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And every sparkle shivering to new blaze,
In number did outmillion the account
Reduplicate upon a chequered board
Dante, The Divine Comedy – Paradise XXVIII
Translation by Rev. H.F.Cary (1814)
Observe the circle nearest, and know
the reason for its spinning at such speed
is that Love’s fire burns it into motion.
Dante, The Divine Comedy – Paradise XXVII
Translated by Mark Musa (1995)
In Canto 28 of Paradise, Dante, the pilgrim, is faced with an unbearably piercing light reflected in the eyes of his beloved guide, Beatrice. He turns and sees nine ever decreasing circles burning and whirling at different speeds. These circles give off sparks that sing hosannas. Dante has seen a spherical universe with God at the centre. He asks why the universe is not really like this, Beatrice tells him that he is now seeing it from a spiritual rather than a physical point of view, and that the reason for the great speed of the inner circle “is that Love’s fire burns it into motion”.
This imagery of circles within circles whirling, burning and giving off sparks seems to demand some musical treatment. It suggests a number of musical ideas revolving around each other and establishing a smooth relationship, and the warmer notion of love setting these ideas in motion.
The quintet, which is in one continuous movement, revolves around five central ideas. These ideas are moved around like pieces on a chessboard, each trying to gain some strategic advantage in pursuit of a single objective. Two of these ideas provide the rhythmic drive of the piece. The first, hesitant, but gathering speed and rising in pitch, is introduced by the viola at the beginning. The second, direct and syncopated, is announced by all four strings when they play together for the first time, before it is taken up by the piano. The main source of melodic material is a quiet tune, a love song, that threads its way through the piece, played first by the two violins and viola. The full version is heard in a piano solo played simply in octaves. In another guise this tune becomes the fourth idea, a fast dance that gathers momentum as the quintet reaches its climax. The fifth idea, fast accumulating scales, links the melodic and rhythmic elements and helps provide energy. The piece begins with a piano chord, which becomes a pivot for all these ideas and crops up in a variety of ways at crucial points.
And Every Sparkle Shivering is something like a mosaic composed by inlaying small tesserae of coloured stone or glass to create a sparkling over-all design. There is conflict between the warmth and vigour of sparking fire and spinning circles, and the coolness of glinting stone and flickering glass.
Commissioned by Chamber Music New Zealand with funding from Creative New Zealand for New Zealand String Quartet and Michael Houstoun to celebrate Chamber Music New Zealand's 50th anniversary
based on Dante quote
28 Oct 2000: Performed by the New Zealand String Quartet, Michael Houstoun (piano); Wellington Town Hall