Romantic Visions: De Profundis ad Lucem: From the Depths to the Light

Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord. Hear my Prayer – Psalm 130

Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground. – De Profundis, Oscar Wilde

There is no greater sorrow than thinking back upon a happy time in misery. – Inferno, Canto V (the story of Francesca da Rimini ), Dante Alighieri

The Garden of Eden is a paradise lost. The pre-conscious memory of a perfect existence plays a strong role, I believe, in our need for music. Yearning, nostalgia, sorrow-all are heightened by the often unconscious sense of a bygone and better existence. Our subject in this festival is not the fall from grace, but the cry from the metaphorical depths and, through cathartic music, the healing of the spirit.

Each piece of music in this festival is inspired by a great literary source. Literature and music have made strange bedfellows throughout history. At times locked in passionate embrace, at others they turn their backs on each other like disappointed lovers. They are governed by different laws. Music has inspired poetry, novels, critical analyses, and essays. Literature has been the point of departure for oratorios, operas, lieder, symphonies, ballets, and even chamber music. Music starts where words stop, goes the saying, and I believe it is easier to transform the written word into music than to express the musical in even the most brilliant collection of words.

That said, the music we are listening to is not a translation or a reduction of the literature but a free association and muse for each composer’s fancy. Ideas are difficult to translate into music. But the feelings engendered by any of these abstractions can find their place alongside the more accessible materials of drama or poetry. The need to have our feelings mirrored-our feelings of loss, exaltation, alienation-has stimulated artists throughout Western civilization. And the nineteenth century flung itself at the expression of feelings with a fervor and genius unparalleled the history of music. This rich and enriching process of distilling the essence of feeling from literature led right to the gate of the twentieth century and beyond, to our own day.

Another unifying factor in the conception of this festival is Florence, the city of the Renaissance. With the exception of Oscar Wilde’s Birthday of the Infanta and Salome, every work and artist on our programs in some way relates back to the city of the rebirth of classical antiquity, the city that gave birth to the modern era of classical music and, specifically, to opera.

The works we explore are also works of homage. As Verdi in his Requiem pays homage to the great writer Alessandro Manzoni, who defined and unified modern Italian just as Dante had legitimized spoken Italian as the literary language of the future, wresting Latin from its monopoly on written expression, so Tchaikovsky and Liszt pay homage to Dante himself. And so do we pay homage to Oscar Wilde, Alexander von Zemlinsky, and Franz Schreker. Wilde’s influence on classical music has received little attention. Three one-act operas (Richard Strauss’s Salome, and Zemlinsky’s The Dwarf and A Florentine Tragedy) were created within two decades of his death. Wilde’s aesthetic outside the Anglo-Saxon world, where his works were unjustly suppressed, found more sympathetic appreciation in German-speaking countries. Yet both Zemlinsky and Schreker suffered under Nazi anti-Semitism and were suppressed politically, as Wilde was silenced on the grounds that he threatened public morals.

The correspondences among the works we will hear are many. In its essence, this is all music of genuine and powerful feeling, music that exemplifies the best in art from another time and place, and that in its enduring impact-its power to cry out, to mirror our own emotions, and to heal-challenges our inclination to measure other eras and cultures from the perspective of our own.

©2007 by James Conlon. All rights reserved.

Back to all writing