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Stuart MacRae

Publisher: Novello & Co

Two Scenes from The Death of Count Ugolino (2004)
Commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation/Music Department (Lisbon) wih support from the British Council
Text Writer
Dante Alighieri
Novello & Co Ltd
Soloist(s) and Large Ensemble (7 or more players)
Year Composed
15 Minutes
Mezzo Soprano
Programme Note
Stuart MacRae Two Scenes from The Death of Count Ugolino (2004)
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

Preview the score:

  • Ensemble
    BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
    Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Loré Lixenberg (mezzo)
    Ilan Volkov/Susanna Mälkki
Stuart MacRae['s] own Stravinskyan affiliations were indicated by the quasi-instrumental abstract word-setting in the second part of this diptych for mezzo-soprano and ensemble on a particularly grotesque episode from Dante's Inferno.
Paul Driver, The Sunday Times,13/03/2005
MacRae is a composer often drawn to interesting texts, and this one from Dante's Inferno, where in the tenth circle of hell the treacherous Ugolino recounts his gruesome death. Not surprisingly, the instrumental colouring is dark, and the opening has a sinister stillness.
John Allison, The Times,09/03/2005
MacRae is more overtly concerned with drama. Taking his text from Dante's Inferno and the 10th circle of hell, the Two Scenes from the Death of Count Ugolino conjured a dark and gruesome atmosphere.
Rian Evans, The Guardian,08/03/2005
The first UK hearing of this chilling work drawn from Dante's Inferno came on Friday, with an awe-inspiring account from BCMG under the clear, authoritative and helpful baton of Susanna Mälkki and with the spell-binding Lori Lixenberg making her BCMG debut.
Christopher Morley, The Birmingham Post,07/03/2005
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