Literary Sites of Boethian Music Theory: Dante’s La Commedia

By Juliana Chapman

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Department of Comparative Literature, Pennsylvania State University

Growing out of the close relationship between the arts of rhetoric and music, the medieval and Renaissance periods exhibit a persistent interest in an interdisciplinary perspective on music theory and performance, branching out from music as music to include the visual arts and literature, among other fields. This inter-arts perspective can be seen, in part, in the proliferation of literary texts engaging music theory, particularly that of the late classical author, Boethius (d. 524 CE). Best known for his allegorical dialogue De consolatione philosophiae, Boethius also set forth an influential theory of music in his treatise De institutione musica. Indeed, his views on music philosophy and theory were pervasive and hugely influential for some 1000 or more years after his death, influencing the attitudes and compositional practices (whether literary or musical) of many of his artistic descendants, including Dante.

In La Commedia, Dante displaces himself along with Florentine, Italian, Catholic, and Roman history in an effort to enact a fiction of restoration beyond the limits of world history, politics, religion, and geography. While this has been studied from a number of critical perspectives, the role of music in the process of mediating metaphysical identity, exile, and dislocation bears further discussion. From Inferno to Paradiso, music pervades La Commedia, presenting what Francesco Ciabattoni describes as a “clear musical design” in the “soundscape of the three otherworldly realms.” Evoking Boethian music theory as Dante reimagines it in trecento Florence, music serves as a consolation in exile, a marker of displacement and identity, a structure of cosmic unity, and a method of reconciliation, return, and even resolution. Dante grounds the music of his poem in Boethian music theory, including the concept of the music of the spheres, the dual nature of music, and the idea of music as pharmakon, alongside representations of contemporary performance practices. By employing these trends in music theory and philosophy, Dante incorporates music into his poem as more than a scenic elaboration or a residual effect of poetic meter. Musica instead functions as a self-consciously applied literary aesthetic and structural device throughout La Commedia.

This musico-literary structure is evident in the antithetically styled cacophony of Inferno, the traditional monophony of Purgatorio, and in the increasingly complex and often disembodied polyphony of Paradiso. For example, much like the narrator in Boethius’s Consolatione, whose consolation comes through direct participation with La Musica, so too does the direct participation in singing sacred music bring about the salvation of souls in Purgatorio. Music is later represented as a figure of cosmic resolution in Paradiso, where the polyphony of the heavens enact a union with the divine that supersedes past dislocation or exile.

Throughout La Commedia, Dante joins in a tradition evident in the works of other medieval and Renaissance authors, consistently employing an aesthetic of musica in episodes of vocal and instrumental performance that depict Boethian music theory. However, by no means do I intend to suggest that music theory and aesthetics stagnate for several hundred years after Boethius, indeed by the time Dante engages Boethius it isn’t quite on Boethius’s original terms, it is, as Boethius’s own theories were, an appropriation and reinterpretation. Dante blends music and literature, engaging Boethian music theory to create a series of explicit aesthetics moments that use the images and ideas of music, rhetoric, and poetry to shape his poetic project. Leveraging music in the service of poetry, his fictions of music mediate the distinctions between an exilic, antagonistic experience, on the one hand, and Dante’s vision of the circumscribing unity of the divine, on the other hand, in the overall musical teleology of La Commedia.

Juliana Chapman is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature at Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests include medieval and Renaissance literature, musicology, book history, and interdisciplinary studies. Recent projects include an article on music in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “Melodye and Noyse: an Aesthetic of Musica in The Knight's Tale and The Miller's Tale” (Studies in Philology, Fall 2015), and current projects on Beowulf, Dante, and Spenser, respectively.