Here is a liner note I wrote to accompany the CD/DVD release of Louis Andriessen’s La Commedia in 2014.
Louis Andriessen initially found notoriety as something of a provocateur, a composer whose noisy, audacious juggernauts combined minimalism, leftist politics, and his characteristic “terrifying twenty-first century orchestra.” La Commedia is his fourth “opera”, really a cycle of five mini-cantatas—not exactly an adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but a wide-ranging setting of parts of it. But what happens when Andriessen—at 75, still something of an iconoclast—decides to tackle one of the monuments of western thought? And is he doing so with a straight face, or being a bit of a prankster?
The first tableau, The City of Dis or: The Ship of Fools opens with a busy surround-sound collage: car horns, bicycle bells, jackhammers, sirens, and motorcycles blend with lightly unpredictable minimalist urbanity. It sounds familiar, appearing nonthreatening—the soundscape is of Andriessen’s native Amsterdam—but the city’s earthly appearance masks what truly happens in Dis. Its world mirrors our own, but not everything is as it seems. Though it resembles a typical city, with its frenzy of activity and profusion of architectural styles (including Jewish and Islamic ones—heretical, after all), Dis is essentially a huge, hot torture chamber. A rowdy men’s chorus sings a passage from “The Blue Barge”, a common Renaissance version of the “Ship of Fools” allegory; crewed by variously inept and sinful characters, the barge is a symbol of the unknowing and uncaring damned. In fact, we are already deep inside the pit of Dante’s Hell. Dis (a name given to the Devil as well as a city he sometimes occupies) encompasses the sixth through ninth circles of “Nether Hell”, and it is here that the most malicious criminals are punished.
Though La Commedia calls for a mish-mash of vocal styles, the default Louis Andriessen affect is close to that of early music singing. Much of the exposition of the piece is in dense Bach-ian chorale, but notes and words remain intelligible thanks to minimal use of vibrato. Falling, melting gestures characterize much of the vocal writing of the first three parts of La Commedia, denoting both physical downward motion and keening lamentation. Chords take on an overwhelming gravity; normal major and minor triads have been larded with tritones and seconds, and can do nothing but descend.
Of course, there is nothing particularly unique about word-painting or “madrigalism”, a device which has been used in text setting since at least the 16th century; what makes Andriessen’s use notable is its integrity within his style. Perhaps because there is something cartoonish, or Pop Art, in his music already, he is able to make choices which in another composer’s work would come off as overly literal, out of place. Alluring and distancing at the same time, these musical quotation marks frame La Commedia with a cool objectivity even in its most impassioned moments. It’s a canny way to take a massive work like the Divine Comedy and capture it in a series of emblematic portraits.
Racconto dell’Inferno is introduced by those same chorale chords from Dis, heard in stark, percussive unison. An agonizing descent introduces the body of the piece, which tells of Dante’s descent into the tar pit (György Ligeti’s Devil’s Staircase étude, perhaps, borne down by heavy goo?) and of the demons and devils he encounters there. Bass clarinets and pianos scurry unpredictably in and out of muddy orchestral timbres; the music describes hideous creatures, half-human, half-reptile, torturing sinners and each other. Dante’s narration is sung by a contralto, in lilting, disconnected chant-like bits—the 14th-century Italian lowering himself into an ageless, culture-less pit.
Though intensely referential, La Commedia is far from reverential. This is typical of Andriessen’s music, which has codified awkward juxtapositions into a style of surprising power. Chunks that sound wildly different from each other are mashed together haphazardly, or adulterated; the sacred becomes profane. Debussy and Ravel make appearances in cartoonish form, as visitors from the ‘easy listening’ Classical bin. Granitic chunks of music allude to the ceremonial modularity of Stravinsky, Messiaen, and Bach. And especially in the second half of the piece, popular styles pervade, ranging from Florentine folk music to bebop, rock, and musical theater, often swerving recklessly from one to the next in the span of a few minutes.
It is perhaps not music at all, but the spirit of Hieronymus Bosch which most strongly pervades La Commedia—particularly his triptych “Garden of Earthly Delights”. Like Bosch, Andriessen crams a huge amount of detail into what is essentially a flat plane; one has the sense that the work could very well expand ad infinitum in either musical time or visual space. Bosch gives us a birds’-eye sliver of enormous worlds, and Andriessen only emblematic moments of Dante. Both revel in the bizarre, the obscene, and the grotesque (it’s no coincidence that both Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” and Andriessen’s Racconto dell’Inferno include somebody making “a trumpet out of his ass”). Andriessen’s music is something of a Boschian creature itself, its own peculiar form assembled from the “wrong” parts of other music.
Most vividly pictorial is Andriessen’s portrait of the Devil himself in Lucifer. This is truly beastly, physical music. A long introductory section broods and thrashes around in the depths of the orchestra, chewing on the same material for eight minutes, as if unable to look away, before any voices enter. The orchestration here is willfully dense; thick, repeated chords in snarling winds and cimbalom, attack after down-bow attack in the strings, and an electronic borborygmus of crackling embers and thunder. Andriessen’s famously stubborn brand of repetition becomes programmatic here; neither musical nor political statement, it is instead telling a story of obsessive, unending destruction: Lucifer’s planned revenge on God and Humans. Male chorus narrates this story over an ostinato of bass guitar, cimbalom and drumset, sounding like nothing so much as Andriessen-ized death metal—which makes perfect sense, given that genre’s preoccupation with all things Hellish.
The Garden of Earthly Delights is the most fragmentary movement, containing passages that are both uproariously funny and surprisingly heartfelt. Stylistic pluralism reigns here; the musicians are instructed to swing eighth notes, like an old-fashioned jazz band. The music never quite coheres, though, before moving on to the next thing. Andriessen, like Bosch, encourages the eye (or the ear) to wander. There is such a lot to take in, so much beautiful absurdity, it seems to say—unthinkable to linger in any one place for too long. The jazz licks turn a sharp corner into Italianate folk ballad—actually a poem from Dante’s Convivio, sung here by his friend Casella, and harmonized with a Stravinskian tang; next, a banal fanfare bursting out of nowhere, trumpets and strings gleefully out of sync.
In the center of the Garden, Dante sees two angels swoop down to attack a snake (“the same perhaps that offered Eve the bitter fruit”). Sinuous, chromatic lines depict the serpent as literally as any Renaissance madrigal; when the angels drive it off, the music turns leering, burlesque, decidedly secular—some pageantry put on for the benefit of our tourist-hero, perhaps. The movement closes with an excerpt from the Song of Songs, set to rich harmonies straight from a Nino Rota film score—a swooningly Romantic convergence of text and music in relief from the mostly Apollonian canvas. The moment passes quickly, though, and Garden of Earthly Delights ends equivocally with a series of softly clashing octatonic chords.
The final tableau of La Commedia may be the only Lux Aeterna ever written in irony. Harp and children’s choir (winking clichés) introduce the movement in archaic-sounding Dorian mode. But the angelic timbres are soon undermined by quietly dissonant tutti chords—the same that accompanied our journey through Hell—alongside echoes of Dante’s narrative chants from Racconto. Even though we are now in Heaven, the music is coloured by Dante’s experience in Hell; as bard and historian, it’s his duty to remember these things, Andriessen’s music seems to say, by rote.
Though La Commedia is mostly not an explicitly political work, Andriessen and Dante align politically in the perversely contrasting middle section of Luce Etterna. Here is an extended encounter with Dante’s great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida, bitterly lamenting the degradation of Florentine society and the corruption of its nobility. But rather than Dante’s Italian, Andriessen uses a contemporary Dutch translation, and treats the entire passage as a kind of extended rap verse—spoken over insistent percussion. Andriessen himself invites us to read into this musical decision in his program note for Die Staat (The Republic), a seminal work of 1970’s minimalist agitprop:
How you arrange your musical material, the techniques you use and the instruments you score for, are largely determined by your own social circumstances and listening experience…the moment the musical material is ordered it becomes culture and hence a social entity.
Cacciaguida’s speech is lifted from 1100’s Florence into Andriessen’s contemporary Europe. But both the speech and the setting articulate the same thing—an opposition to the conspicuously “high culture”, and a longing for a more democratic society. By referencing a musical style that has wide popularity yet little acceptance from the gatekeepers of the “high art” orchestral world, Andriessen uses Cacciaguida’s monologue to subtly jab modern-day elitism.
A brief finale serves as something like a punch line to the entire drama. The opening harps of Luce Etterna are recast as one of Andriessen’s ragged fanfares, over which, in sing-song Dutch, the children’s choir recites an impudent moral:
These are all my notes for you, and if you do not get it, you won’t get the Last Judgement you will never get it, ever.
In Dante’s Paradiso, this passage is a solemn warning spoken by a divine eagle. Andriessen transforms it into a kind of self-referential gag. After close to two hours of dense, eventful music, a bunch of unruly kids break down the fourth wall, teasing the audience: if that was too much for you, well, you’re beyond help. It’s just a comedy, they seem to be saying—there’s nothing particularly divine about it.