Behind Inferno: Sherman Irby's Musical Interpretation of Dante's Poem

Hell's never sounded so suave and soulful as it does on Sherman Irby's Inferno. The JLCO's lead alto saxophonist transforms Dante's epic poem into a sweeping work. Listen to the digital release here or visit our web store to purchase. 

Read the blog post below written by Dante scholar Matthew Collins, PhD Harvard University:

On May 17, 2012, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performed Sherman Irby’s Inferno suite, and it was a groundbreaking moment. 

For the first time, Dante’s ever-widening sphere of cultural influence had expanded to include jazz. Dante Alighieri’s Comedy, a three-part poem opened by Inferno, has been the source material for countless works of visual art, as well as film, comic books, classical music compositions, and more. Now, a poem that emerged from medieval Tuscany has come into contact with one of America’s great cultural traditions: jazz. In his piece, Irby re-imagines Dante’s vision of Hell, which consists of nine circles, each one deeper and darker than the last. In the narrative poem, Dante follows a fictionalized version of himself—sometimes referred to as “the pilgrim”—as he’s guided through the dwellings of the damned by the Roman poet Virgil. Irby’s composition translates the poem into the jazz vernacular, which is well-equipped to capture this infernal journey's array of sentiments and sensations. Shifts in musical atmosphere, changes in tempo, choices of solo instruments, and more serve as reflections upon the details of the narrative.

Inferno’s short overture evokes the disturbed and disoriented state in which Dante finds himself at the start of his poem, when he is lost in a dark wood. Dante—voiced throughout the work by the heroic and soulful baritone saxophone of the late Joe Temperley—is stopped in his path by three beasts: a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf. A short, swinging passage signals his discovery of Virgil, a source of consolation and encouragement. A lighter waltz sets in as Virgil announces that he was sent by three heavenly women who interceded on his behalf, but the overture ends with a descending passage and a final, ominous chord: the path to salvation that Dante seeks leads through Hell.

In the first movement, Dante meets the virtuous ancients who died before Christ and are thus forever stuck in Limbo, Hell’s first circle. This illustrious crowd includes Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, who are announced by the movement’s opening fanfare. Virgil informs Dante that this circle is his abode, too. The groove conveys an eternal "cocktail party" whose guests will never escape to Paradise; but, things could be far worse. Children who died before being baptized are also in Limbo, their purity symbolized by the lightness of the flute and clarinet solos.

The second movement’s orgiastic flutters and bursts pull together the second and third circles of Hell, which contain those who overindulged their carnal desires and fell prey to lust and gluttony. Next come the fourth and the fifth circles, which share the third movement. The fourth circle contains both the greedy, who push boulders in one direction, and the prodigal, who push back in opposition. One circle lower are the wrathful and the sullen. Irby depicts these oppositional types through clashing soloists; the resulting interchanges get boisterous, and almost argumentative at times. Anger gets the movement’s last word via some trumpet blasts and a bluesy trombone.

The sixth circle, where the heretics dwell, sits within the gates of Dis, as do all the circles that follow. Dante’s apprehension upon approaching the gates is expressed in the fourth movement’s opening drum roll, and its liberal use of Phyrgian scale motifs hints at Dante's reference in this passage to Islamic architecture. Upon entering this new space, Dante observes the heretics, all lying in fiery tombs; occasional bursts of sound remind us of the scorching heat of Dante’s surroundings.

The fifth movement corresponds to the seventh circle, which contains those who’ve been violent against others, those who’ve been violent against God, and those who’ve been violent against nature. Irby puts these different groups in dialogue through the alto saxophones (representing the first group) and the trombones (speaking for the latter two). Dante is particularly moved by the story of Pier delle Vigne, who committed suicide after being falsely accused of unfaithfulness to the king he diligently served. The pilgrim’s sorrow is reflected by a drum solo before a succession of other soloists enter with their own furious statements. 

Dante finally proceeds to the eighth (populated by the fraudulent) and ninth (populated by the treacherous) circles of Hell in the sixth movement. The composition begins with a brief habanera, which indicates the presence of the culturally distinctive figures of Mohammad and his successor Ali, both deemed fraudulent sowers of discord. The ensuing eerie passage corresponds to Dante and Virgil’s travel toward Hell’s ninth circle, the infernal depths, a frozen and windy terrain that lies at the precise center of the earth. At its core is Lucifer himself, and Dante has only one way out of Hell: by climbing his body. This final leg of the journey is both downwards and upwards because, upon crossing the center of Satan’s body, the pilgrim’s movement is now directed back toward the earth’s surface rather than toward its depths, as it had been until crossing the planet’s midpoint. This reversal of directions is implied musically in the descending notes of the tenor saxophone and then the ascending notes of the piano.

Both Dante’s and Irby’s Infernos end with our protagonist gazing up at the stars of heaven. Dante has reached the shores of Purgatory, where the next stage in his redemptive journey through the realms of the afterlife will soon begin. Joe Temperley’s horn sings, as only his could, and we ponder what’s to come. Perhaps Sherman Irby’s Purgatorio and Paradiso await us? Only time will tell.