OH OMBRE, VANE, "Oh Vain Shades," Quartet (After Dante)
First Purgatory Sonata
for Two Clarinets, Viola, and Guitar
by Christopher Fulkerson
The form of each of the Purgatory Sonatas
This ten-minute piece is one of my favorite of my own works. 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 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!
Oh ombre, vane fuor che ne l'aspetto!
It seems to me 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) 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? I think the question merits study.
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 through punishment. It seems probable to me that the only fair 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.
This piece is dedicated to Cathleen Yaklich.
The score is 46 pages long, in the composer's hand.
Written July 13, 2009. Last updated December 7, 2009.