The Very Air Itself Gives Voice: Multiplicity and Eric Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine”

In which Italo Calvino dies most inconveniently, Leonardo da Vinci sleeps most fitfully, and Daniel Wolfert gives some rather grand and undue opinions on artistic merit.


To my dear reader,

Six Memos for a New Millennium is not leisure reading. A collection of five thorny essays by Italian journalist and author Italo Calvino, the book details what Calvino considers the five indispensable qualities of good literature – lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity, with consistency intended to be the sixth and final essay but unwritten due to Calvino’s untimely death. Although only one work I examined while studying in Milan one year ago, it is by far the one that resonated with me most, and it is due to the fifth quality on Calvino’s list: multiplicity.

In its more common usage, multiplicity refers to the occurrence of a great number of different kinds of the same thing. In the context of literature, however, Calvino refers to literature’s layers of meaning – the numbers of themes it explores, the number of perspectives that can be taken when examining it. I suspect that, among other traits, a common one among culturally significant and impactful artistic works is this. There are a great many works I could use to explore this hypothesis, but because I have sung it in in two choirs, and because it plays into my love for music and text, and because this is my blog and I’ll do what I want, I’ll explore it in composer Eric Whitacre’s choral piece Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine.

The piece acts like a miniature opera, telling of Leonardo da Vinci dream of flight, all in the span of eight and a half minutes. Yet in spite of its brevity, the piece explores eight different musical scenes in its narrative, each different in text and musical expression – thus, from a dramatic standpoint, the piece demonstrates momentum and growth while retaining continuity. From a musicological standpoint, Whitacre beautifully blends compositional techniques and practices of the da Vinici’s time – such as the Renaissance style goat trill on the first appearance of the word “machine” – with contemporary ones – such as the improvisational sounds of rushing air during Leonardo’s imagined flight. From a compositional standpoint, Whitacre makes excellent dramatic use of musical dissonance and consonance, using violent, turbulent harmonies as Leonardo furiously scribbles his ideas down, releasing into gentle consonance at the ends of peaceful scenes, and fading into a whimsical fifth mode melodic minor scale at the end. These are just three ways I might examine the piece – there are undoubtedly more, and its multiplicity is what has made this piece continuously interest and delight me.

Only time will tell whether Leonardo Dreams will join the canon of “great works” – and Lord knows whether that really matters. What I can say now is that the work’s text says that, in his dreams, da Vinci heard the very air itself give voice, and I believe that Whitacre has given it voice magnificently. Were he alive, I believe that Italo Calvino might agree.

With all due respect,
Daniel Wolfert


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