‘Divine’ Music Enhances Web-Based Dante Research Project

October 03, 2007

Oct. 3, 2007

By Nicole Ponticorvo

Six singers stand with verses in hand, waiting to burst into full voice.

"Whenever everyone's ready to ascend into heaven, I'm ready to go," musical producer Sally Sanford calls loudly to the singers from the adjacent room to the U.Va. Art Museum lobby.

A selected few individuals from the musical group Zephyrus, under the direction of Paul M. Walker, associate professor of music, begin their ascent from Purgatory to Paradise as they musically express the world of Dante's "The Divine Comedy."

Over the past few months, the singers recorded approximately 20 musical pieces for Italian professor Deborah W. Parker's Web-based research project "The World of Dante," with funding from Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. Once completed, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities will add links to the music on Parker's site (www.iath.virginia.edu/dante), Walker said.

The recordings for the Dante project are of chants or monophonic sacred music. Chant encompasses all types of music, including psalms and hymns, and are distinguished not by genre, but by musical texture, since they consist of only one line of music. All the singers sing the same things, with the women singing an octave higher than the men, Walker explained.

"The recordings by Zephyrus will help readers understand the very different dynamics that prevail in the realm of the saved," said Parker. Since most people pay little attention to the musical references in Dante, the recordings "will allow readers to appreciate the care and precision with which Dante makes musical references," she added.

Such musical references appear throughout Dante's work. "There is this whole soundtrack going on in [Dante's] world," Sanford said.

Adding a soundtrack to the Dante site offers a rare opportunity to enrich the study of Dante's world. Generally, there is a "problem of integrating music into the study of cultural history" Walker said. "Music fares awkwardly in a book and print culture."

With the Zephyrus recordings on the Dante site, music will be accessible with the click of a mouse to people who haven't been trained to read it, Walker said.

After Parker approached him about including Zephyrus in the project, Walker's first step was to compile the appropriate music, including psalms, hymns, antiphons, polyphonies and litanies. As Dante didn't always denote the origins of his musical references, music selections were often based on interpretation and "the mood of the text and place in Dante's poem where it appears," Walker said. Of the poem's three parts — Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise — Purgatory holds the majority of the music.

In Purgatory, for instance, "Dante refers to the singing of a 'Gloria in excelsis Deo' (Glory to God in the Highest) as a 'cry on all side' (da tutte parti un grido)," Walker said. "Because the 'Gloria in excelsis' is a chant for which there are numerous melodies, I chose one that had a particularly wide range and went relatively high, so that the singers would be singing something that sounded almost like a cry or shout," he added.

Walker, who has been directing Zephyrus since 1992, completed most of the recordings for Parker's Dante project in May at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Va. Most recently, the recordings primarily for the Paradise section were made in September at the University of Virginia's Art Museum.

Zephyrus usually sings and records Renaissance music, so doing chants is an area that they have only ventured into "in little bits," he added.

The recording process was difficult, Walker said. Singing medieval chants "is not second nature for us, and that makes it hard," he said. During the recording, the Zephyrus singers did not recite chants from memory, unlike people of Dante's time, who were probably expected to know the particular chants, Walker said.

Because one mistake is clearly noticeable, "When you're singing it, you are constantly thinking, 'Don't mess up,'" Walker said. It was particularly imperative to get Paradise perfect, he added, "If it's not quite perfect, then it would be Purgatory." 

The singers participating in this project were not professional musicians, but instead have careers on top of their work with Zephyrus. Both Walker and his wife, Diane, an associate university librarian, sing on the recordings. Singing with Zephyrus is the "flip side" to its members, some of whom are part of the University community, Sanford said. "They all shoulder very major demands from their day jobs."

Since this collaboration between Parker and Walker is interdisciplinary in nature, Walker said he wants to bring this project to the attention of his students in order "to give them some idea of what this [music] meant to people and how it really influenced real life. 

"It's a nice collaboration," Walker said, "and I'm particularly glad to do it with music, because music has proven rather hard to integrate."

Additional contributors to Parker's project are Commonwealth Professor of Art History Paul Barolsky, who suggested artwork, and Duane J. Osheim, professor and chair of the history department, who offered feedback on the interactive timeline.

"Interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues in other fields will assure the creation of a richer pedagogical tool," Parker said, "one that I hope will accommodate a wide range of approaches to Dante and enrich scholarship on the poem."