A Musical Interpretation of Dante Alighieri's Divina Commedia




Carver, Jessie

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St. Augustine in his De Musica, uses the example of the nightingale to describe those who know and create music only through sense, singing “harmoniously and sweetly” although ignorant to the “numbers or intervals of acute and grave tones” (Book I, Part IV, pg. 7). Until this past year, I was a nightingale. I thought myself an artist, composing notes that filled me with feeling and rhythms that moved me. Not until reading De Musica did I realize that merely having the ability to recognize beauty, instincts which Augustine claims “beasts” even possess, and creating sweet sounding melodies was not sufficient for being defined as an artist. According to Augustine, an artist must possess “the purity and truth of the intellect” or in other words understand the inner workings and intricacies behind one’s creative work, for instance, why a group of notes sounds pleasing to the ear or is further intensified by a particular rhythm (Book I, Part IV, pg. 12). Completing my thesis work, which consisted of composing a three movement piece for a musical ensemble, finally enabled me to understand music no longer through sense alone but also through intellect, comprehending the order within my own work which was once to me only harmonious sound and movement. Working on this thesis not only allowed me to transform as an artist but also allowed me to see how art itself uses sensory tools to draw viewers or readers to a heightened intellectual understanding, not only of the work itself but also of truths that lie outside of the work. My composition is a musical narrative which interprets Dante’s travels through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, and therefore it will seek to lead the listener on a journey from sensory sound to intellectual understanding of Dante’s text. Just as Dante uses his poetry, his beautiful, aesthetic art, to first draw upon the senses and eventually lead the reader to deeper spiritual understanding, so I hope that my own composition may first excite the senses through beautiful sound but then, through symbolism and connectivity to text, draw one’s mind toward theological truths within the Divina Commedia.