La dama di Shalott / Leggenda No.2 / Invocazione ad Iside


Giacomo Cataldo


Lviv Symphony Orchestra
Ferdinando Nazzaro
Lviv Chamber Choir
Roman Kryskenko

Release Date

July 27, 2020

Catalogue No.


Categories: , .

Composed in 2015 La dama di Shalott is a tone poem based on Alfred Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott. While intended as a standalone work, it is also conceived to function as a short ballet. As such it is Cataldo's only true piece of programmatic music to date.

First published in 1833 Tennyson's poem is one of his early forays into the Arthurian mythos. It initially met with little success, but with the revised version of 1842 established itself as one of his most enduring works. It became a favoured subject for artists, particularly the Pre-Raphaelites as attested by the numerous works they produced depicting scenes from the poem.

The tale of the Lady of Shalott is present in most of the historical sources. While Tennyson's Arthurian works usually take their inspiration from Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, by the poet's own admission he first became familiar with this particular episode from the thirteenth century Italian novella Donna di Scalotta (found in the compilation Cento novelle antiche). While the poem shares superficial similarities to this version when compared to Malory, it nonetheless diverges widely in all its key points. The salient features of Tennyson's version cannot be traced to any known historical source and are of his own invention. As recounted by Frederick Furnivall in a letter to William Rossetti of 1868:

"I met the story first in some Italian novelle: but the web, mirror, island, etc., were my own. Indeed, I doubt whether I should ever have put it in that shape if I had been aware of the Maid of Astolat in Mort Arthur."

(Rossetti papers, 1862-1870)

This is typical of how the poet generally treated his Arthurian models, the source serving but as a point of inspiration to create something new which fulfilled his poetic vision.

In Malory and other sources the Lady is identified as Elaine of Astolat, but in both the novella and Tennyson she remains a nameless and far more mysterious figure. This heightens the sense of alienation, which serves the underlying themes of the poem. Not only are the Lady's curse and her magical weaving absent in the historical sources, so is the crucial theme of isolation. The development of Elaine's love for Lancelot as traditionally depicted is of a far more conventional sort rather than the symbolic yearning of Tennyson's Lady. Elaine is fully a part of her world, whereas the Lady is not, seemingly cut off from all contact so that even the local farmers who occasionally hear her voice in the distance consider her something otherworldly: "'Tis the fairy Lady of Shalott".

The basic narrative of the poem is very simple, one could almost say banal in its bare elements. It is through the text's symbolism that it gains its depth and dramatic power. The most commonly accepted interpretation of the poem's meaning is as a depiction of the conflict between art and life, the artist and the world around them. The symphonic poem and scenario for the ballet are based on this premise.

The Lady herself represents the artist in isolation. Bound by a mysterious curse, the details of which she herself is not fully aware, her existence has been dedicated to creation. On the isle of Shalott she ceaselessly weaves enchanted tapestries, her mirror being her only window to the world. Through her art of weaving she depicts the life and world she sees reflected through the mirror, but always remaining separate from the reality of that outside life which Tennyson's Camelot symbolizes. The curse stipulates that she cannot look out at the world directly, she can only see it through the mirror as "shadows". Once she is drawn into that outside life by the appearance of Lancelot her work ceases, which triggers the curse's fulfilment. The causal link between the abandonment of her work due to her finally viewing the world directly highlights that the former is as much the trigger for the curse as the latter. The cessation of her creative work can be seen as the loss of meaning to her existence consequently leading to her death.

This conflict between life and art and the artist's relationship to the world is a timeless concept, but was of particular concern to artists of the period.

"The lady working on her tapestry in a secluded tower represents the contemplative Victorian artist isolated from daily social life . . . There is a tragic ambivalence between the artist's desire for social involvement and his fear that such an involvement will destroy his poetic inspiration. In order to objectively transform life into art, the artist needs a distance from the turbulences of life. Disillusioned from their social environment, many Victorian artists retreated into dream worlds of the past. Although they often felt the urge to make statements on contemporary social and political problems, they tried to avoid a direct approach to such topics and rather chose to address those issues under the disguise of medieval legend or Christian allegory."

(Tennyson's Poetry as Inspiration for Pre-Raphaelite Art, 2003, Natalie Lewis)

Ultimately she remains in her isolation to the end. She never meets Lancelot, and never really reaches that Camelot that she has always glimpsed through the mirror as she has already died before the barge arrives at its destination. The people who witness her arrival react in primitive fear towards death and the unknown, and Lancelot can only comment on her appearance as he knows nothing of who she was, what her life was, and his own impact on that life.

While she had found satisfaction in her work, the Lady grew tired of the world of shadows (the life apart) in which she lived. Through the curse she knows that to leave is her doom, but the yearning is so strong that she chooses to do so nonetheless. This consequence of choice, along with the people's reaction (fear from the crowd, Lancelot's comparatively trivial comment) upon seeing her, unnamed, unknown - and now unknowable - is her tragedy.

Leggenda No. 2 was composed in 2017 and is the second installment in the series of pieces so named, the first dating back to 2010. The conceptual basis of the title is borrowed from Dvořák's eponymous set of compositions, with the intent to evoke some of the functions of the tone poem in the sense of conveying a continuous narrative, but without reference to any external source. Similarities end with this hommage however; Dvořák's Legends have a very different character and are a set of miniatures, whereas Cataldo's are conceived to be more substantial in scope and stand fully independent of each other.

As implied, there are no programmatic features to the piece which essentially functions as an abstract symphonic movement constructed from a single base motif. The narrative is contained entirely within the language of music, with no translation outside of it.

The text set in Invocazione ad Iside (Invocation to Isis) for chorus and orchestra is a brief excerpt from the final book of Apuleius' Metamorphosis, alternately known as The Golden Ass. Written in 2016, the composition was conceived as a concert piece but has also been adapted as a dance work.

Apuleius' work is a unique document in several ways: it is the only Latin novel to have survived in its entirety, offering a rare albeit fictitious glimpse of its times which is unlike what can be found in other surviving literature of the period; it is the primary extant source for the myth of Cupid and Psyche; and in its last book it offers rare insights into the beliefs and rituals of the cult of Isis. While there is some debate as to whether the religious feeling portrayed in this final chapter is sincere or a satirical parody, it remains the only surviving source describing the initiation rites of what were known as the "Mysteries of Isis" in any detail. From what is known Apuleius was himself an initiate in this and other cults, which gives authenticity to his account. The truth likely lies somewhere in between. The vision of Isis experienced by Lucius is presented seriously, and not without emotive power which is in striking contrast of the rest of the novel's humorously satirical tone, coloured as it is by Apuleius' uproarious prose. The characterization of the protagonist's later thoughts and actions and some of the other characters encountered within the cult are likely a return to Apuleius' satirising of human foibles.

The ancient mystery religions tended to be secretive, the details of their beliefs and rituals were only to be revealed to initiates of the cult. To speak or write of them for outsiders would have been considered blasphemous (which the narrator repeatedly states when acknowledging the limits of what he may relate to the reader). As a result very little material has been passed down to posterity, as when these systems were still active they were not openly spoken of, and by the time they were no longer considered religion, recording such information would have interested few and was thus forgotten.

While not specifically mentioned by Apuleius, part of the initiation rites are likely to have included such things as re-enactments of the death and resurrection of Osiris. The initiation itself was a symbolic rebirth, reflecting Osiris' resurrection. The concept of the would be initiate experiencing visions of the goddess in dreams was also central to the cult. The excerpted text covers Isis' message to Lucius during his vision, and the piece focuses on this moment in isolation, not ecompassing the novel as a whole.

The rites were intended to be mysterious by their very nature, and are rendered more so in the present by the absence of concrete knowledge. This sense of the unknown along with the mythical conflicts which are the root of the story are the thematic starting points. The music does not follow a narrative, as one isn't specifically defined in the selected excerpts. Structurally it adheres to its own internal logic, dividing almost into two movements near the midpoint. Like Tennyson, Cataldo used his source as but the starting point.

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