Dante nella musica dell’Ottocento

Antonio Rostagno

After two centuries of almost total lack of interest by musicians, Dante was set to music more than a hundred times in the nineteenth century. Apart from the numerous songs on the Stil novo Dante’s texts, attention focused on a few musical settings from the Commedia: from Ugolino by Nicola Zingarelli (for soprano and strings, 1804) and Gaetano Donizetti (for bass and piano, 1828) via Rossini, more Donizetti and Verdi (two pieces on the same text of the Ave Maria translated by Antonio da Ferrara, which, however, they thought was by Dante), Franz Liszt (a Hungarian by origin who lived in Rome for much of his life and partly composed the Dante-Symphonie there) and Antonio Bazzini (the author of the first Italian symphonic poem, Francesca da Rimini) up to Giuseppe Verdi and his Laudi alla Vergine Maria (published in 1898) to which the final paragraph of the essay is devoted. It is an a cappella four female voice setting of Saint Bernard’s prayer Vergine Madre figlia del tuo figlio. The attitude of the various musicians testifies to a synchronic evolution from the “culture of the side notes” to Dante’s text to the “culture of the comment” represented above all by Francesco De Sanctis. The two positions are exemplified in music by Zingarelli and Liszt and Bazzini’s symphonic poems respectively. As orchestral compositions in free form, the symphonic poems do not use Dante’s text directly, they do not set it to music verse by verse, image by image, but they offer a sort of comment at the end of the reading in the same way as De Sanctis in his essays on Dante in those years. The late Verdi of the Laudi once more follows Dante’s text strictly, declaiming and punctually interpreting it with the compositional device of the neo-madrigalistic counterpoint: a return to Dante’s text. Two amongst many examples are those of the musical image of the “fontana di speranza” (spring of hope) or of the grace “liberamente” (freely) bestowed by the Virgin. This late Verdi-Dante masterpiece was later used by twentieth century composers such as Malipiero and Petrassi. A certain distance between Dante and the melodrama emerges from the outlined overview (the titles of operas echoing the Commedia are nearly always inspired by other sources and traditions). However, notwithstanding this distance, Dante culture passed through nineteenth century Italian history of music without a break and constituted a fundamentally important chapter in it.