Dante Dances

(Danzi d'Inferno)

Dan Welcher

Publisher: Elkan-Vogel, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

The clarinet is not the most diabolical of instruments: traditions dating from the Renaissance give that distinction to the trombone. But composers have known for a long time that the clarinet is the strongest solo instrument in the orchestral wind section, and perhaps for that reason there is a long history of serious virtuoso writing for it. Mozart loved the instrument, and wrote two of his very best works for it (the Concerto and the Quintet). Rossini contributed a flashy set of variations, Weber wrote two concerti and several chamber works, and Brahms followed Mozart’s example with the Quintet as well as two very late Sonatas. In the twentieth century, the number of clarinet sonatas, trios, quintets, and concertos outweighs those for any other solo wind instrument by two to one – in terms of range (both pitch range and dynamic range), flexibility, and color, the clarinet can’t be equalled by any other wind instrument. And, like Paganini, a good clarinetist can seem somehow possessed by unearthly spirits.

So it made good sense when Bradley Wong approached me for a virtuoso piece for clarinet and piano to “go to the devil” for inspiration. I had already written a clarinet concerto, a clarinet quintet, and a trio (with violin and piano) – all rather elegant pieces – so this new piece had to go in other directions. I had been reading Robert Pinsky’s excellent new translation of Dante’s Inferno when the commission came about, and my first thought was “poor Brad: Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here!”

Building on that, I crafted an introduction, theme, and variations for clarinet and piano that became a suite of dances, with each dance named for a character found in Dante’s journey through the underworld. Each dance uses the same twelve-tone pitch set, but I caution listeners away from note-counting. The music is tonally based, and (as one can see from reading the dance forms) not intended to be High Art. The music begins with a cadenza, marked “The Gates Of Hell,” and inscribed with the familiar warning against hope – directed, of course, to the soloist. The dances then proceed in the order of Dante’s journey, through the concentric circles of Hell that are divided with particular punishments for special sins. First, there is a Tango (for Charon, the ferryman across the Styx), which leads directly to a Charleston (for Cerberus, the three-headed dog outside the Third Circle of Hell), and reaches a frenzied romp in the form of a Polka (for the Furies). The midpoint of the piece is a stately Gymnopédie, the Greek ceremonial dance made famous (some say invented) by Erik Satie, named for the two ill-fated lovers Paolo and Francesca of Rimini. The last two dances revive the speed, and further inflame the spirit, as the Poet crosses ever deeper into Hell. First, there is a snappy Schottische, named for Ulysses, and then a final Tarantella for Gianni Schicci (of course!) in which the slow melody of the Gymnopédie returns as a countermelody over the rollicking Italian dance.

The diabolical nature of the music began to take over its composer’s consciousness: as I was writing the final notes of the tarantella, I realized that it was the thirteenth of the month. I decided to check the timing of the completed piece, and found that it lasts about thirteen minutes. There was, indeed, a supernatural power taking an interest in Dante Dances. And, for those who wonder how nineteenth and twentieth century dance forms can be found in a fifteenth century version of Hell, I can only say that time is eternal. I’m sure that even characters from the fifteenth century who are living in Hell have been exposed, by now, to Tangos and Charlestons.

Dante Dances is dedicated, with affection and deep sympathy, to Bradley Wong.

Available on Rental

Additional Information

Composition Date 1995, 2008
Duration 13:00
Orchestration Solo Cl.; 1 1 0 1 - 1 0 0 0; Perc. Pno. Str. (
Premiere 1995. Bradley Wong, Clarinet; Phyllis Rappaport, Piano.


I. Introduction: The Gates of Hell
II. Tango (for Charon)
III. Charleston (for Cerberus)
IV. Polka (for the Furies)