12.02.08, Ciabattoni, Dante's Journey to Polyphony

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Bradford Lee Eden

The Medieval Review 12.02.08

Ciabattoni, Francesco. Dante's Journey to Polyphony. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 250. ISBN: 978-0-8020-9626-5.

Reviewed by:
Bradford Lee Eden
Valparaiso University

It is a well-known fact that music was an important factor in Dante's life, and that mentions of music and musical allusions abound in his written works, specifically in the Divine Comedy . The author makes this quite clear in his opening quotation from Leo Spitzer, regarding the importance of music in the medieval world, and that any allusions to music in medieval literary works needs to be taken seriously (3). While little information is available to modern-day scholars regarding Dante's musical training, research indicates the importance of polyphony in northern Italy and Tuscany in the early fourteenth century. The author also mentions previous research linking specific melodic texts and their origins that Dante quotes in his own works. As such, the author builds the argument for a musical infrastructure that weaves throughout the whole of the Divine Comedy , an almost literary example of the medieval "music of the spheres" for Hell! From dissonance and noise in Inferno , to a monophonic structure in Purgatorio , and then a polyphonic order in Paradiso , this book attempts to provide both musicological and philological arguments behind Dante's construction and presentation of the Divine Comedy .

Chapter 1 presents evidence for challenging previous assumptions that polyphony was not widespread in Dante's time, and that new musicological scholarship has enabled reassessment of this assumption. For instance, surviving notated and descriptive manuscripts from the liturgy of major Tuscan cathedrals of the second half of the thirteenth century indicate that polyphony was regularly performed, and that Dante would have heard it on a continual basis. Although there is no substantial evidence that Dante visited Paris, most scholars agree that he probably did spend some time there. All of this new research provides support for the author's subsequent discussion of the musical dialectic contained in the Divine Comedy .

The presentation of Inferno as a cacophony of noise, and therefore containing a lack of music, has provided previous critics of a conscious musical structure in the Divine Comedy with the ammunition needed to discount this theory. The author argues that there are a number of oblique references to songs and/or instruments in Inferno , mainly through literary references. A number of text snippets are presented, along with commentary from musical theorists of the time that support the author's arguments. Bodily noises, perversions of sacred chant texts, and even a discussion of a crane's lai are discussed as musical parodies of the second and third cantos, all meant to display Dante's skillful deployment of musical rhetoric. This is an interesting hypothesis, as other musicological research is only now bringing to light the importance of noise, silence, and musical deconstructionism in other time periods (see for instance Broken harmony: Shakespeare and the politics of music [Cornell University Press, 2011] and Music and society in early modern England [Cambridge University Press, 2010]).

In moving to Purgatorio , the author compares the central soul/body paradigm with the medieval idea of musical balance between one's body and soul. In identifying monophony as the primary musical structure in Purgatorio , there is again a detailed identification of various secular and sacred musical texts, as well as concepts and theories from early and medieval Church Fathers and music theorists, along with mentions of previous research by other scholars. The author divides up the musical material in this section into three categories: deceptive songs (the much-debated song of Casella, for example), healing songs (use of Psalm texts and quotes from Augustine), and songs of the angels (the Beatitudes and singing in the Earthly Paradise). There are some disconnects with the author's argument here of Purgatorio as a primarily monophonic universe, given that some of the musical texts quoted (in particular Te Deum laudamus , which was early on an embellished chant, being found in the Musica enchiriadis [c. 900]), survive as some of the earliest examples of polyphonic experimentation. In any event, the monographic nature of Purgatorio is essential for supporting the progression of music into Paradiso .

In examining the tuning of the sky in Paradiso , the author now moves to polyphony as the chief musical attribute of this third canto. There are many musico-literary passages to be found here, with polyphony as an allegory for political harmony and as an accompaniment to the ascent of the pilgrim from the physical to the metaphysical plane. The discussion of Paradiso comprises two chapters, one on the allegorical symbolism of musical instruments, and the other on the music of the spheres philosophy in ancient and medieval writings. It is obvious that the author has an extensive knowledge of medieval musicological terminology, as he discusses concepts such as organum melismaticus and sampogna/symphonia . Polyphony in Paradiso is found in Paradise itself in many forms, including as a metaphor for political harmony, as well as the Impenetrable Song related to other-earthly musics and the mystical indescribable nature of the heavenly vision. In the chapter on medieval thought regarding music in the quadrivium and as the mechanism that the Creator uses to keep the universe in motion and harmony, the author provides a quick overview of various Church Fathers' and other medieval philosophers' viewpoints, bringing together his focus on Dante's works and various opinions by other Dante scholars on the question of whether Dante even accepted or acknowledged this medieval concept in his works. As the author finally states:

...what I have tried to argue is that, having had to take into consideration the enormously influential opinion of Aristotelian scholars, the Florentine's position is less straightforward than it initially appears, and that he has contended with the controversy by contriving to evoke the music of the spheres and suggest its resonance without overtly taking a stance in its favour. It would have been extremely risky, both intellectually and doctrinally, to wholeheartedly embrace a theory to which the best of contemporary theologians were opposed (212).

In the Conclusion, the author summarizes that Dante in his Divine Comedy displays a sophisticated musical structure that is knowledgeable of medieval and contemporary musical repertories and liturgical uses, and is not accidental nor decorative (217). There is plausible and substantial evidence for the musical architecture proposed by the author, but there is also an overwhelming amount of evidence against this architecture, as the author adequately propounds and presents. This book provides a reasonable and well- presented argument within Dante studies regarding his musical dialectic and knowledge, that I am sure will lead to even more discussion and subsequent research on this topic.

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Bradford Lee Eden

Valparaiso University