Musical settings of Dante’s Verses : Interview with Manuela Custer and Raffaele Cortesi

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco / News /
Dante in Music: Interview with Manuela Custer and Raffaele Cortesi

14 September 2021 was the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, author of one of the greatest works of medieval poetry, the Divine Comedy. Celebrations were muted due to the global pandemic, but musicians – particularly in Italy – were inspired to explore musical settings of Dante’s immortal verses.  Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s contributions : I quattro sonetti da ‘La vita nova’ (1926), Sera (1921), and A Dante Sonnet (1939) were included in several projects that emerged from these studies. We recently had the honor of talking to the artists who conceived one such initiative. Mezzosoprano Manuela Custer and pianist Raffaele Cortesi kindly agreed to answer our questions about their CD for the Tactus label, Liriche su testi di Dante [Art Songs based on Dante’s Texts], which includes Mario’s Quattro sonetti.

Interview with Manuela Custer and Raffaele Cortesi by Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco : March 2024

How did this project come about? Other than the fact that all the pieces included are settings of Dante’s verses, how did you choose the pieces for this recording? Did you also have the objective of highlighting works that are lesser known?

This ambitious project was born during the height of the pandemic, which coincided with the 700th anniversary of Dante’s birth. During this terrible time, we think that many people re-read the Divine Comedy, and for us musicians, the almost immediate instinct was to seek out those authors who were unafraid to set such weighty texts. Thus our curiosity to sift through materials available in libraries (primarily the music section of the Palatine Library in Parma,  which is affiliated with local Conservatory, as well as at the National Central Library of Florence, which led us to pieces that were already well-known, along with other pieces, of no lesser value including [Francesco] Morlacchi’s Cantata [Il Lamento del Conte Ugolino] , [Hans von] Bülow’s Sonetto di Dante and Matelda by [Domenico] Alaleona. At the end of this journey, confident in our choices, we had compiled about an hour of high quality music, which we later recorded at La Fenice in Venice. The CD is distributed by Tactus, always attentive to this type of project. 

As far as the texts are concerned, the significant recurrence of the Sonnet XV, “tanto gentile e tanto onesta pare,” is emblematic for nineteenth-century composers, a sort of obligatory passage in its affectionately cantabile vein. Therefore, between the inspired passion of  [Stanislao] Gastaldon, the author of the infamous Musica Proibita [Unspoken Words], in this case free from kitsch, and the stilnuovo spirituality of Mario Pilati, this microcosm reflects the good state of health of the Italian art song genre.      

What did you find notable in the manner in which Castelnuovo-Tedesco set Dante’s sonnets?

First of all, the absolute relevance of his music to the text and the unmistakable way with which he enlivens the perfection of the verses with sound, transforming each piece into its own little universe.  Not at all intimidated by Dante’s language, and thanks to the use of measured and effectively evocative ancient stylistic features, Castelnuovo-Tedesco embraces the words with his absolute musicality, giving this archaism modernity and new vitality.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s art songs are considered rather complex. What challenges did you face while you were preparing to record his four sonnets, and how did these challenges influence your creative approach?

From the outset, we asked ourselves the question: how to define and choose a “right” tempo for each song? The author’s indications, far from offering immediate solutions, limited themselves to recommendations such as “Con grazia e fantasia – Serenamente – Teneramente – Elegiaco” [ with grace and imagination – serenely – tenderly – elegiac]. How do we then reconcile the complex piano writing that often doubles the vocal line, which extends in long phrases? How do we satisfy the request for  “trepidatious sweetness” with the iron-clad architecture of the harmonic structure? The narrative vitality, almost of a modern madrigal, that evokes, with a cinematic feel, inhabited landscapes, colors and even the warm light of a detail, helped us to resolve these doubts, recreating an ideal setting populated by various characters. The dialogue between the Knight and Love becomes a fleeting snapshot that leaves doubt about understanding a sibylline message; the freshness of Donna Amata’s gaze and stride leave an uncertain but indelible memory of an otherworldly presence, just as the pilgrims in the final song are cannot comprehend the mystery of a death as absurd as that of Beatrice.

Besides celebrating the eternal beauty of Dante’s verses, what do you wish to communicate to those who listen to your CD?

Faced with something so great, we listened, letting verse and harmony help us bring to life this poetry that has always aroused awe and absolute respect from Italian composers. We hope that the final result does not disappoint and that we have filled a small gap in the chamber music landscape. And thank you to those who choose to listen! 

Thank you, Manuela and Raffaele, for the beautiful music and for sharing a bit of  your Dante journey with us!