In this fantasia, Tchaikovsky presents a symphonic interpretation of the tragic tale of Francesca da Rimini, a beauty who was immortalized in Dante's Divine Comedy. In the fifth canto of Inferno, Dante the narrator meets the shade of Francesca da Rimini, a noblewoman who fell in love with the brother of her cruel husband. After the lovers were discovered and killed in revenge by the husband, they were condemned to Hell for their adulterous passions. In their damnation, the lovers are trapped together in a violent storm, whirled through the air around the second circle of Hell, never to touch the ground again. They are tormented most of all by the ineradicable memory of the joys and pleasures of the embraces they shared in life.
This symphonic poem, perhaps more than any other of Tchaikovsky's works, shows the possible influence of Franz Liszt, both musically and in terms of subject matter, and Richard Wagner, whose music dramas Tchaikovsky had traveled to Bayreuth to review. Liszt frequently chose subjects of a Gothic, diabolical nature: the Totentanz (1849), Sonata Après une lecture de Dante (1856), and Dante Symphony (1857) are cases in point. Tchaikovsky's use of swirling chromaticism in the depiction of the winds of the second circle of Hell also resembles Liszt, as well as Edvard Grieg's depiction of a stormy evening in his incidental music to Act V of the play Peer Gynt . As for Wagner, while Tchaikovsky generally did not care for his work, he freely acknowledged its influence on Francesca to Taneyev.