OH OMBRE, VANE, "Oh Vain Shades," Quartet (After Dante)
First Purgatory Sonata
for Two Clarinets, Viola, and Guitar

by Christopher Fulkerson

CF's Composition Desk

The form of each of the Purgatory Sonatas
This was the working plan probably used for
La turba che rimase li
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This thirteen-minute piece is one of my favorite of my own pieces. It is the first in a cycle of three Purgatory Sonatas after Dante that is part of THE FESTIVAL, the work-in-progress "cycle of epicycles" that I am composing. The second of these Purgatory Sonatas is the trio LA TURBA CHE RIMASE LI for Viola, Harp, and Percussion the third is the little chamber concerto MA PER QUEL POCO ("But Through That Glimpse") for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Harp, Violin, Viola, and Bass. All three pieces were written in 1988, and all have the same formal design. As the cycle's title suggests, the pieces are inspired by the second book of Dante's Divine Comedy.

The title of this piece comes, like four other compositions of the Festival, from the second Canto of Dante's Purgatorio. Dante and Virgil see the Ship of Souls arrive from Earth, with its Captain (L'UCCEL DIVINO) and more than a hundred spirit-passengers (E PIU DI CENTO SPIRTI) singing a hymn; these he blesses and they fling themselves down on the shore of Purgatory (LA TURBA CHE RIMASE LI). Dante recognizes his composer friend Casella among the dead, but, though he tries three times, he cannot physically embrace him. Remarking on the immaterial bodies of the spirits in Purgatory he cries

Oh shades, in all but outward aspect, vain!
Behind him thrice my clasping hands I bent,
thrice brought them, emnpty, to my breast again.

Oh ombre, vane fuor che ne l'aspetto!
tre volte dietro a lei le mani avvinsi,
e tante mi tornai con esse al petto.

It seems to meto be no coincidence that this passage has very many similarities to the beginning of the last book of Homer's Odyssey; a group of (in both cases, "over a hundred:" I count 130 killed by Odysseus and his party) newly deceased souls; in both cases, singing in chorus: are we meant to understand that singing in a chorus together is a method of transportation, of, as Frank Herbert imagined, "without moving?;" these arrive at the land of the Dead, and are surprised to learn that some of their number are in fact not dead. In Homer, the souls realize that Odysseus spared Medon and the Musician; in Dante, the souls discover Dante himself is alive. In both passages there is testimony from a famous member of their tribe: in Homer, Agamemnon holds forth to the spirits; Dante meets his friend, the composer Casella, who had set some of his lyrics to music. Both passages mention a musician who is esteemed by the living; if Homer's bard corresponds to Dante's friend Casella, could it be that Dante is comparing himself to the Herald, Medon?

Since I try not to overlook the obvious, let me say that I do not expect that the listener to this music, or meditator on these things, is expected to throw in his chip believing in the necessity of punishment in purgation. I believe in purgation, but not, unless the vrime be serious enough, through punishment. Even then, it is one of the important questions of human psychology whether punishment results in actual purgation or mere change in outward behavior - if it achieves even that. In general it seems to me that the only fair and effective purgation is self-purgation. To the extent that purgation is part of the Festival, it is merely in this way: like any works of program music, some parts or aspects of the Festival give the listener the opportunity to reflect about things; this is particularly true of the instrumental pieces in the Festival, and one of the reasons the "cycle of epicycles" requires instrumental program music.

The expressive shape of the Purgatory Sonatas parallels, I think, the three-part progress of Mysticism, Clarification, and Action that the mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described. He said:

"Mysticism leads us to try to create out of the mystical experience something that will save it, or at least save the memory of it. Words don't convey it except feebly; we are aware of having been in communication with infinitide and we know that no infinite form we can give can convey it..." In response to the suggestion that music may come nearer it than than words, Whitehead said, "Out of [the] effort to save the mystical experience, in the hope of creating a form which will preserve the experience for ourselves and possibly for others, comes clarification - in a thought or perhaps an art-form; and that clarification is then turned into some form of action... Mysticism, clarification, action; I have never put it in that form before; but that is the order in which I would state it."

The First Purgatory Sonata, "Oh Vain Shades," may be found to map to Mysticism; the second, "The Throng There There Remained," to Clarification; and the third, "But Through That Glimpse," to Action.

This piece is dedicated to my friend Cathleen Yaklich.

Download the Clarinet One Part
Download the Clarinet Two Part
Download the Viola Part
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Written July 13, 2009. Updated December 7, 2009.
Updated with sound file and revised score and parts on February 25, 2014. Last updated June 28, 2015.