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Currents: the beauty of the stars

The Beauty of the Stars

By Sara Maloney '13

Music is one of the most ancient traditions there is in this world. Music is able to set a mood, cast a setting, and even tell a story. Composer Z. Randall Stroope brought Dante's Divine Comedy to life through his piece We Beheld Once Again the Stars. The piece, a contemporary rendition (composed in 2004) of the Cantos written by Dante in the 13th century, follows Dante's fictional journey from the land of the living to Hell, and then through Purgatory, and eventually his emergence in Paradise among the stars.

The main idea behind Dante's work is to show man's passage through the afterlife. Since while he is writing it with himself as the main character, and there is no scientifically legitimate way to communicate with those in the afterlife, it can be safely assumed that it is a fictional story; an epic with a moral to hold onto yourself throughout any doubts or suffering. Stroope's piece reflects Dante's passage through changes in tempo, key and dynamics, starting from a fairly soft, gentle melody, before transferring to the much harsher, pressing, and powerful music of the Inferno, or, Hell. It then moves back towards the light in Purgatorio, and upon his arrival in Paradiso, swells into a figurative tidal wave of the sounds of the heavenly as he sees the stars again. The piece ends with the same quiet chord as started it, showing the Dante's return to peace in his newfound home among the stars.

I believe that it qualifies as a great piece of music because of its ability to invoke an emotional response when someone hears it for the first time, or even for any of the other times it is heard. Having heard this performed by a High School All-State Chorus in Symphony Hall in Boston, I can personally credit the power of this piece. The story it is telling is one that I believe all people should read, regardless of their religion, and the piece tells it in such a way that the people will take notice. It is a story of survival in a situation in which there is no prior understanding. Every person in the world must go through a situation like this at some time in their life, even if they are the only one who lacks the understanding of that situation. It may not bring us on a journey through hell, but it will always be a challenge that one must face alone and with power. With this story as the backbone of the piece, and its dynamic shifts in sound, it is very easy to relate the piece to Nietzsche's writings on Apollonian and Dionysian art.

Apollonian art, according to Nietzsche, is the art of dreams. Dante falls directly into this category through the simple fact that his story is a fictional one, and Nietzsche even mentions the Divine Comedy in his writing.

“And it is not only the agreeable and friendly pictures that he experiences in himself with such perfect understanding: but the serious, the troubled, the sad…in short, the whole Divine Comedy of life, and the Inferno, also pass before him, not like mere shadows on the wall – for in these scenes he lives and suffers – and yet not without that fleeting sensation of appearance” (Nietzsche p. 499).

He makes the point that not all dreams are pleasant; sometimes you have nightmares. This does not make it anything less of a dream; it just adds the extra layer of human fear and suffering into the mixture that is the human experience. Stroope very accurately represents this in the portion of music that is supposed to be Dante's time in Hell. Its harshness is meant to strike fear in the mind of the listener, a warning against following Dante down that road.

Even with the harsh music however, Stroope is sure to add in the next piece of the Apollonian art form – the need to always struggle through what you face. Nietzsche makes the point through his story of King Midas and Silenus. “Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to tell you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you – is quickly to die” (Nietzsche p. 505). But Nietzsche does not believe that death is the way to have a good life. It is, in fact, counterproductive. His reasoning brings forth the idea that art is the way to live. That art is the reason to live. It gives life a true meaning, a purpose: “…this deep consciousness of nature, healing and helping in sleep and dreams, is at the same time the symbolical analogue of the soothsaying faculty and of the arts generally, which make life possible and worth living” (Nietzsche p. 500). Stroope removes the one listening to his piece from the harshness of the Inferno and into the more gentle sounds of the Purgatorio. This is meant to prove that there is something worth living for on the other side of the obstacle, a reason to survive. People work every day to make things turn out better for the next day. Stroope is just trying to express the truth of this idea through a more emotionally involved sense than Nietzsche.

Another way that the Apollonian style of art is applicable to the piece is in its ability to bring the listener into a sort of fantasy world where they are not in danger, and can simply appreciate the beauty of the objects and ideas around them. This is the reason that the Divine Comedy fits so well as a musical composition. The descriptions of the settings in the Cantos can be exemplified in the music, just based on rhythm and harmony. You can tell that the section referring to the Inferno is something unpleasant, while the section of Paradiso is so powerfully moving, it is enough to make your heart swell and your eyes tear. Both types of development, however, hold their own beauty in their own ways. As Nietzsche says, “We must keep in mind that measured restraint, that freedom from the wilder emotions…His eye must be 'sunlike,' as befits his origin; even when his glance is angry and distempered, the sacredness of his beautiful appearance must still be there” (Nietzsche p. 500). Just because something is wild or angry, does not make it beautiful. It is like taking the human form when in a fit of anger. Many people are claimed to be most beautiful then, when a high passion is reached. Phrases like 'eyes flashing' and 'flushed faces' appear in literature often, usually to describe both beauty and anger. This beauty can be seen as a unifier – people of all backgrounds can usually agree on a physically attractive form. And as a Dionysian artist would claim, the intoxication by both beauty and drink can change the meaning of a piece or event.

We Beheld Once Again the Stars can be considered a Dionysian piece for a couple of reasons. First, it creates an atmosphere similar to the one which occurs as a group drinks together. Nietzsche says,

“Under the charm of the Dionysian not only is the union between man and man reaffirmed, but Nature which has become estranged…celebrates once more her reconciliation with her prodigal son, man…Now the slave is free; now all the stubborn, hostile barriers, which necessity, caprice or “shameless fashion” have erected between man and man, are broken down. Now, with the gospel of universal harmony, each one feels himself not only united…with his neighbor, but as one with him…he has forgotten how to walk and speak…He feels himself a god, he himself now walks about enchanted, in ecstasy, like to the gods whom he saw walking about in his dreams.” (Nietzsche p. 501)

During Stroope's piece, the collective group that is listening is drawn in to the chorus like a moth to flame. While there is not necessarily drink present, the listener is brought into a mass feeling of companionship similar to an alcoholic stupor in that they become less aware of the surroundings and are more open to reacting on their gut instinct. This was exemplified by the crowd seen when this piece was sung at Symphony Hall, causing a good portion of the crowd, men and women alike, to begin to cry at its beauty and power. The “hostile barriers” of social decorum were set aside because of the raw feeling that came from the music.

Secondly, the piece shows that there is beauty after death, making the concept more acceptable to the living. It is still an unknown factor which brings terror to those who cannot comprehend the inevitability of death, but Stroope's piece, as well as art in general, can provide a sort of comfort. As Nietzsche argues, “But at this juncture, when the will is most imperiled, art approaches, as a redeeming and healing enchantress; she alone may transform these horrible reflections on the terror and absurdity of existence into the representations with which man may live” (Nietzsche p. 521). The music transforms the fear into the believable; though we may suffer for our sins when death first occurs, that is not our eternity. You can be cleansed of those sins, and once you are, you are allowed to ascend to paradise, till the end of all days. There is no way to be completely clean of all sin at death; simple childhood behavior makes that impossible. However, if a healthy life is lived, there will be less suffering after death, and ascension will occur sooner. That being said, it is impossible for all of mankind of avoid suffering anything for their entire life. When that is recognized, and the individual tries to combat that suffering from consuming him or herself, art becomes nearly the only saving factor, as it can appear in as many forms as needed, and can be recognized by nearly all people in some form or other.

The composition of We Beheld Once Again the Stars is truly a beautiful thing. Even as someone who does not believe in a religion, I am able to recognize a piece of religious art that is so powerful, it can take the breath away from the listener. Art truly is the form of escapism that everyone can get behind. There will always be something that someone can find beautiful, be it natural or manmade. Nietzsche would probably claim that this makes me a follower of the Dionysian style of living, though I must say that I can't really take the drinking bit of that theory. Stroope was able to create a piece of music that nearly all can relate to in some way – whether religiously or just hopefully. It can only be hoped that those who fall back on the need for art in times of trouble are able to find what they are looking for, and I for one believe that Stroope's composition is one of those pieces that everyone can safely rely on.