Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
che la diritta via era smarrita.
The opening of Dante's La Divina Commedia reflects characteristic doubt and insecurity thatmany of us feel in the middle of our lives. Dante's image of one lost in the dark forest easily translates to the bleak, impersonal landscape of the modern American city. The last line, "for I had strayed from the straight path," resonates in the feelings of character failure so common as people get older. Dante's words echo in the snicker of the "eternal footman" of T.S. Eliot's Prufrock who has "seen the moment of my greatness flicker." On any given day, anyone can imagine a life strewn with failure and bad choices, moral lapses, and poor judgment.
The reader is probably dreading the thought of a depressing piece of music full of negative self indulgence and regret: reader, take heart. I have elected Dante's solution. Through the verses of his Inferno, the first of the three volumes, he catalogues the inner circles of hell: the multifarious guises of evil. Guided by the Roman poet, Virgil they journey together until in Canto XXXIV they return nel chiaro mondo, "the world of brightness" in which they see the stars again.
Although this wind ensemble Inferno literally boils with sounds from the underworld, suggesting a kind of musical equivalent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, whose underworld is populated by machinelike chimeras which reduce human beings to lifeless automatons, the piece attempts a human affirmation at the end similar to Dante's, a vision of the Empyrion.
Inferno is cast in three movements with a long pause after the first and an attacca after the second. The same musical materials appear throughout the piece, often in separate developments. The most striking feature of the soundworld of inferno is the use of antiphonal percussion, which becomes obvious in the opening minutes through the duet of tom toms from opposite ends of the stage. The two large percussion groups seem to be engaged in constant conflict until the last pages of the score, a contour matching Dante's :
tanto ch'i' vidi delle cose belle
che porta `l ciel, per un pertugio tondo;
e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
"until I saw some of the beautiful things that heaven bears, through a circular opening;
and from there we emerged to see the stars again."