By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
April 30, 2014
Francesca and Paolo on the hell-wind, frontispiece to The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, volume I, The Davos Press (New York), 1909. In The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature. This illustration, from the Longfellow translation, is similar to the Doré that inspired Tchaikovsky. While we love Longfellow at the Dalenberg Library, his version of The Divine Comedy is not his best-remembered production. It seems to suffer from a slavish devotion to transliterating the Italian lines into English, producing many examples of inverted syntax, often to the point where you cannot follow the story. To be sure, there is some charming 19th Century language (such as when Longfellow characterizes the sinners of passion on Dante’s second level of Hell as “carnal malefactors”). Longfellow botches the most memorable quote in Dante’s scene, where Francesca says “. . .There is no greater sorrow/Than to be mindful of the happy time/In misery. . . .” The same line is rendered much more poetically by Dorothy Sayers in her 1949 translation: “. . .The bitterest of woes/Is to remember in our wretchedness/Old happy times. . . .”
Freshly immersed in the theatricality of Wagner’s Ring cycle of operas–having attended the first full production of the Ring cycle in Bayreuth, Germany–Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) briefly considered writing an opera on the theme of the doomed lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, based on the famous episode in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno. Balking at doing it as an opera, he settled instead for turning the subject matter into his 1876 symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini. Perhaps not as well known today as other early Tchaikovsky orchestral masterpieces, such as the Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture, Francesca da Rimini is a remarkable piece that has everything in it that people love about Tchaikovsky, sumptuous orchestration and the kind of expansive, gorgeous love theme melody that keeps Tchaikovsky on the greatest hits list.
Tchaikovsky casts Dante’s Francesca da Rimini episode as a kind of frame story in music. First, he depicts the gates of Hell that the shades of Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, must pass through. Then, he depicts the swirling whirlwind that has trapped the doomed lovers, sentenced to be buffeted about for an eternity in Hell by the storms of their passion. Then, portrayed by a solo clarinet, Francesca steps out of the whirlwind to tell the story of her passionate love affair with Paolo, the younger brother of her hideously deformed husband, and of how they were murdered together by her husband’s hand and condemned to an eternity in the Inferno due to their illicit passion. The music swells from solo clarinet to full orchestral grandeur as the story is told, and then Tchaikovsky deconstructs the melody and the music morphs back into the roiling tune of the hell-wind.
One does not usually think of Wagner and Tchaikovsky in the same sentence, but the hell-wind music of Francesca da Rimini is Tchaikovsky’s one true Wagnerian moment, and it is equally as effective as the grand love theme. Interestingly, Tchaikovsky had his doubts at first. Tchaikovsky was as much inspired by Gustave Doré’s illustration of the doomed lovers as he was by the Dante text. He wrote to his brother Modest upon completing the draft for the symphonic poem, “As for the whirlwind, something might have been written to better correspond to Doré’s illustration, but it did not turn out as I had wished. However, a true judgment on this piece is unthinkable until it has been orchestrated and performed.” Listening to the piece today, it appears that Tchaikovsky was selling himself a bit short. Final judgment is quite favorable.
Apparently, Tchaikovsky was momentarily obsessed with the Francesca da Rimini story to the point where he had to get it out of his system by writing something based on it. It is easy to think that brief obsession was fuelled by Tchaikovsky’s constant preoccupation with the doom inherent in his own love life, given the internal conflicts over his sexual orientation (about which he vacillated from a point of comfort to the guilt of characterizing it as a “vice.”) All discussion about Tchaikovsky these days is consumed with his closeted homosexuality. It is easy to think that his fascination with this tale of doomed lovers has something to do with the maelstrom that constantly raged inside him about his comfort or discomfort (depending on the moment) with his sexual orientation, and the struggle in those days with public vs. private appearance. I used to think that Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was some kind of myth that was created by modern gays to show how many famous people used to be gay. But, in reality, the more you read, it appears that Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality was most likely a major part of his personal identity and informed a lot of the events and struggles in his biography. A very good book on the topic, and the one to which I owe the above quote in the letter to Modest, is Alexander Poznansky’s 1991 book Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man.
Aside from the question of whether one man’s fascination with this tale of doomed lovers related to internal struggles over his sexuality, it appears that this tragic tale held sway over lots of people in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. An Internet search uncovers no fewer than 17 different operas based on Francesca da Rimini, as well as numerous stage plays. The average art museum-goer may not know this, but Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture The Kiss is actually a depiction of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta locked in an embrace, their lips not exactly touching, as if they are poised on the very moment of their first transgression or possibly about to be interrupted before consummating their love. The Kiss was originally planned for that other Rodin masterpiece The Gates of Hell, but the artist removed the Francesca da Rimini figurine from the finished sculpture and expanded it into its own piece.
The source material for this tale of doomed lovers is based on actual history, enshrined by Dante Alighieri in Canto V of the Inferno, from The Divine Comedy. The events were contemporaneous with Dante’s life and well known to him because he lived in the area. Rimini is on the eastern Italian coast in the same province as Ravenna, where Dante died after having been exiled from his native Florence. Francesca was the daughter of Guido da Polenta of Ravenna, who had been at war with Giovanni Malatesta of Rimini (Italian city-states were given to bickering in those days long before the unification of Italy.) At age 20, Francesca was given to Giovanni, who was known for being crippled or deformed, in an arranged marriage as part of a truce between the warring families and their city-states. It so happens that Giovanni had a younger brother, Paolo, who was more handsome, hearty, and hale. Francesca and Paolo embarked on a 10-year affair under the nose of Giovanni, until about 1285, when Francesca was 30 years old. The lovers were discovered together in Francesca’s bedroom, and Giovanni murdered both of them by his own hand. Apparently, there were no earthly repercussions to Giovanni, other than the local fame of the episode, because he lived until 1294, and went on in his warrior capacity to capture a local city, Pesaro, and rule it until his death.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante (c. 1265-1321) put Francesca and Paolo in the second circle of Hell, buffeted about eternally by winds that are intended to mirror the passions to which they sacrificed their reason. Their eternal damnation may seem unfair from a modern perspective, because a modern point of view would likely give Francesca a pass for being mere chattel in a political truce. But to be fair to Dante, he does get modern credit for condemning Giovanni to the lowest circle of Hell for offing his brother. Apparently, it was ok to Dante that he killed his unfaithful wife, but the real shame was that he committed fratricide.
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), in his book on Dante, adds the element to the story that Francesca had been tricked into marriage with the crippled older brother, thinking it was the younger brother who was her suitor up until the moment at the altar. Dante does not mention any such twist in Inferno and nobody before Boccaccio mentions it, and historians think it highly unlikely that it really happened that way. But many of the 19th Century versions of the story include that plot element, which serves to make the story even more tragic, as Francesca gets tricked into marrying the cripple, gets seduced by the younger brother, gets murdered by her husband, then ends up in Hell for eternity.
While Tchaikovsky did not make Francesca da Rimini into an opera, his greatest spiritual successor, Sergei Rachmaninoff, did produce such an opera, which premiered in 1906. Modest Tchaikovsky had encouraged his brother Peter to write the symphonic poem; but he went one step beyond encouragement for Rachmaninoff and actually wrote the libretto for the opera. The opera is a one-act, with an intro, two scenes, and an epilogue, that takes about an hour to perform. Modest’s libretto sticks to Dante almost word-for-word in the frame story, but in the two scenes that are flashbacks to the events that occurred during life before the damnation to Hell, he takes full poetic license and heaps on the 19th Century trappings of the story. While it is not a masterpiece, there is a lot to recommend Rachmaninoff’s short opera. The structure is closely modelled on Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem, with a few special touches. The whirlwind music in the Rachmaninoff is full of groans, howls, and cries of despair (provided by a choir). The two central scenes provide a stark contrast to each other. The first is a duet between Francesca and her husband. The second is a duet between Paolo and Francesca, interrupted of course, by the murder. In the first scene, Giovanni (called Lanceotto Malatesta in this version) regrets having tricked his wife into their marriage, since he knows that she does not love him. In their duet, she professes her devotion as a wife, but he begs for her love instead of just her submission. In a stinging moment, she states that she cannot lie about being in love with him. In the second scene, Francesca and Paolo fall in love while reading about Lancelot and Guinevere (which is straight out of the Dante version.) In this version, typical of the 19th Century versions, Francesca rebuffs Paolo at first, objecting that she is another man’s wife, but in the course of the scene, he seduces her. Also, typical of the Romantic Era, the 13th Century events of 10 years are compressed into a single moment, as the lovers are discovered and murdered either before or in the act of consummating their love for the first time. Rachmaninoff’s love duet in the second scene is the centerpiece of his short opera, and it is the highlight, climaxing with the murder.
While Francesca da Rimini is no longer material for frequent adaptations, the story seems to stick around. In 2013, the Metropolitan Opera revived Riccardo Zandonai’s 1914 opera version, which has never gone out of the repertory in Italy. Interestingly, Zandonai (1883-1944) was director of the conservatory and spent the final years of his life in a town affiliated with this story, Giovanni Malatesta’s own Pesaro.