed, imitated, translated and been inspired by Dante.

This sequence offers a counterpoint of 'Words and Music' with The Divine Comedy as its focal point. Extracts from Benedict Flynn's recent translation - a vivid, contemporary account of Dante - are read by Heathcote Williams and intercut with a late 19th-century version by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Along with Geoffrey Chaucer (for whom medieval Italian poetry held a particular allure), one of the earliest English writers to be inspired by Dante was the anonymous author of the 14th-century dream sequence 'Pearl'. This is an account of a bereft parent who has lost a child - the 'Pearl' of the title - and who travels to another world, an intoxicating garden of mysterious marvels, in which he meets his dead daughter in the bliss of Paradise. The dream is, perhaps indirectly but nonetheless strongly, influenced by Dante's journey into the afterlife, his encounter with his deceased beloved, Beatrice, and their ascent together to Paradise. This 'Words and Music' sequence includes two vocal pieces roughly contemporary with 'Pearl' from the English manuscript known as 'Old Hall: 'Salve porta paradisi' and 'Qualis est dilectus', the ecstatic words and sonorous harmonies of which complement both medieval poets' vision of Paradise.

Over two centuries later, John Milton was introduced to the writing of Dante at school, where he learnt Italian, and later during his travels in Italy, where he met the great Dante scholar Bonmatthei. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, Milton'sexploration of man's Fall and his salvation, are full of Dantean echoes, notably the vivid descriptions of Hell and Heaven which draw directly on imagery from The Divine Comedy. Milton was a friend of the composer Henry Lawes, whose dark, brooding consort music is used in the sequence alongside readings from Paradise Lost. We also hear 'Possente spirto' - Orpheus's incantation to Charon, ferryman of the River Styx in Hades, from Monteverdi's Orfeo.

The Romantic period gave rise to a flood of Dante translations and imitations, among the less well-known of which is an eloquent and stylish version of Inferno by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. "Dante's poetry seems to come down in hail rather than in rain," she commented to her husband Robert, expressively suggesting the sharp and chilling power of Dante's descriptive writing.

Like the Brownings, Franz Liszt was an ardent Italophile and several of his works were directly inspired by his readings of both Dante and Petrarch. His so-called 'Dante Sonnet', which we hear near the beginning of the programme, is a piano transcription of a song by Hans von Bulow, setting one of Dante's love poems to Beatrice in La Vita nuova - 'Tanto gentile e tanto onesta'.

It was perhaps the 20th century that produced some of the greatest literary works inspired by Dante's grim picture of the underworld as well as his radiant vision of Paradise: TS Eliot's Little Gidding; Auden's In the Year of my Youth, Stevie Smith's Francesca in Winter and Ezra Pound's Cantos, extracts from all of which are included in the programme. The stark, gritty language of these poets seems best reflected in music by their contemporaries: Britten's third string quartet - an aptly visionary swan-song, itself inspired by Italy - flows naturally after the words of his close artistic collaborator WH Auden; while Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time - an exploration in sound of the end of time and the beginning of eternity - mirrors the apocalyptic and seraphic extremes of the Commedia.

Chamber and instrumental music by the contemporary Sicilian composer Salvatore Sciarrino evocatively suggests the ghostly sights and sounds which Dante and his guide Virgil encounter on their journey: sighs, shrieks and the exhalations of agonised breath as the tormented souls of Hell endeavour to speak of their pain; the breathy whispering of the murdered lovers, Paolo and Francesca, consigned to float forever in the air fanned by infernal flames; or the ghoulish cries of souls shaped as disfigured trees. Sciarrino seems to be haunted by Dante's images of the underworld: indeed, 700 years on, The Divine Comedy is still exerting its extraordinary and profound influence.

(Kate Bolton - Producer)

Running Order

The Divine Comedy - Canto 1
Extracts translated by Benedict Flynn 1'40"
Read by Heathcote Williams
From CD: Naxos NA 431712

And trans. Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1'50
Read by Claire Higgins

Liszt: Dante Sonnet ('Tanto gentile e tanto onesta') 6'29
Leslie Howard (piano)
Hyperion CDA 67004

Dante: The Divine Comedy - Inferno
Extracts translated by Benedict Flynn 2'30
Read by Heathcote Williams

Thomas Damett: Salve porta paradis (Old Hall MS) 1'48
Hilliard Ensemble
EMI CDC 7 54111-2 T 24

Dante: The Divine Comedy - Inferno (3 extracts over music)
Extracts translated by Benedict Flynn
Read by Heathcote Williams

Salvatore Sciarrino: Lo spazio inverso 3'00

Monteverdi: Possente spirto (from Orfeo) 8'25
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor)
English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner
DG 419 251-2

Milton: "Beyond this flood" from Paradise Lost 2'36
Read by Anton Lesser
Naxos NA 935012

William Lawes: Pavan in G minor 5'45
Rose Consort of Viols
Naxos 8.550601

Dante: The Divine Comedy - Inferno
Extracts translated by Benedict Flynn
Read by Heathcote Williams

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time - 2nd mvt
Decca 452899-2 T 5 2'40

Dante: The Divine Comedy - Inferno 4'07
Extracts translated by Benedict Flynn
Read by Heathcote Williams

Sciarrino: L'orizzone luminoso 3'47
Mario Caroli (flute) Srradivarius STR 33598 T6

Stevie Smith: Francesca in Winter 1'06
Read by Claire Higgins

TS Eliot: Little Gidding (extract) 5'02
Read by John Shrapnel

Anon. (13th-century Italy) Lamento di Tristan (extract) 1'32
The Dufay Collective

WH Auden: 'In the Year of my Youth' (extract)1'39
Read by John Shrapnel

Benjamin Britten: String Quartet no. 3 (last mvt)
Amadeus Quartet
London 425 715-2 T8 8'23

Sciarrino: Omaggio a Burri (extract)

Dante: The Divine Comedy - Inferno Canto XIII 1'05
Extracts translated by Benedict Flynn
Read by Heathcote Williams

Sciarrino: Omaggio a Burri (extract, cont.)

Robin Robertson: The Woods of Suicides (after Dante Inferno, Canto XIII) 2'14
Read by John Shrapnel

Samuel Beckett: Alba
Read by Claire Higgins

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time (7th mvt)
Decca 452 899-2 Tr 11 6'50

Milton: Paradise Lost - "At last the sacred influence of light" 1'17
Read by Anton Lesser

Nicholas Lanier: 'Like hermit poor' 3'14
Paul Agnew (tenor), Christopher Wilson (lute)

Dante: The Divine Comedy - Inferno Canto XXXIV
Extracts translated by Benedict Flynn
Read by Heathcote Williams

Anon. (14th century): Pearl - "My soul forsook that spot in space"
Read by the late Bob Peck
BBC archive recording DAT OLN 814/98BB0923

Anon. De ce que fol pense (after Pierre des Molins) 2'44
Andrew Lawrence-King (harp)

Dante: The Divine Comedy - Paradise(extract) 1'50
Extracts translated by Benedict Flynn
Read by Heathcote Williams

Forest: Qualis est dilectus (Old Hall MS)
The Hilliard Ensemble

Milton: Paradise Lost - "They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld of Paradise" 0'48"
Read by Anton Lesser

William Lawes: Consort set in A minor for viols 4'07
Rose Consort Naxos 8550601

Ezra Pound: Canto CXVII - "I have tried to write Paradise" 0'25"
Read by John Shrapnel

Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time - last movement

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