Two Scenes from the Death of Count Ugolino is based on a text from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, in which Dante, in the tenth circle of Hell (the frozen lake of Cocytus, that being reserved for traitors) encounters Count Ugolino with his jaws planted in the back of the head of another, Archbishop Roger.
Scene One describes Dante’s encounter with this horrible image, and relates the first sorrowful words spoken by Ugolino. In this movement, the singer’s part follows the expressive nuance of the text, employing a great dramatic vocal range, and the ensemble, for the most part, follows and counterpoints this line.
Scene Two follows Ugolino’s description of the cruel death he and his sons suffered at the hands of Archbishop Roger, who had them locked up in a tower until they died, one by one, of starvation. Here the ensemble dictates the pace of the music, while the singer acts at times more like an instrumental soloist than a narrator. The form of the movement is defined by the repeated refrain "se non piangi, di che pianger suoli?" ("If weep’st thou not, what art thou wont to weep at?")
I first encountered references to the story in the sculptures of Rodin and Claudel, which powerfully capture the horror of Ugolino’s death. More importantly, though, they also express the profound pathos of the scene, and Dante’s text combines Ugolino’s pleas for sympathy with the horrible imagery used to describe both his passing and his afterlife. In Two Scenes from the Death of Count Ugolino I have therefore tried to bridge the gap between our horror at the awful depravity (which is now perhaps more widespread than ever) and the deep sympathy we must feel if we are to help those who suffer because of it.
© Stuart MacRae 2004