Based on Canti XXV-XXVII of Dante’s Purgatorio. Premiered by the Diorama Quartet in London, performed by several U.S. ensembles, and featured on the album Fire In Heaven And Earth: Music Of Theodore Wiprud.


for string quartet / 12 min.

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Program Note

String Quartet No. 1: Refining Fire is inspired at every level by a passage from Dante’s Purgatorio. The quartet has three main sections, following the narrative: Dante (in the position of the listener) encounters a wall of flame forcing him toward the edge of a miles-high precipice; all is confusion; he becomes aware of souls passing through the flame, and eventually of the hymn they sing. In the middle section, the souls of the lustful who have repented are personified as the great love poets. They converse with Dante, in their various inflections and meters. In the final section, Dante realizes that he must pass through the flame himself in order to reach his beloved Beatrice. In terror, he makes his way through and is transformed. He hears ever more clearly the hymn sung by an angel on the far side, welcoming him to the gates of Paradise.

I have used two Gregorian hymn tunes, specifically mentioned by Dante—the first as the climax of the first section, and the second as the angel’s song, suffusing the second and third parts and being fully assembled only at the close.

My musical image for purification is harmonic simplification. The first measure of the piece is saturated with harmonic change; the last is a single unison note. Each instrument has a characteristic melody, played in myriad forms throughout the work, and each takes part as well in the two hymn tunes. At the outset, all four of the characteristic tunes play simultaneously; when the poets converse in the middle section, the tunes come out as solos. By the end they all fade as the hymn of the angel becomes simple and direct.

Finally, the musical phrases are built according to the terza rima scheme Dante devised for the Divine Comedy (aba, bcb, cdc, etc.). I alternate contrasting thematic ideas in the same pattern, creating in some passage a confusion of cross-cutting, and elsewhere an easy conversational back-and-forth.

—Theodore Wiprud

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