Canto (1973/82) is a short narrative cantata for soprano and tenor. Modeled on thirteenth 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 most recent being the Baccaccio-based opera, Suor Isabella (1982). 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 young and 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 thirteenth-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 while the more severe tenor and cello solos remain closer to tonality to suggest the past as the voice makes extensive use repeated notes in the declamation of the simple French narrative. The two styles gradually become one as the texts join at the climax of the work:
Great was the joy… He kissed my mouth…
They felt that night. All trembling.
There are two instrumental settings of Canto: the original (1973) version for piano, cello, and orchestra, and a recent (1982) arrangement for chamber ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion.