Saturday, October 26, 2013

Francesca da Rimini... Again

Yet another rendition of Dante's Inferno in classical music is Sergei Rachmaninoff's opera Francesca da Rimini (1906), which I mentioned in my earlier post on Tchaikovsky.  Although I've mentioned Rachmaninoff a number of times, I have not yet given any bio or context, so here it is.  Rachmaninoff was born in Novgorod in 1873 to a formerly wealthy family (like most Russian composers at the time) that sent him off to the St. Petersburg Conservatory.  Here is probably a good place to note that the conflict I mentioned in an earlier post between Tchaikovsky and "The Five" was also a conflict between the Moscow Conservatory, where Tchaikovsky taught, and the St. Petersburg Conservatory, in which city The Five lived and/or taught.  Luckily for us, Rachmaninoff failed out of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and was transferred to the Moscow Conservatory at the age of 12.  Studying there for the next seven years (he graduated a year early), he became friends with composers such as Tchaikovsky, with whom he had a particularly close relationship.  At Rachmaninoff's presentation of his first published pieces in Tchaikovsky's composition class, when he was only 14, Tchaikovsky apparently gave him the equivalent of an A+++++++++ (he literally covered the sheet with plusses), and his early compositions are basically indistinguishable from Tchaikovsky's except for his use of huge block chords, which Rachmaninoff liked because of his enormous hands.  Anyway, in terms of Francesca da Rimini Tchaikovsky brought Rachmaninoff up in an operatic style he pioneered in which, rather than having the action split up into very distinct scenes with different styles to represent different moods ("Number Opera"), Tchaikovsky would focus more on stylistic unity and write to represent a single idea or emotion throughout, with the actual plot reflected in changing moods and lyrics over a common set of motifs.  If you remember Isle of the Dead, it clearly shows this influence, as even as it represents the dead souls moving through states of despair and elation, there is a constantly ominous, foreboding feel represented in the "oars" motif.  All three of Rachmaninoff's operas, of which Francesca is the last, were written in his early years, while he was still writing in the shadow of Tchaikovsky's influence.  Here's a recording of the opera:

The opera begins with Virgil showing Dante Francesca and Paolo, then goes into the story of their discovery by Gianciotto, after which it returns to Virgil, who faints out of pity.  It is unusual, but very like Tchaikovsky's operas, in that it is divided into a prologue, two tableaux, and an epilogue rather than the traditional format of acts.  It is essentially a story told in scenes to illustrate the two lines that really form the basis of the work: in our translation, "There is no greater pain/ than to remember, in our present grief,/past happiness" (V 121-123).  Again, this is a huge romanticization of Dante's original intention, in that it celebrates their love and Dante's pity rather than divine justice. 

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