In Mills & Boon’s The Playboy of Rome, Dante is the dangerous Lothario (‘Dante might be hotter than the Italian sun, but he’s as cool as ice towards Lizzi’); in the Devil May Cry video games, he is a devil pursuing his brother Vergil, while his alter ego Dan Teal is the murderer in Matthew Pearl’s novel The Dante Club.


In the seven centuries since his death, writer Dante Alighieri has become inextricably linked to his fictional persona, a legacy that is preserved in literature, art, popular culture and, of course, music. Alighieri – generally referred to by his first name, Dante – was born in Florence in 1265. He began writing his most notable work, The Divine Comedy, in 1307, continuing to tinker with it until his death in 1321. Its three volumes (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso) follow the author through his journey into hell, accompanied by Roman poet Virgil, witness his ascent into purgatory and final voyage across heaven – guided by a woman named Beatrice.

Liszt's Dante Sonata

Dante’s contrasting descriptions of the concentric circles of hell and the purity of paradise have inspired composers ever since, but the most famous musical incarnations are by Liszt. The piano piece known as the Dante Sonata appeared in several iterations following its initial composition in 1839.

‘Liszt read voraciously as a young man, as he realised his schooling had been almost non-existent,’ explains pianist and musicologist Leslie Howard, president of the Liszt Society. ‘He worked through the principal Greek and Latin fellows and quite a bit of French but he didn’t reach the Italians until around 1839 – and then he made up for lost time; his first published song set Italian words by Petrarch.’

The Dante Sonata – or, to give its full title, Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata – enjoys an enormous discography, recorded by historic pianists (such as Sviatoslav Richter, Jorge Bolet and Emil Gilels), established stars (Martha Argerich, Angela Hewitt and Alfred Brendel) and the next generation of young performers (Benjamin Grosvenor and Joseph Moog).

The 30-minute work opens with a series of tritones, regarded as the ‘demonic’ harmony. ‘When this interval was first discovered – centuries before Liszt – it was thought there was something displeasing about an augmented fourth, so it was avoided,’ says Howard. ‘It had been observed for years, but Liszt is the one with whom this chord is most associated with – it is clear that his intention is to depict Inferno.’ However, Liszt’s sonata doesn’t strictly follow the structure of The Divine Comedy. After all, as Howard points out, ‘the title [Après une lecture du Dante] is a line from Victor Hugo, not Dante. Liszt was writing a reaction to Dante’s words rather than seeking to convey specific scenes.’

Liszt’s Dante Symphony is more explicit in its structure, its two movements representing respectively hell and purgatory. Unlike the Sonata, where there is debate around the composer’s intention – some writers believe particular passages could represent Dante’s Francesca, host of the circle of Lust, or even Liszt’s own arrival in heaven – the connections between the Symphony and Dante’s text are clear: the words are included on the score. The quotes include the famous lines ‘there is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery’ and ‘abandon hope all who enter here’, presumably, as Howard puts it, ‘as a reminder to the conductor’. In a more subtle connection, the rhythm of the main melodies often reflects the way Dante’s text is spoken.

The Divine Comedy as opera

The human relationships in The Divine Comedy make it ripe for operatic treatment. Puccini intended to write a series of three one-act operas to reflect Dante’s journey through hell to heaven. In the end, just one part of Il trittico (The Triptych) alludes to the work: Gianni Schicchi. Set in Florence in the 13th century, this finds the family of the recently deceased Buoso Donati horrified to learn that he has left his fortune to a monastery.

The wily Gianni Schicchi is summoned to pretend to be an ailing Donati in order to write a new will. Schicchi does this, promptly bequeathing the estate to himself. This tale is taken from Inferno: Dante encounters Schicchi as a damned soul fighting with the alchemist Capocchio. William Blake’s watercolour captures this terrifying scene, with Dante and Virgil looking upon the tormented Schicchi, pictured with a boar’s head and tusks, bearing down on Capocchio. Puccini, on the other hand, turns the moralising narrative into a comedy. It includes the famous aria ‘O mio babbino caro’, in which Schicchi’s daughter Lauretta sings of her desire to be with a man her father has forbidden her from seeing.

This Romantic expression and experience of love replaced the courtly love fashionable at the time Dante was writing – and was something the Italian poet felt at first hand. The Beatrice mentioned in many of Dante’s texts was based on a real person, Beatrice Portinari, whom the writer held in great affection, albeit from a distance (Beatrice was married). After Beatrice’s early death in 1290, Dante continued to be inspired by what he perceived as her good influence, publishing a collection of his writing in her memory, La Vita Nuova (‘The New Life’), in 1294.

Beatrice is often depicted with Dante in artwork: in Henry Holiday’s 1883 Dante and Beatrice she passes by with friends while Dante looks on longingly; in Alessandro Botticelli’s illustration, she is seen instructing Dante to climb Jacob’s Ladder into the realm of the fixed stars; while Blake shows her as weightless and luminous, released from materiality by her death and hovering under St Peter and St James.

The most notable musical representation of the relationship is Benjamin Godard’s 1890 opera Dante et Béatrice, which combines their story with that of The Divine Comedy. The conflation of the two stories is particularly obvious in its extended dream sequence, in which Dante’s love for Beatrice manifests as hell and heaven. In the true spirit of French Romanticism, Godard’s Dante et Béatrice sees Beatrice’s husband giving her up as she lies on her deathbed, declaring her love for Dante.

Although he never really went out of style, Dante’s following in the UK took off in the 18th century when Henry Francis Cary published the first English translation of The Divine Comedy. Along with the rest of Dante’s oeuvre, the work continued to resonate with British composers through the 20th century. Peter Maxwell Davies wrote Songs to Words by Dante, a song cycle for ‘baritone and smallish orchestra’ in 1967, and Gavin Bryars set the short Latin phrases from La Vita Nuova for male alto and string trio to mark the birth of his friend’s child Vita in 1989.

More recently, Thomas Adès has composed music for The Dante Project, a co-production between the Royal Opera House, Paris Opera Ballet and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for Covent Garden’s main stage – with choreography by Wayne McGregor. The score to the first part, Inferno, received its premiere in LA in 2019 and was performed again earlier this year by the National Academy of Santa Cecilia conducted by Gianandrea Noseda.

Adès fittingly takes inspiration from Liszt, using the notorious ‘demonic’ harmony to create a sense of foreboding throughout the 45-minute Inferno. The music loosely relates to seven scenes from Dante’s first volume, illuminated by hellishly ecstatic orchestral colours. ‘Somehow, I have made Liszt my Virgil to guide me through hell,’ Adès told the Spanish magazine Scherzo, further complicating the inter-referencing. We can expect similar complexity for the following two sections.


In an online seminar hosted by Kirill Gerstein and the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin, Adès revealed that he will be using recordings from the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem as part of the Purgatorio section. For Paradiso, he describes ‘going to town with an obsession with spirals,’ explaining that his aim is to ‘create the growing sense of infinite light’. Adès’s epic journey through the afterlife, performed this October at the Royal Opera House, promises to be a fine way of rediscovering Dante’s hellish worlds this anniversary year.


Claire JacksonJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Journalist Claire Jackson regularly writes for BBC Music Magazine and Opera Now, and the Big Issue. She has also written for Country Life and Pianist, as well as industry titles including Classical Music and International Arts Manager. She is also a former editor of International Piano (2011-15) and Muso (2008-11), an alternative classical music magazine that was distributed throughout conservatoires in the UK and the US.