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Composed: 2019–20

Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd=alto, 3rd=piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd=English horn), 3 clarinets (2nd=E-flat, bass clarinet; 3rd=bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd=contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets (3rd=piccolo trumpet), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani (=rototoms), percussion (crotales, glockenspiel, 2 handbells, anvil, xylophone, 4 rototoms, chimes, 2 tuned gongs, triangle, hi-hat, sleigh bells, sistrum or metal shaker, clash cymbals, 2 suspended cymbals, tam-tam, whip, 2 rattles/ratchets, castanets, washboard, 3 thunder tubes, wooden spatulas, tambourine, wood chimes, side drum, 2 snare drums, high bongo, 2 tenor drums, large frame drum, gong drum, bass drum & mounted clash cymbals, kit bass drum, concert bass drum), harp,piano, pre-recorded voice track, women’s chorus, & strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 10, 2019, Gustavo Dudamel conducting

About this Piece

Like most composers, Thomas Adès came to know the scores of the great ballets by ear first, though he saw Petrushka at an early age, on television at his grandmother’s house. The Stravinsky–Balanchine ballets are, for him, the high-point of music and movement. The Dante Project is Wayne McGregor’s third ballet to an Adès score after choreographing the Violin Concerto and In Seven Days.

Adès first encountered the world of The Divine Comedy as a teenager of voracious curiosity, through the translation by Dorothy Sayers which had brought Dante’s world to new life for the post-war generation of Penguin Classics readers, first published between 1949 and 1962. “Perhaps not the easiest start,” he says, “but it had a profound effect. A disturbing effect. I loved the physical geography of it. The physical depth of Hell and the height of Paradise, Purgatory as a magic mountain in the southern hemisphere, therefore upside down, and the no-holds-barred imagery, all took my breath away.”

The idea of making it into a ballet came “in a flash. Pregnant! Then gestation.” Part of that process involved the choreographer Tacita Dean introducing Adès to the unfinished set of drawings for The Divine Comedy which occupied Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) for the last quarter-century of his life, on and off, though the artist completed illustrations for only 19 of the 100 poetic cantos which make up the text. Another long-gestated Dante project had already made its mark on Ades: the illustrations by Gustave Doré (1832–1883), which set Dante’s cast of characters within intimations of the 19th-century sublime: foaming rivers, broken trees, inky dawns. “Especially the Paradiso illustrations, their millions of tiny angels vanishing into rings of pure white: that was a model for me.”

Adès and McGregor began by making a list of the scenes they wanted from Dante’s vision of Hell. “Here we’re going to have the deviants, here the suicides, the thieves, the hypocrites.” He makes an unsettling comparison with the Dances of the Sweets sequence in the Second Act of The Nutcracker. “I thought that the most exciting thing for a ballet would be the eerie sense of doing it quite traditionally, but in Hell.” To evoke distant yet familiar musical idioms on a knife-edge between parody and homage is an Adès hallmark. Listeners quickly find their feet in his music and just as soon lose them: the ground is rarely stable for long even if it feels reassuringly familiar to begin with.

Even more than Tchaikovsky, ballet audiences new to the vertiginous extremes of Adès’s music may find in Inferno another guide by their side through the figure of Franz Liszt, who stood at the center of 19th-century music as it headed in so many different directions like the train lines crisscrossing a newly industrialized Europe. There are many sides to Liszt—the pianistic phenomenon, the showman virtuoso as both performer and composer, the mystic and uncanny musical prophet—that find kinship in Adès himself. He has long conducted Liszt’s orchestral works in concert, from relatively familiar crowd-pleasers such as the first Mephisto Waltz to much less fashionable pieces such as the tone-poem Hunnenschlacht.

In the first part of The Dante Project, the Hungarian composer becomes a musical analogue of Virgil, the Roman poet chosen by Dante as a guide through his visions of damnation. As Adès puts it, “I abducted Liszt for the weekend—I thought he would be my Virgil, and we had a good time together! Inferno moves from 100% Liszt orchestrated by me to 100% me, and it moves very freely between them.” There are recognizably direct orchestral transcriptions of the Bagatelle sans tonalité and the Grand Galop Chromatique alongside more elliptical references to the choral cycle Via Crucis and—perhaps inevitably—the Dante Symphony and Dante Sonata which became the artistic summations of Liszt’s own lifelong love-affair with The Divine Comedy.

What draws Adès himself to Liszt? “The ideas in his music are live cultures. You sit down and there’s something about this chord or that moment that were new. In Liszt, you are always confronted with essential cells at a very microscopic, primal level. Once I’d finished working on Inferno, it became hard to tell which of us the DNA came from. To take one example, literally the way in, the portal: Liszt described that so exactly in the music at the start of the Dante Sonata—but it’s such a primal cell, just falling tritones, so I refracted it on itself many times and made it spiral upward, so it feels like plunging down a cliff face.”

While there are also distinct sections in the second and third parts of The Dante Project reflecting the poet’s own structural divisions, both “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso” concern themselves more with “the sensation of Dante.” Adès points out that, considering The Divine Comedy as a whole, “Purgatorio is the most full of singing: hosts of souls drift by singing the Psalms.” He has accordingly introduced a chant which weaves through and rises above the orchestra. The melodies are again not his own but, in this instance, drawn from the liturgical material of the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem. It is one of very few places where an ancient form of sung prayer known as Baqashot is preserved, sung by the Khazan (the cantor) and the congregation in the early hours of the morning, ending at dawn. Adès explains the parallel: “Dante’s journey in Purgatory also starts at this time of day, with precise descriptions of the changing dawn light as the sun approaches. In a wider sense too, Purgatory is a sort of pre-dawn, before the sun of Paradise.”

The upward trajectory of The Divine Comedy holds obvious fascination to the mind of a composer whose music is full of spiral motion and aspiration towards a state of transcendence. Music—and art in total—is there to remove us from ourselves, to lift us to another place. In Paradiso, Adès composes with sinuous spirals, mirroring the slow but sure ascent of Dante as he is guided by Beatrice through the vaults of heaven: a sequel, perhaps, to the transfixed beauty of the central movement to his Violin Concerto (subtitled “Concentric Paths”). Seven hundred years after Dante’s death in Ravenna, The Divine Comedy requires no strenuous appeal towards contemporary relevance. As Adès concludes, “I’ve never felt so close to damnation and paradise and redemption.” —Excerpt from “Composing Dante” by Peter Quantrill, with kind permission from the Royal Opera House. An extended version of this interview appeared in The Royal Ballet’s program for The Dante Project, choreography by Wayne McGregor.