Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini

Notes by TŌN cellist Sarah Schoeffler

The Background
Francesca da Rimini is a symphonic fantasia written in 1876. It musically depicts the tragic story of the title character, as told in the Inferno cantica of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Tchaikovsky was initially drawn to this tale due to its operatic possibilities, and although an opera never came to fruition, the idea resulted in a work that was successful from its initial premiere and has become a beloved part of the symphonic repertory.

The Second Circle of Hell
In the fifth canto of Inferno Dante meets Francesca, who narrates the story of how she was forced into a marriage with a cruel warlord husband but instead falls in love with his brother. The lovers are discovered after reading the romance of Lancelot and Guinevere together, and in a jealous rage her husband kills them both. The two lovers are condemned to the Second Circle of Hell, where their punishment consists of being trapped together and hurled relentlessly about in a violent storm, never to walk on firm soil again. This tragic tale was especially popular with the Romantics of this time period, and Franz Liszt used it as inspiration for the Inferno movement of his “Dante” Symphony. One can hear strong influences of both Liszt and Wagner within Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini.

The Music
Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem has three parts, with a short introduction. The piece opens with a dark, somber effect by the basses and winds, which portrays Dante as he strays from the right path. The influence of Wagner is clearly felt in the tonally ambiguous harmonies of the introduction. As Dante proceeds deeper into the circles of Hell, the music continues into the first main section of the piece. In the second section, the tempo accelerates into a syncopated Allegro as Dante watches the violently spinning storm of souls in the second circle of Hell. In the last section, the music calms as Dante requests to speak to the condemned lovers. This section is introduced by a heartrending clarinet solo, which depicts Francesca’s point of view. The piece ends with a large orchestral tutti as we are drawn, along with Dante, through the terrifying tempest of souls once more.