The Kennedy Center

Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Thomas May

Shakespeare had been the vehicle through which Tchaikovsky first found the inspiration he needed to settle into his true voice, in his "fantasy overture" based on Romeo and Juliet of 1869. Literary sources continued to provide the impetus for purely orchestral works throughout his career, with the composer clearly (though by no means exclusively) inclining toward scenarios involving tragic lovers and an atmosphere of dark pathos. Francesca da Rimini, which Tchaikovsky styled a "symphonic fantasy," belongs to this category and represents one of the most ambitious orchestral efforts from his early period, coming after the First Piano Concerto and Swan Lake.

Initially, Tchaikovsky was drawn to the operatic possibilities of this tale, which is recounted in the Inferno section of Dante's Divine Comedy. In the winter of 1875/76, he took a libretto by the theater and music critic Konstantin Zvantsev under consideration. This project ultimately proved unworkable. Zvantsev was a fanatic Wagnerian -- an enthusiasm decidedly not shared by the composer -- and wanted his libretto to be set following the dictates of Wagner's music drama.

However, during a listless period later that summer, Tchaikovsky's brother Modest, a dramatist, tried to awaken his creative interest by pitching several programs for treatment as orchestral tone poems, including one based on the Dante source. Several decades later, incidentally, Modest went on to write the libretto for Rachmaninoff's opera on the same story, a work which also features substantial sections for orchestra alone. Tchaikovsky immersed himself in Canto V of the Inferno, which concerns Francesca da Rimini, and found himself "inflamed with a wish to write a symphonic poem on Francesca."

Her tragic love story was especially popular with the Romantics. Liszt had incorporated it in the Inferno movement in his "Dante" Symphony, while mention of Gustave Doré's illustration of the lovers occurs in Tchaikovsky's correspondence about the piece. Francesca and Paolo are tormented in the Second Circle of Hell, reserved for those who gave in to sensual pleasure. Francesca narrates the story of how she was forced into a hateful marriage with a deformed warlord but fell in love instead with his handsome brother, Paolo. As they read the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere together, it inflamed their desire. Francesca's husband, catching them making love, murdered both. Their punishment consists in being hurled relentlessly about in a hurricane of souls, "just as they used to give way in life to the tempest of sensual lust" (as Tchaikovsky writes in his preface to the score, which includes a lengthy quote from Dante's Canto V).

The composer settled on this topic for a symphonic work while he was traveling abroad in the West. He was scheduled to cover the world premiere of Wagner's Ring cycle in August 1876 as a critic for the Russian press. Tchaikovsky found the experience essentially tedious and "oppressive," delighting in puncturing the mystique of Bayreuth in his dispatches. At the end of the cycle, he wrote, "I felt as though I'd been released from captivity." By October he was back home, where he immediately began composing Francesca da Rimini, sketching out the score in a mere three weeks and finishing the orchestration shortly thereafter. The premiere followed early in 1877 and garnered widespread praise for the composer.

Commentators are fond of attempting to psychoanalyze Tchaikovsky's attraction to such subject matter -- speculating, for example, on his identification with the doomed Francesca in light of his own sexuality. Yet the story as narrated by Dante also suggested a powerful contrast between past and present that could be exploited in purely musical terms -- a structure that Tchaikovsky emphasizes in the piece.

Ironically, his reluctant Ring encounter works its way into his score -- as Tchaikovsky was the first to acknowledge. "Isn't it strange," he wondered, "that I should have fallen under the influence of a work of art for which I feel, on the whole, a marked antipathy?" A hint of Wagner is perhaps most obvious in the tonally ambiguous, portentous brass harmonies of the Andante lugubre introduction: Here Tchaikovsky depicts Dante's descent into hell. The music accelerates and gives way to a furious, anxiously syncopated Allegro in E minor as Dante witnesses the phenomenon of the spinning tempest of souls. The composer devises an easily perceptible structure for the large span of Francesca. Developed from motifs heard in the introduction, the tempestuous music frames a calm but melancholy inner panel (which is actually the lengthiest section of the piece).

The latter, an Andante cantabile, is introduced by a plaintive clarinet solo and presents Francesca's point of view. Tchaikovsky paints her with one of his most spacious melodies. Its widely ranging contours are well suited to the veiled, chamber-like scoring with which he develops Francesca's music of memory -- in marked contrast to the surrounding present tense of the storm scene, with its raging chromatic tutti and fearsome brass. "There is no greater sorrow than to recall a happy time in misery" is Francesca's motto (a reversal of the famous aphorism of Dante's guide Virgil in the Aeneid, "Perhaps it will even be pleasing to remember [sorrowful] things one day"). An English horn, accompanied by harp, sounds a second theme in the Francesca section, with some touches of Liszt as well as Swan Lake along the way. Inevitably, though, we are drawn, along with Dante, to cross back through the terrifying tempest. A tautly condensed recapitulation of the storm music leads to an electrifying coda and the image of the poet fainting in sympathy.