I followed Dante and Virgil into hell, but I didn’t make it to heaven. Too many words, beautifully crafted, yes, but too many words. And too little action. In a nutshell: I didn’t finish the “Divine Comedy”, Dante Alighieri’s great literary work. However I stayed some time with Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo in the second circle of hell, reserved according to Dante for the lustful and adulterous, and watched their suffering. Francesca and Paolo, both married, had an affair with each other and were killed by Francesca’s husband. In hell, the couple is trapped in an eternal whirlwind, doomed to be forever swept through the air just as they allowed themselves to be swept away by their passions.
Dante’s tale inspired Pyotr Tchaikovsky in 1876 to write his beautiful symphonic poem “Francesca da Rimini”, Op. 32. Just like Dante in the tale, Tchaikovsky felt much sympathy for Francesca, the fallen noblewoman, and identified himself with her suffering. The poem opens on a dark, oppressive tone – you can imagine a human soul in a slow descent into the inferno, anxious, apprehensive about what is to come. At the same time you can relive through the music Dante’s horror once he witnesses thousands of tormented souls, caught in an seemingly endless circle of pain.
The drama around the two lovers’ fate and the sweeping whirlwinds giving them no rest from the souvenirs of their lust is illustrated by a powerful theme where the strings play the winds and the brass make up for the atmosphere. The music then subsides. In his “Divine Comedy”, Dante requests to speak to Francesca and to ask her about her fate – Tchaikovsky uses a solo clarinet to depict this. Francesca tells her story, a sad theme for the strings, dialoguing with the clarinet. The piece concludes by the murder of Francesca and Paolo (bass and cymbals) and a requiem-like theme as Dante bids farewell to the damned lovers. The finale takes up elements of string theme presented earlier in connection with the whirlwinds and ends on a brutal note, illustrating Dante’s shock over Francesca’s fate.
The composer wrote this piece within a few weeks during a stay in Bayreuth; the masterful collage of sound pictures is program music taken to its extreme. Tchaikovsky stayed in Bayreuth to study and write reviews about Richard Wagner’s operas. Has he been influenced by Wagner’s style? In an interview given many years later to an American newspaper, he voiced his great admiration for Wagner’s symphonic expressiveness while at the same time confiding that he did not warm up at all to Wagner’s ideas about operas.
The symphonic poem “Francesca da Rimini” was one of the earliest of Tchaikovsky’s compositions that I came across. It is often recorded together with the Overture Solennelle 1812, the piece that triggered my interest in classical music. My current favourite is a recording by the Russian National Orchestra under Mikhail Pletnev.
© Charles Thibo