On Identifying and Performing the Chants in Dante’s Divine Comedy
Written by Paul Walker


Singing and chanting play a large role in Dante's Purgatory and Paradise. (There is no music in Hell.) Dante clearly knew music, as his many references to performance details such as direct or antiphonal Psalmody make clear, but there are of course no "musical examples" in his text for us to perform from, and for many of the titles named there exist a number of possible melodies or formulas from which to choose. What follows is an outline of the rationale and research behind the recordings of chant and polyphony that Zephyrus has done for The World of Dante.

As scholars of Medieval music and Gregorian Chant know, the primary driving force behind the chant reforms of the Monks of Solesmes in the later nineteenth century was to restore the chant melodies to their "proper," Medieval state and to rid them of later accumulations and distortions. (It is always surprising in this context, given his importance for Latin church music in general, that Palestrina appears as the principal villain in this story, and that his edition of chant was seen by the Solesmes monks as the worst such edition ever devised.) All chant books produced since the Solesmes reforms, most notably the well-known Liber Usualis (a compilation of most of the most important chants for the most important feasts), have been motivated, then, by an attempt to collate the earliest and most important Medieval chant manuscripts and determine some sort of "definitive" or "original" version of any given chant. More recent work, on the other hand, has taught us to recognize that even during the Middle Ages, long before Palestrina and the Council of Trent, there was a great deal of regional practice and one encountered many variants, large and small, as one traveled around Western Christendom. Writing in the thirteenth century, William Durandus of Mende could also have been speaking of chant when, in the introduction to his Rationale for the Divine Office, he had this to say about the standard Latin liturgy that was his book's subject:

The reader should not be disturbed if he reads about things in this work which he has not found to be observed in his own particular church, or if he does not find something that is observed there. For we shall not proceed to discuss the peculiar observances of any particular place but the rites that are common and more usual, since we have labored to set forth a universal teaching and not one of particular bearing, nor would it be possible for us to examine thoroughly the peculiar observances of all places. 1

Whether or not, then, Dante himself had particular "versions" of certain chants in mind or thought of them as his favorites and was surprised not to find them elsewhere, the characters in his poem are more often than not singing as part of a group, and these groups do not seem to represent ethnicities or gatherings of countrymen. It seems most sensible, therefore, to approach the task of identifying chant melodies as one of searching out the most common and widely accepted ones, just those, in other words, that the Solesmes monks have tried over the years to favor.

Most of Dante's musical references are to liturgical chant. For the scholar-performer, these can be divided into four categories: (1) Those associated with a single, universally recognized melody, most notably antiphons, Mass Propers, and some hymns; (2) Psalms, for each of which nine different formulas are available; (3) Chants of the Mass Ordinary, for which multiple melodies are available; and (4) a catch-all category for all others. Since the first is obviously the most straight-forward, we will begin with it.


Marian Antiphons

Dante mentions three Marian antiphons: Salve Regina (Purg.7.83), Ave Maria (Par. 3.122 and 32.96), and Regina caeli (Par. 23.128). In Medieval chant the word antiphon can take on more than one meaning, and we see here antiphons serving two different functions. The Salve Regina (LU, p. 276) and Regina caeli (LU, p. 275) are chants that stand by themselves and function in the Office of Compline much as a hymn would in Vespers; that is, such an antiphon is always sung and the choice of antiphon changes with the season of the year but not with the day. Textually, an antiphon of this type is distinguished from a hymn through its lack of poetic meter, although both are non-Biblical.

The more common use for an antiphon is as a "response" to a standard liturgical text, most often a Psalm or the Magnificat, which serves to relate that liturgical text to the particular feast being celebrated. To do this, the antiphon is sung both before and at the conclusion of the long liturgical text and is itself brief. In the Liber Usualis the Ave Maria is applied in just this way to Psalm 121, Laetatus sum, for the much later Feast of the Rosary on October 7 (LU, 1679). Dante, on the other hand, describes the singing of Ave Maria without connection to any other text, and it was undoubtedly frequently sung in this way. These three Marian chants were among the most familiar and widely known melodies in the entire Gregorian repertory; later composers set them hundreds of time in their polyphony, and all Christians would have known them. For us today, of course, Schubert's setting has, alas, all but eliminated the simple and beautiful Gregorian Ave Maria from public consciousness.

Mass Propers

Mass Propers are those parts of the Mass that were particular to a given service and thus that changed from day to day. They rank among the most elaborate and most important chants in the Gregorian repertory, which makes their relatively minor role in Dante's poem a bit surprising. Only two Propers are mentioned. When in Purg.27.58 Dante hears sung the words "Venite, benedicti patris mei" (Come, ye blessed of my father), he is presumably imagining the antiphon from the Introit for the Thursday of Easter week (LU, pp. 791-792). We have recorded only the antiphon, not the entire Introit of which it forms a part. The textual incipit "Sperent in te" (Par. 25.98) begins the Offertory for the Sunday after the Feast of the Sacred Heart (LU, pp. 983-984), and in this case we sing the chant in its entirety.


One of the great musical innovations of the Reformation was the vastly increased cultivation of hymns (or, in Germany, chorales); indeed, hymns now represent the single largest musical component of most worship in the West. It can be a little surprising, therefore, to learn that hymns played only a small role in Medieval Latin liturgy, and none whatsoever in the Mass. The hymn's most prominent role came in the Vespers service, where a single hymn was always sung after the five appointed Psalms and before the Magnificat, but hymns also served other functions in other Offices. Te lucis ante terminum (Purg. 8.13) is sung at every service of Compline, the office which closes the day. The Liber offers several melodies and suggests the association of each with a particular season. We chose the first (LU, pp. 266-267), perhaps the simplest and best known. The hymn Summae Deus clementiae (Purg. 25.122) appears in the modern Liber Hymnarius (p. 206) as an office hymn for Saturdays. In the article "Musica" in the Encyclopedia Dantesca, Raffaello Monterosso transcribes (into modern metrical notation) a version of this melody from a twelfth-century hymnary of Verona, but with a somewhat different text from that found in the modern book and with only some of the verses given. Because of these differences, we have chosen to record the standard modern version.

The Te Deum (Purg. 9.41 and Par. 24.113), perhaps the most familiar and popular of all Medieval hymns, is not strictly metrical and forms its own category. Its melody (LU, pp. 1832-1834) was, like those of the three Marian antiphons described above, universally known, and its function seems to have been primarily extra-liturgical. It is described today as a chant "of thanksgiving" and it has often served over the centuries for ceremonies celebrating important military victories or the abatement of terrible plagues. Its presence in Dante's Heaven needs no explanation. We recognize that time means nothing in heaven, but here on earth we have chosen to record a frequently-used shortening of the hymn.



The second category of chant is Psalms, of which Dante mentions six. Early in its history Christianity gave the Biblical book of Psalms a central place in its worship: not only did this collection of songs take on central importance in the monastic community, where all 150 Psalms were recited as frequently as every week, most often from memory, but its texts were mined for item after item in the liturgical "programme" that we call the Mass and Office Propers. The book of 150 Psalms could be called the Bible's hymnal, but it poses one very significant difficulty to the musician wishing to set these texts to music, namely, that the Latin texts are not metrical and consist of lines of irregular length that can vary drastically from one to the next. A second well-known textual characteristic is that of the frequent presence of pairs of lines, both of which state the same basic sentiment with different words. What musicians devised, then, was a set of formulas, each of which had a certain pitch known as the reciting tone that could accommodate as many or as few syllables as each line required, plus a few brief melodic formulas to begin the Psalm and close each half verse and end of verse. Additional brief melodic formulas were available for the middle of each half verse in case the text went on at great length and a break from monotone chanting might be desirable.

The reason for a set of formulas rather than just one has to do with the interrelationship of Psalms and antiphons. As described above, antiphons were often used either to "Christianize" a Psalm or to relate it directly to the particular feast being celebrated, and the melodic characteristics of each antiphon determined its assignment to one of the eight traditional modes. There needed, then, to be eight Psalm tone formulas, one for each mode, so that the singer could smoothly fit Psalm to antiphon. Dante mentions no antiphons in conjunction with his Psalm citations, nor does he mention particular formulas, leaving the musician free to choose whichever of eight tones he might prefer. One additional formula existed. This was the Tonus Peregrinus, the wandering formula, so-called because whereas each of the traditional eight Psalm tones had one and only one reciting note, this tone had two, one for each half verse. In today's Latin liturgy this formula is specified, for instance, for Psalm 113, In exitu Israel, when sung to the antiphon "Deus autem noster in caelo" proper for Sunday Vespers (LU, pp. 254-256).

Psalm 113 happens to be the first Psalm, indeed, the first chant, mentioned by Dante in Purg. 2.46, and given its frequent association with the Tonus Peregrinus as well as Dante's particular emphasis on pilgrimage (peregrinus) in this part of his poem, we chose to chant the Psalm to this tone (LU, p. 160). The next Psalm mentioned, Psalm 50 (Purgatory 5.23), is the most penetential of the entire set, and it is chanted today at Lauds on Holy Saturday to its own simple and very austere formula (LU, p. 734), which we chose for our own performance. This Psalm is immediately followed in the Liber (p. 735) by Psalm 91 (Purg. 28.80), which is accompanied there by an antiphon in mode 2 and therefore sung to Psalm Tone 2, the formula we have used.

Psalm 31, Beati quorum (Purgatory 29.3, text found in LU p. 1740) speaks of the forgiveness of one's sins and is sung in Purgatory by a "woman enamored" (cantando come donna innamorata). We have chosen, therefore, Psalm Tone 8 because of its (to modern ears, at least) sweet effect achieved through the emphasis on G and C and the resulting suggestion of major tonality. Similarly, Psalm 30 (Purgatory 30.82-84, text in Antiphonale Romanum, p. 90), sung by angels, sets a happy mood, and we chant this to another "major mode" formula, Tone 5, notable for the prominent use of the major triad in its opening. Psalm 78 (Purg. 33.1-3, not found in the major liturgical books), by contrast, is a Psalm of mourning for the defilement of Jerusalem and is sung by women "weeping." For it we chose Tone 4, one of the two Phrygian tones, the mode most often associated as early as the Renaissance with passionate or unhappy moods.

No doubt inspired by the parallel verse construction frequently found in the Psalms, these texts have over the centuries often been chanted antiphonally, that is, with two more-or-less equal groups alternating by either half or whole verse. Dante specifies this mode of performance for Psalm 78 (3 women answered by 4) and Psalm 50 ("singing verse by verse"). Two of the Psalms, 91 and 31, are sung by one woman. The other two, 113 and 30, we sing with all singers throughout. On the presumption that Dante would have thought primarily of men when thinking of angels, we have recorded Psalm 30 with men's voices only.


Chants for the Mass Ordinary

We use the expression "Mass Ordinary" to designate those parts that are always (or almost always) present in every Mass: Kyrie, Gloria in excelsis, Credo, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Because of their ubiquitous presence, this set of texts has over the centuries acquired many, many musical settings, most notably perhaps those of polyphonic art music most familiar to us today and written by such masters as Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Stravinsky. Before Machaut initiated this phenomenon in the fourteenth century, there were also many Gregorian melodies for these texts, and Dante would have been familiar with many of these. In Purg.20.136 Dante hears the Gloria in excelsis sung as "a cry on all sides," for which we found the Gloria on pp. 40-42 of the Liber.

(in mode 7, the highest of the modes) most appropriate with its wide range and frequent high notes. For the Agnus Dei sung by spirits "loosening the knot of anger" (Purg.16.21) we chose the melody on pp. 27-28 of the Liber, a relatively simple chant with few highs and lows. In Paradise Dante refers three times (7.1, 8.29, and 28.118) to the singing of "Osanna"-which can best be interpreted to refer to the portion of the Sanctus/Benedictus text that is "Osanna in excelsis"-and once (26.69) to the words "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus" themselves. For the first of these (Par.7.1), sung by one individual, we chose the Sanctus from the same set of Ordinary chants as the above-mentioned Agnus (LU, p. 27). When the host of heaven sings these words (Paradise 8.29 and 26.69), we sing the Sanctus found on p. 21 of the Liber. The last reference to these words (Paradise 28.118) also mentions three-voice polyphony and will be discussed below.

Dante also indicates three texts that are Ordinary but not one of the "big five:" Asperges me (Purg.31.98), Labia mea Domine (Purgatory 23.7), and Gloria Patri (Par.27.1, with text in Italian). The antiphon Asperges me, taken from Psalm 50:8, is chanted by the clergy during the rite of the Sprinkling of Holy Water often observed at the beginning of the Mass. We have chosen the first, most familiar melody for this text (LU, p. 11). Domine, labia mea aperies (Psalm 50:17) is the opening versicle and response to Matins and can be found in the Liber on p. 368, with its continuation on p. 250. The Gloria Patri, well known even to Protestants as "Glory be to the Father . . ." and sometimes known as the Doxology, is ubiquitous in the Latin liturgy. It forms a part of every Mass Introit, and it also serves to "Christianize" Psalms through its emphasis on the Trinity. Like the Psalms, it can be sung to any one of eight formulas, from which we have chosen Tone 1 (LU, p. 14).


The Litany of All Saints

In Purg. 13.50-51 Dante describes a group of "shades" crying "'Mary, pray for us!' then 'Michael' and 'Peter' and 'All the saints.'" This is the Litany of All Saints, perhaps the simplest bit of chanting in the entire Gregorian corpus, found in the Liber on pp. 1882-1884. The list of saints of whom intercessions are desired is inordinately long; we have made a selection that includes those mentioned by Dante.

Veni sponsa de Libano

Later in Purg. 30.11-12, a figure "crie[s] thrice 'Veni sponsa de Libano,' and all the others after." There is no known Gregorian chant that begins with these words, nor are these exact words known to appear in any chant or in the Bible. However, a manuscript in Perugia (no. 2785) includes a chant (on fol. 84v-86r) based on several verses from the Song of Songs beginning "Tota pulchra es" and concluding with the words "Veni de Libano, veni coronaberis" (the latter from Song of Songs 4:8). We have taken this last phrase of chant, inserted the word "sponsa," and recorded the example just as Dante describes it.

Polyphonic Osanna

For musicians Dante's most intriguing reference is undoubtedly his description of three-voice singing in Par. 28.118. This is the only reference in all the Divine Comedy to polyphony. Here we find a group of three which "perpetually sings 'Osanna' with three melodies which sound in the three orders of bliss that form the triad." By Dante's time three voices had become the most common number for polyphonic music, but there is no known three-voice piece from the period that begins with the word "Osanna." As mentioned above, we have taken it to refer to the Sanctus text, and we have chosen to record the three-voice Sanctus found on fol. 6v-8 of the manuscript Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds latin 15129. A diplomatic transcription of the source can be found in Coussemaker, Histoire de l'harmonie au Moyen Age, Planche XXIX, no. 2, and an edition (from which we made a few changes based on the diplomatic transcription) by Jacques Handschin in his article "Eine wenig beachtete Stilrichtung innerhalb der mittelalterlichen Mehrstimmigkeit" Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Musikwissenschaft, vol. 1 (1924), Beilag, pp. 6-10.

1. Quoted and translated by Timothy Thibodeau in his article "Western Christendom" in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, ed. Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 230. The original Latin can be found in the Corpus Christianorum, Continuatio Mediaevalis, 140:9.