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Composed: 1876
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam), harp, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 25, 1928, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting

Tales of doomed love attracted Tchaikovsky in all musical forms – for example, the Manfred Symphony, the ballet Swan Lake, the opera Eugene Onegin, the fantasy overture Romeo and Juliet. In 1876 he listened with interest to proposals for an opera on the story of the adulterous lovers Francesca and Paolo as recounted in the “Inferno” section of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Nothing came of the opera, but Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest persuaded him to depict the tragedy in a symphonic poem. (Modest himself later wrote an opera libretto on the subject, set by Sergei Rachmaninoff.)

The story, based on an historical incident, concerns the fraudulent courtship and marriage of young Francesca of the north Italian town of Rimini. For political reasons, her marriage to Giovanni Malatesta is arranged when she is tricked into believing that Giovanni’s handsome younger brother Paolo is her intended husband. Tragedy is consummated almost as swiftly as the marriage: the unhappy Francesca and Paolo become lovers, Giovanni catches them in the act, and kills them. Dante found their souls left twisting in the winds of the second circle of hell as moral lessons.

Tchaikovsky’s virtuosic orchestral collage opens with the poet’s lugubrious trudge in search of hellish edification. He soon encounters gale-force wind, gusting fiercely to the tune of a truly devilish tarantella. The music is more gestural than melodic, but then Francesca begins her narration with one of Tchaikovsky’s most gorgeous tunes, deeply felt and richly characterized. “A melody never stands alone, but invariably with the harmonies which belong to it,” the composer wrote. “These two elements, together with the rhythm, must never be separated; every melodic idea brings its own inevitable harmony and its suitable rhythm.” Tchaikovsky certainly delivered the full package here. The first half of the melody is infinitely sorrowing in downward sighs, first heard in a plaintive clarinet solo. The second half of this thematic yin and yang turns minor mode to major and the descending droops to upward yearning in the strings.

These elements are developed at length into passionate outpourings, cut off with the abrupt blows of the murder. The howling winds return, and ten hammered chords end the work with the finality of damnation.

— John Henken