Saturday, October 19, 2013

Inferno and Tchaikovsky

Among the many artists influenced by Dante's Inferno was the Russian composer Pyotr Illych Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), best known for his 6 symphonies and many symphonic poems (a nebulous form of music invented by the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt that usually consists of a single orchestral movement portraying an idea or event).  His best-known works are probably the symphonic poem Marche Slave, the 1812 Overture, and the ballet The Nutcracker.  Tchaikovsky was also a huge early influence on (and composition teacher of) Sergei Rachmaninoff, who we've already met; in fact, when Rachmaninoff wrote his opera Francesca da Rimini after Tchaikovsky's death he had Pyotr's brother Modeste write the libretto (story). Anyway, like many Romantics (as Ms. King mentioned) he saw the story of Francesca and Paolo as just the sort of emotional story that they loved to portray, although viewing it as such probably goes against Dante's original intentions.  He wrote the symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini portraying the brief affair and subsequent punishment:


He wrote the piece fairly early in his career, in 1876 during a trip to Germany where he saw Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Tchaikovsky had a highly individual and emotional style, and he eventually came to detest Wagner's nationalism (there's a bit more to this story: Tchaikovsky's primary professional rivals in Russia were a very nationalist group of composers known as the "Mighty Handful", consisting of some of my favorite composers: Mily Balakirev, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modeste Mussorgsky, C├ęsar Cui, and Alexander Borodin; naturally he tried to create an opposing style).  Accordingly, he chose a topic that he viewed as a sort of Romantic ideal rather than the heroic, nationalist themes of Wagner.  In the piece itself, you initially hear what I think is Francesca's despair at having to marry Gianciotto, followed by her affair with Paolo, and finally near the end a whirling theme representing their punishment in the Inferno.  You can definitely see how the story is romanticized past what Dante would have intended. 

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