Canto (1973)

 Cantata for Soprano, Tenor and Chamber Orchestra or Chamber Ensemble
Texts from Dante’s Inferno and Le Livre de Lancelot del Lac (Anonymous)

Duration:  10 minutes
Orchestra:  Soprano, Tenor; 2222/2000/timp/pf/str
Chamber:  Flute/clarinet/ violin/ cello/piano/percussion



The complex literary layout of Canto – the soprano singing a passage in Italian from Dante’s Inferno against a French Arthurian lyric sung by the tenor – compels the listener to enter into a special world…the vocal parts came together in a chillingly erotic climax…
                     Wayne Lee Gay,
                     Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Ary Scheffer, Paolo and Francesca (1858)
Ary Scheffer, Paolo and Francesca (1858)

An uncommonly expressive short piece…one not unfavorably suggestive of a compounding of the luminous elements of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with the darker expressionism of Berg’s Wozzeck.
                       Robert Riley, Los Angeles Times


Program Note:

Canto (1973/82) is a short narrative cantata for soprano and tenor with prominent solo parts for cello and piano.  Modeled on 13th-Century secular motets, in which two contrasting texts are set simultaneously, Canto is the first of the composer’s long series of works inspired by medieval subjects.  The soprano solo (sung in Italian) is taken from Dante’s Inferno, Canto V, in which Francesca da Rimini tells Dante and Virgil, his guide, how she came to be in Hell’s circle for carnal sinners:  One day she was reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere with Paolo, her husband’s youngand handsome brother, when they were carried away by the beauty of the narrative into a passionate kiss and were subsequently murdered by her enraged husband.  The tenor solo, from Le Livre de Lancelot del Lac (sung in French), is the anonymous 13th-century passage which inspired Paolo and Francesca.  The two texts are set in alternating lines, in the manner of a series of cinematic flash-backs, as Francesca recalls the incident.

The music throughout is generated by the rhythm of the two languages, the result being two alternating tempos and two distinct types of melodic contour.  A row is thus used only in the soprano and piano solos to suggest the present.  The more severe tenor and cello solos remain closer to tonality to suggest the past, as the voice makes extensive use of repeated notes in the declamation of the simple French narrative.  The two styles become one as the singers finally sing together at the climax of the work:


…kissed my mouth  
all trembling

Great was the joy
they felt that night,


Text (translation):



From Commedia, Dante Alighieri
(1265 – 1371)

The second circle of Hell, that of
carnal sinners. Francesca da Rimini
beside her lover Paolo.

There is no greater sorrow than to
remember a happy time in misery, as
your teacher knows.  But if you have such
desire to know the first root of our love,
I will do as one who weeps and tells:


One day, for delight, we read of
Lancelot, how love seized him.

We were alone, and without suspicion.


Many times our eyes met, and we blushed.


But one single point

was our defeat.


When we read of the smile so long
desired, kissed by such a lover, he who
can never be parted from me

kissed my mouth
all trembling.

That day,
we read no more.




from Le Livre de Lancelot del Lac,
Anonymous, XIII Century

A narrative of Lancelot and Guenevere




And he came to the window, and
the waiting Queen slept not, but
came there to him.

And they cast their arms each about the
other and felt all they could feel.

“Lady,” said Lancelot, “if I could
enter here, would it please you?”
“Enter,” she said, “good sweet
friend, how could this be?”

“Lady,” said he, “if you so wish,
it could happen with ease.”
“Truly,” says she, “I would wish
it above all else.”

“Then, in God’s name,” says he,

“let it be so…”  And he drew away
the irons so softly that no noise was
made, and no bar was broken.


Great was the joy
they felt that night,

for long had each suffered for the other.
And when the day came,

they parted.