Remarks on Dante

By Peter Kislinger

You are the anarch of the universe […] / You are / the incorruptible quest / you are the poet / of the extraordinary fortune / the artificer of the sacred / desecrating and desecrated / poem

Giacomo Oreglia, Dante Anarca e i suoi maestri (1, 10-19) [English translation Alan Crozier]


Anders Eliasson felt that Giacomo Oreglia (1924 – 2007) wrote his Dante poem especially for him. In 1949 Oreglia had moved to Sweden, where he lived to the end of his days and taught for years at the Italian Cultural Institute in Stockholm. His poemetto (little poem) is preceded by a dialogue between an inquisitor and a “Spiritual”, i.e. a Franciscan friar. The inquisitor points out to the monk, “humbly but correctly”, that Dante’s true masters were not “primarily the Fathers of the Church” but that “the true masters of our Poet are on the contrary only six in number … and further I dare say, sir, that the curial exegeses, from whatever curia they may be, operating with such scornful manipulation on our brother, are and will forever be ashes and dust …“ Those six masters are Virgil, Mary (“woman lady madonna / […] / the queen of harmony and […] the master of the spirit”, 198-205), Gioacchino da Fiore, Francis of Assisi, Siger of Brabant, and Dante Alighieri himself.

To the nineteen-year-old Eliasson, the views prevailing at Stockholm’s Royal Conservatory of Music resembled those of the Roman Inquisition or the Communist Politburo. This “bastion of modernism,” he felt, inculcated the pure doctrine of music, one purportedly grounded in science. Learning dodecaphony, serialism, aleatory music, musique concrète, graphic notation, and all the rest was, he said, “no big deal.” What he missed was – MUSIC! He experienced his years of study until 1972 as a time of self-abnegation: “Rhythm, melodies, and certain intervals were taboo.” In 1973 he joined the Artistic Committee of the Electronic Music Foundation in Stockholm. There the twenty-two-year-old composer left behind five “tapes produced with maximum technological and mathematical effort.” As he later remarked with exquisite self-irony, “There are easier ways to generate noise and racket.”

Eliasson found the expressive sides of Lutosławski and Penderecki much less restrictive and “unmusical”; “Morton Feldman and Terry Riley were also inspiring, at least briefly.” He viewed Ligeti with great interest, but ultimately found him “chameleon-like.” What he experienced, and precisely pointed out, were qualities typical of totalitarian systems, where objections are taken as proof of fundamental rightness, and where criticism of “modern” art is met with reprimand and disgrace. In his final years Eliasson had to endure the ignominy of being called a traditionalist, a classicist, a romantic, even a reactionary. One reviewer of the première of his Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra found it both “overly classicist” and “overly romantic.”

Once, in an interview for Austrian Radio, I asked him whether the terms “modern, modernist, contemporary, advanced, innovative,” or “New” as applied to music might be misleading and obsolete. Shouldn’t we ask whether music is “original, individual, personal, distinctive”? Or were these terms likewise “historically dated” and discredited in the theory of art?

His reply: “There’s only one universe and only one music, despite different aesthetic stances.” Initially I couldn’t distinguish between pathos and irony in his reply. “The universe is divine. Modernism has deified humankind. Modern – modernist – art reflects this arrogance. I’m just a servant.” Later I realized that he meant these words to be taken seriously. What he missed was “truthfulness, ability, and substance in the so-called avant-garde. There’s still an incredible amount of dilettantism, bluff, cliquishness, allegiances, and commercial pressure. One can’t undo a tradition more than a thousand years old without becoming unintelligible. And it will remain in effect for the next thousand years. One can’t set out to be ‘original.’ Music is like H2O: melody, harmony, and rhythm are a holistic unity. MUSIC! And it has to flow.”

I also confronted him with a pronouncement by Pierre Boulez from the 1950s: “It is not deviltry, but only the most ordinary common sense which makes me say that, since the discoveries made by the Viennese School [Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern], all composition other than twelve-tone is useless.” Eliasson responded with anger, which later gave way to resignation: “Yes, of course, I’m a useless composer.”

I would call Eliasson a “romantic” in the Hegelian sense. After all, despite his overtly secular outlook, he firmly believed in the pre-Enlightenment function of art as a vehicle for understanding the world. In his increasingly rare and short-spoken interviews, and in Tony Lundman’s monograph, currently available only in Swedish in the Royal Music Academy’s Svenska Tonsättere series (Stockholm: Bokförlaget Atlantis, 2012), he expressed his critique of the modern world and his contempt for the music market as a leveling force, often adopting Schiller’s topos of the clockwork universe. Schiller’s black-and-white depiction, which also embraces modern art theory, elevates art and artistic creation to the sacred antithesis of the disintegrative forces in the modern world. Yet Eliasson’s attitude and his music also satisfy many criteria fondly used to legitimize “modernism”: advanced, subversive, uncompromising, radically individualist. In the interview I conducted with him a year after our first meeting, I already quoted a line from Dante Anarca: Did he identify with Virgil’s debellare superbos (subdue the proud)? “That expresses exactly what I think.” I continued with the quote: “against the darkest evils / against fraud / against dominion against mammon.” Eliasson laughed: “Yes, I know, I sound like a true radical.”

I situate Eliasson’s self-image as a composer in the tradition of theology and philosophy. To him, music was “the absolute source of truth. Perhaps the only source that gives an answer to the existential questions of the individual and our times.” Artistic expression, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott argues in Experience and its Modes (1933), is not the echo of something transcendent but rooted in human practice. Music is not a form of communication predicated on reality and on speech. It is quite simply “something other”, with other rules. Eliasson explained his refusal, in later life, to discuss his compositions by saying that he didn’t know where the music comes from. He no longer accepted extra-musical concepts that might prevent his music from becoming music, and he could not separate what Oakeshott describes as the different phases of the creative process: experience, contemplation, and expression. “I can’t draw a line between me and the motif.”

What Eliasson criticized about the term “New Music” was the misuse of a descriptive concept, the habit of shifting it into the qualitative and normative. Music – the redemption of the world? His appeal to “authenticity” – the equivalent status of nature, truth, and art – would justify his “romantic” and “romanticist” tag and place him, the Dantean anarch, in close proximity to the ideas of the above-mentioned “curia.” If a product is “authentic,” then it is a document of an emotion that escapes aesthetic judgment. But if so, what accounts for the impression that his musical language is “absolutely original”?

Giacomo Oreglia had never met Eliasson when he sent him the still unpublished manuscript to Dante Anarca e i suoi maestri. Oreglia, the author of a monograph on Dante’s life, works, and times (translated into Swedish by Ingemar Boström as Dante: Liv, verk och samtid, Stockholm, 1991), had watched Eliasson’s solitary journey through contemporary music and proposed that he set the poem to music. As Eliasson would repeatedly mention, reading it came as a shock. Having already attached great importance to the number three in his own thought and music, he saw himself mirrored above all in Gioacchino da Fiore, whose chiliastic Theory of the Three Ages he had himself formulated in “exactly the same way” before he had even heard of da Fiore. Oreglia calls da Fiore “the sun of the apocalypse / of the ultimate renovatio universalis.” (277 – 280) In the millennial Kingdom of Peace following the second coming of Christ there will be, he says, “no more magnificent shepherds / and no more wretched herds.” (267ff.) The promise that “the gifts of the Paraclete” would “come to us sine mediatore / beyond hierarchy / directly to us”, culminating in the hymnic acclamation “Ubi spiritus / ibi libertas” (Where the Spirit is, there is Liberty).

Eliasson found his search for a new musical language, for a new tonality, verified in the words used to characterize da Fiore. He regarded the discovery of the “triangulatory system that is not a system” as the end of a “stopgap” that had dominated European music since the early twentieth century, and he felt that the familiar tu, referring to Gioacchino da Fiore, applied to himself: “You are the one who has interpreted / deciphered / exorcised / and unmasked / the provisorium” (269). Eliasson had found in Oreglia’s poemetto the confirmation of his own thought and musical aesthetic.

The lines that characterize Dante’s other teachers likewise seemed tailor-made for his music or served him as guides: “Dante / master and brother […] the sixth master / master of yourself” (93, 104); the Franciscan invocation to humility: “humility in action / not the humility of resignation” (361f.); Siger of Brabant, “who found the truth and kindled envy / who lived without desisting” (400) “because where man / is truly himself / and right to the bottom / only there does the spirit live / and only there / can / man / transhumanate” (476); and so forth.

When Eliasson spoke “of the chaos that rules this world” in private conversations or interviews, or talked about the “teeth-gnashing arms trade” and the “infernal network of racketeering factions”, what one heard were (semi-)quotations from Dante Anarca. (25ff.) He had been familiar with such vilifications even before reading the poem; perhaps Oreglia had been inspired by Eliasson to write these passages. After receiving the manuscript, Eliasson at first composed very little; then the piece flowed quickly from his pen. “Only the Devil could have stopped me from writing.” The bulk of this mighty work was finished in two months.

“I’ve discovered,” he once told me, “what Schoenberg would gladly have discovered. His twelve-tone method is still trapped in the major-minor duality, which, moreover, is very limited in its expressive resources.” I quoted these words in 2009 in my introduction to the CD recording of Eliasson’s Quo Vadis, this “symphonic oratorio in a single movement” (Christoph Schlüren). A reviewer promptly accused Eliasson of blasphemy: he had, the critic opined, “bitten off more than he can chew. […] Besides, he has no reason to brag like that.” Hum, sa paddan.

Despite Eliasson’s critique of Schoenberg and his curial disciples, not even he could free himself from the compulsion to justify his harmony. Ever since becoming acquainted with Oreglia’s poem, he viewed his “system that is not a system” (as he frequently put it) in extra-musical, metaphysical terms bolstered by da Fiore’s Theory of the Three Ages. We needn’t follow his attempt to wed his harmony with these historico-philosophical speculations and his faith in transcendence. Perhaps we can thereby spare ourselves and him the “urge,” frequently observed in music history, “toward supra-realistic nonsense appealing not to the brain but to the emotions” (Marcel Dobberstein). This urge is detectable from Antiquity through the Middle Ages and literary Romanticism (and its musical counterpart) down to the present day: composers invariably want “something superior.”

In Vienna, I was at his side when he visited the house where Schubert was born and the room in which he died. As he listened on headphones to the opening of Schubert’s B-flat major Sonata, D 960 (Op. Posth.), tears filled his eyes. He apologized: “I’m outrageous, but Schubert, oyoyoy! And to think that just before he died he wanted to take counterpoint lessons.” Looking at the tiny, bare room, he added: “A true composer must be unmoored, and he must suffer.” Back on the street, he began to speak of his passion for horses and harness racing. Betting, he said, is “the only honest way to get money. But that’s the way things are!”

I was impressed by his mixture of aristocratic grandezza and, as John-Edward Kelly once put it, the Swedish down-to-earthness of a completely unaffected man – a quality of no benefit to himself or his “career.” The longer I got to know him, the more I felt I understood that his origins were responsible for a certain thin-skinned sensitivity. His father was a worker in the Domnarvets Steel Plant in Borlänge, his mother a hairdresser. He exuded self-confidence as far as his “discovery” and his skill were concerned, but the power plays of the grand bourgeoisie could throw him off kilter. In his Notturno (1982) the bass clarinet is initially subdued, pauroso (fearful, anxious), whereas the cello and piano are asked to play sicuro. I know of no one more deserving of the term “sacred wrath.” He was very quick to anger, but equally quick to regain his composure. I asked him if he had to struggle with superbia, one of the “seven deadly sins.” His reply, after a long pause: “I hope not.”

In his final years Eliasson tried to deal with arrogance and braggadocio in a more easygoing manner than with the violent debellare superbos that the chorus invokes three times in Dante Anarca (135).

He was amused by the refrain in a chanson from the Swedish singer Sven Arefeldt (1908-1956). A frog tries to impress a toad with all sorts of tricks, craving admiration and applause. The toad responds with a laconic “hum” (or hmm in English). The refrain reads: Hum, sa paddan – “Hmm, said the toad.” Finally the frog announces his intention to jump over a gigantic object: “Now watch this. This is what I call a giant leap!” And before the frog can blink an eye, he is squashed flat by a steamroller. The driver takes pity on the frog and pays him the respect due to an allegedly heroic deed. Then the refrain: Hum, sa paddan.

The final lines sung by the chorus in Dante Anarca – “you are the ancient heart / of our memory / you are the beating heart / of our future” (543) apply to Dante, who has become his own master. When I asked Eliasson whether he felt these words applied to him as a composer, he did not immediately reply. Hum, sa paddan? He saw no need in his daily rounds to identify with the hero of what is perhaps his magnum opus, or with the man called Anders Eliasson. W.H. Auden, in his poem In Memory of W.B. Yeats, recalled that “great men” must be allowed to be childlike and human: “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all: […] physical decay, / Yourself.” I quoted these lines in relation to Eliasson in an article for Highlights, the journal of his Swedish publisher. He liked them a lot. No conversation about “God, the universe, divine music, and the profane world” was ever left untinged by “sillinesses.” But there was something of the anarch about him, the composer who managed, as Christoph Schlüren wrote after the première, to “surmount the aesthetic of the fragmentary ‘work-in-progress,’ who wrote ‘affirmative’ music divested both of sentimentality and the stigma of cold lucubration.” He was one of those rare men graced with an ability that enable anyone they meet to become an anarch – not an anarchist. “In the prison of his days / teach the free man how to praise” (W. H. Auden).

In 2008 I wrote the following words in the CD booklet to Eliasson’s Sinfonia per archi and Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra: “Why is Eliasson still something akin to an insider’s tip? Is it perhaps because every age values only the particular form of originality that happens then to be fashionable? ‘Great works’, writes Nicolás Gómez Dávila, ‘require many years to surface above the heaps of literary corpses that suffocate them.’ He has given up hope of making any significant breakthrough, because of the strength of vested interests: profit-based fashions, loyalties, cliques (he understands the justification for these, but as “anarch, rather than anarchist” refuses any association on artistic grounds). He doubts whether he’ll ever hear his oratorio Dante Anarca performed in concert a second time.” He was right; yet he knew that the artist who is one of a group writes for that group alone, whereas the artist who expresses personal experience may in the end reach universal experience. He must not mind if for the moment he appears to be without an audience. When he met his future wife Marina for the first time in May 2006, he played her a private recording of the première, given on December 18, 1998. In the final weeks of his life, when his grandsons Johan-Carl and Oscar came to visit, he lay down on the bed in his studio, the room where he would later die, and listened to Dante Anarca with them. In my penultimate conversation with him, six days before his “onward journey,” he told me about his “favourite nurse”, Anna, and her reaction to Dante Anarca. “‘But that’s from another world.’ See, she understood,” he whispered into the telephone. “She has a heart and ears.”

Peter Kislinger, August 2017