Doomed spirits and sorrowful lovers, black comedy and the abyss into Hell – it’s not at all surprising that composers were inspired by Dante Alighieri and his masterpiece The Divine Comedy. Dante’s descent into Hell attracted a generation captivated by the supernatural, the theme of existential anguish and the quest from Hell to Heaven – the finale of the original version of Mahler’s First Symphony bore the title “Dall’Inferno al Paradiso” – and this quest continues to fascinate composers today.

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Dante Alighieri by Domenico di Michelino
© Public domain

1Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini

Tchaikovsky’s “symphonic fantasy after Dante” is superbly dramatic, the descending cellos and double basses and the ominous tam-tam plunging the listener straight into the Second Circle of Hell for the passionate tale of Paolo and Francesca. Camille Saint-Saëns was a fan. “Bristling with difficulties,” he wrote, “Francesca da Rimini... lacks neither pungent flavours nor fireworks, shrinks from no violence... one takes pleasure in this damnation and torture.” I’m with Saint-Saëns. The finale is so devastating and doom-laden that Kurt-Heinz Stolze used it to close the score of John Cranko’s ballet Onegin. [Mark]

2Franz Liszt: Dante Symphony

„Per me si va nella città dolente / Per me si va nell'eterno dolore / Per me si va tra la perduta gente [...] Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate.” (Through me is the way to the sorrowful city / Through me is the way to eternal sorrow / Through me is the way among the lost people [...] Abandon all hope ye who enter here.) Franz Liszt opens his Dante Symphony with the words from Canto 3 of Dante’s Inferno. But these lines, like so many others throughout the first movement, are unsung, portraying the silence and isolation in Hell, and only visible to those who look closer. Liszt evokes silence and translates Dante’s bleak realm into music, before entering the redemptive second movement, Purgatorio, that culminates in the beatific Magnificat sung by a choir of sopranos and altos. [Elisabeth]

3Giacomo Puccini: Gianni Schicchi

A lot of opera buffa don’t exactly tickle the funny bone – I’m looking at you, Don Pasquale – but the humour in Puccini’s one-acter Gianni Schicchi never fails to hit its mark. Comedy is all about timing and the orchestral commentary is meticulous, the gags scripted with precision. And the actual situation – grasping relatives all wanting the lion’s share of the recently deceased Buoso Donati’s inheritance – is properly funny. And yes, Schicchi swindles the family out of the prize plums, for which he will be sent to Hell, as he tells the audience in his spoken epilogue, but he does it to secure his daughter’s happiness. And who wouldn’t cave in when a soprano sings “O mio babbino caro”? [Mark]

Click here to read more about Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.

4Sergei Rachmaninov: Francesca da Rimini

Unlike Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov used the legend of Paolo and Francesca to write an entire opera and accepted the offer of Pyotr Ilyich’s younger brother, Modest, to write the libretto. Some might argue that the opera’s greatest moments are purely orchestral – Rachmaninov called it a “symphonic opera” himself – but there are some wonderfully atmospheric, emotionally turbulent moments that make it an opera worth hearing. [Elisabeth]

Click here to read more about Rachmaninov's Francesca da Rimini.

5Thomas Adès: Inferno

Thomas Adès’ Inferno is the first part of his score for a new ballet choreographed by Wayne McGregor for The Royal Ballet. It’s a terrific piece, from the bells and brass warning visitors to abandon all hope at the beginning, to the rocking, lurching theme for the Ferryman, rowing dead souls across the Styx – it’s like Liszt on drugs. The suite here ends with a Shostakovich-style circus galop of thieves guaranteed to make you grin. [Mark]

Click here to watch Gianandrea Noseda conduct Adès Inferno with the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.

6Benjamin Godard: Dante

Not an opera inspired by Dante’s works, but an opera about the poet instead! Benjamin Godard’s Dante was staged at the Opéra Comique in 1890 and it follows the romantic trials and tribulations of his love for Béatrice (unfortunately the fiancée of his best friend). When their affair is discovered, Dante is banished from Florence and Béatrice is forced to take the veil. In Act 3, Virgil appears to Dante in a dream, conjuring up visions of Hell and Heaven, including a celestial vision of Béatrice, which inspire him to rescue her. But Dante arrives at the convent too late. Béatrice dies in his arms and the poet vows to immortalise her in his writing. [Mark]

7Lucia Ronchetti: Inferno

When our reviewer attended the world premiere of Lucia Ronchetti’s Inferno at Oper Frankfurt, she described it as “an incredibly visual, atmospheric and tangible music that flares up visions of Hell”. Written for 12 timpani, 14 brass players and a string quartet, it combines both sung and spoken roles. The inner voice of Dante, who has to undertake his journey through Hell without Virgil, is divided into one speaker and four singers (countertenor, tenor, baritone and bass), and the chorus of lost souls and sinners express their anguish through screams, hisses, sighs and groans. And since Dante’s Inferno lacks a propitiatory ending, Ronchetti adds an epilogue written by Tiziano Scarpa and ends her opera with the words of Lucifer: “I say nothing. Do you have the courage to listen to me?” [Elisabeth]

(Courtesy of Oper Frankfurt;

„Ma io perché venirvi? o chi ‘l concede?“ – “But who may allow me to go there?” – „Doch wer darf mir dahin zu gehn erlauben?“

No sooner has he set off on his journey through the Inferno than Dante is assailed by doubts. – Kaum aufgebrochen zu seiner Wanderung durch das Inferno, wird Dante von Zweifeln gepackt.

„Per me si va nella città dolente“ – “Through me you enter the city of pain.” – „Durch mich geht’s ein zur Stadt der Schmerzen.“

Then the gates of Hell open and he hears the howls of the damned. – Da tun sich die Pforten der Hölle auf, und das Geheul der Verdammten dringt an sein Ohr.)

8Claudio Monteverdi: L'Orfeo

Rather than the music or the plot, one of the roles in Claudio Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo is inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy: La Speranza (Hope). She guides Orfeo to the gates of Hades where she points out the words inscribed on the gate – „Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate” (Abandon all Hope ye who enter here) – and leaves him „if he is still determined in his heart to set foot in the city of sorrow”. [Elisabeth]

9Enrique Granados: Dante

We usually think of Enrique Granados as a composer for the piano, particularly Goyescas or the Danzas españolas. But he produced orchestral music too, including the symphonic poem Dante. It is written in two parts, the first depicting the poet’s journey with Virgil into the Inferno, while in the second we meet the damned lovers, Paolo and Francesca, where a mezzo-soprano sings the latter’s lines from Canto 5. It’s easy to detect the influence of Wagner in Granados’ voluptuous orchestration and his long, yearning melodic lines. [Mark]

10Luna Alcalay: Una Strofa di Dante

This might be a niche choice, but no less impressive or, indeed, memorable. Born in Zagreb, the Austrian composer Luna Alcalay studied (and later taught) composition in Vienna, where she was heavily influenced by the music of Luigi Nono and other avant-gardists. In the early 60s, her then mentor, Bruno Maderna, asked her to write an orchestral work which he wanted to premiere in Rome, but after months of work – Alcalay even had to take out a loan – Maderna returned with devastating news from Rome: the promoter of the concert simply didn’t want to feature music by a female composer on the programme. Maderna encouraged Alcalay to write another piece, and this time, he was eventually able to conduct the premiere two years later in Vienna. That work was Una strofa di Dante, based on Dante’s line „Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate” (Abandon all hope ye who enter here). It is disturbing, unsettling and Alcalay, who died in 2012, would be the first to admit that it is not a piece “to enjoy”. After the world premiere of another work of hers, she got up during the applause and told the audience: “Why are you applauding? You didn’t even like the work! It’s horrible music!” [Elisabeth]

Bonus track:

Jean Sibelius: Symphony no. 2 

Did you know that Jean Sibelius had an idea of writing a series of tone poems based on characters from Dante’s Divine Comedy? The composer was staying in Rapallo, Italy, when he jotted down sketches that would eventually turn into the slow movement of his Second Symphony.