Anders Eliasson’s 'Dante Anarca'

On 18 and 19 December 1998, Stockholm’s Berwald Hall saw the world première of the oratorio 'Dante Anarca', the magnum opus of Sweden’s leading composer Anders Eliasson. In our days, writing an oratorio is a difficult task. There is no generally accepted canon for human mystery. If the composer aims to transcend the borders of confessional conventions without hurting the innermost feelings of real believers he will not easily find a suitable libretto among contemporary literature. Eliasson choose 'Dante Anarca', a prose poem by Giacomo Oreglia, an Italian author living in Sweden. In 'Dante Anarca' Oreglia praises Dante the anarchic and his "six masters": Vergil, Gioacchino da Fiore, Francesco d’Assisi, Siger von Brabant, the Mother of God and Dante himself. Eliasson divided the text into seven movements, each of them having its autonomic structural coherence und forming a complete unity together.

The first movement, Da un dialogo e sei l’anarca dell’Universo, starts with a dialogue fragment: The inquisitor asks the cleric to find the true masters of Dante. The cleric replies that the Curia’s exegesis "is and remains dust and ashes". Then there is an invocation of Dante, followed by an expedition into the purgatorio of our time, an apocalyptical presentation and the anarchist’s prayer. The introductory movement is the mightiest literally as well as musically. The vocal sections are connected by orchestral interludes which deepen and intensify the textual meaning. Eliasson demands a lot of traditionally musical qualities from the singers concerning long belcanto lines, cultivated phrasing and polyphonic interaction. He fully respects the human voice’s natural dignity giving the wild and jagged lines – the flames of inferno – into the hands of the orchestra.

The second movement concentrates on Dante and his unification with his masters ("cinque in uno, uno in cinque"). The unpredictably built repetitions of the proclamation "debellare superbos" (overthrow those who are haughty) leads into an immense climax. In La candida rosa the solo tenor’s adoration of the Virgin Mary (and Dante’s Beatrice) is interweaved with parts of Salve Regina and Credo sung by the choir, two times raising to massive culminations (Salve Regina and – with harassing dissonance – Maria Theotokos). The fourth movement – Giovacchino – pays homage to Gioacchino da Fiore, who "desecrated the sacred to save the world", praising him as "sole dell’apocalisse" and flowing into the lines of Veni creator spiritus. It is the oratorio’s plainest music, mostly tending to unison structure. The contralto’s shadowy timbre provides the tranquil atmosphere. Thereafter, in Francesco the soprano’s dramatic colours dominate the passionate scenery. The attributes of San Francesco "the eternally bare-footed" are ascribed to Dante, the fighter against tyranny. The sublime italianità of the last few bars (solo clarinet with a background of rustling bamboo) is followed by the metallically lashing introduction of the final section constituted by the two last


movements. La luce etterna di Sigieri evokes Siger von Brabant the great heretic, musically also summarizing the preceding movements. All the actors – choir, soloists and orchestra – mutually proclaim the messages of holy rage. The final movement Durante del Virgilio follows without a break, melting Dante and Vergil into one another, celebrating "Dante anarca militante", "liberatore" and "rivelatore", the "standard-bearer of a new age" (Dante’s age of the holy spirit) and – with the final cymbal beats – "the beating heart of our future". Dante Anarca is "the truest arrow against the darkest evil, against hypocrisy, government and mammon".

First of all, the truest arrow is Eliassons music keeping the tension from the very beginning to the very end. Every combination of sound he uses unmistakably reveals his fingerprints. His idiom is as unique as the development is unpredictable. There is not a moment of energetic stagnation. The music never forgets the vital context every situation originates from. It respects the transitoriness of every phenomenon. Everything is processual, dynamic, worlds in motion. It is free of adherent sentimentality as well as of coldly calculated construction. With Eliasson it is impossible to distinguish between style and ethos, between work and personality. The fragmentary, the broken, the work-in-progress-mentality are overcome. Dante Anarca doubtlessly is "the purest, the most beautiful and 'singful' music" Eliasson has written so far. He doesn’t need any aesthetics of avoidance. In Dante Anarca his music expresses the basic vibrations of Oreglia’s mystic "poemetto". It is never simply composed along the surface of the text. Outstanding craftsman he is he always managed to exemplify the existential aspects in sensually moving gestalt.

Substituting Sakari Oramo, Austrian conductor Manfred Honeck achieved an amazing performance. He learnt the 350 pages of the score in a language totally unknown to him within three days and did a fantastic job with real brillance and insight into the work’s deeper dimensions. Consequently Honeck has been announced as the new chief conductor of the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra that played excellently. The Swedish Radio Choir and Eric Ericson-Choir documented their top quality. Among the soloists tenor Göran Eliasson and bass Johan Edholm did their parts fine, contralto Anna Larsson fascinated with her characteristic timbre, and soprano Lena Hoel moved the listeners deeply with intensely luminous expression and magical lyricism being a true guide in Eliasson’s Dante world.

Christoph Schlüren

(review of the world premiere for the
music quarterly Tempo, 1999)