• Ian Passmore

Music that doesn't suck, No. 14: Tchaikovsky's Inferno

Remember high school and/or college, when we all had to read the classics: Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.; Dante’s Divine Comedy; works by Lord Byron, et al.? Well, literature and poetry have long been a source of inspiration for music. In fact, Tchaikovsky (yes, the same guy that wrote the Nutcracker and 1812 Overture that you hear every single year at Christmas and the Fourth of July, respectively) composed music based on each of those works…except Macbeth -- Verdi and Strauss did that one :) Of those compositions, his Romeo & Juliet is by far the most famous. It’s love theme is the one you’ve heard in basically every cartoon and extra-cheesy romantic film scene since the dawn of humanity. But, his Francesca da Rimini, the Symphonic Fantasy after Dante, is my personal favorite.

Let’s recap Dante’s Inferno (the first part of his Divine Comedy), just so we’re all starting from the same point.... In that work, written in the early 14th-century, the author himself is essentially given a guided tour through the nine circles of Hell, led by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. In the second circle, reserved for the lustful, Dante and Virgil encounter Francesca and her lover Paolo. For their infidelity, Francesca and Paolo have been damned to an endless whirlwind. Dante faints upon hearing her story.

Tchaikovsky’s musical setting — composed in less than three weeks in 1876, and whose very opening seems to echo the famous inscription above Hell’s gates, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” — is based on two sources: Dante’s Inferno, and this beautiful 1857 wood etching by Gustave Dore:

My favorite recording of the piece was released in 1961, and features the Orchestra Lamoureux led by Igor Markevitch. It’s a real scorcher, if you’ll pardon the expression :) Enjoy!

- Orchestra Lamoureux/Igor Markevitch:

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