The Romantic Era of music was filled with turbulent chaos as composers and critics alike quarreled bitterly over how music ought to be composed and performed. Among its most important topics of debate were the war between Programmatic and Absolute Music and the Romantics’ treatment of form. A group of musicians claiming to represent Zukunftsmusik — the “music of the future” — emerged, leaving a firestorm of controversy in its wake. At the forefront of the avant-garde was Franz Liszt, piano virtuoso-turned-composer who strove to carry music into its next stage of development. The crown jewel of Liszt’s creations was the Symphonic Poem, a new genre of orchestral music he pioneered in order to breathe new life into the orchestral repertory and exemplify all that he believed Zukunftsmusik ought to be.
Liszt’s works were an essential, perhaps even the most important, landmark in the development of Programme music and contemporary orchestral literature.1 For over a century after Liszt, the genre grew in popularity among composers and concert- goers, culminating in the Tone-Poems of Richard Strauss.
Liszt’s Symphonic Poems were divisive, “alternatively exalted and damned by an army of critics.”2 A large number of his hearers disdained and dismissed the new works, which they were unable or unwilling to understand.3 Liszt intentionally and unashamedly pushed all kinds of musical boundaries, such as testing the limits of illustrating programmatic elements in music, pushing diatonic harmony to its breaking point, and radically altering the Classical conception of form.4 Liszt primarily wanted his Symphonic Poems to achieve two goals: first, to renew orchestral music by imbuing it with a “deeper connection with the poetic art,” and second, to emancipate the symphony from the “formalistic straitjacket” of Sonata form.5 6
The Symphonic Poem is better described as a genre than a form, because Liszt wanted to allow himself and other composers of the Symphonic Poem to have freedom to express their ideas without the strict constraints of Classical forms. Though there is no exact definition of a Symphonic Poem, they can be identified primarily by two characteristics: the use of extra-musical material as inspiration for the work, and the use of thematic transformation as a structural and organizational technique.7
Before delving into the more technical aspects of Liszt’s Symphonic Poems, his overall attitude towards Programmatic Music must be briefly surveyed. Proponents of Absolute Music disparaged composers’ use of program as a facade designed to hide the superficiality of their music.8 Such critics saw no artistic merit in incorporating extra-musical inspiration. For Liszt, however, a work’s programmatic elements were far more than a mere device to catch and hold the audience’s attention.
Liszt derived all of his structure and direction within his pieces from “their relation to a poetic idea.”9 Liszt set his aims much higher than simply “illustrating” concrete ideas; he believed that music had the ability to point to things outside itself, to convey messages and concepts through allegory. 10 11
Music could easily represent abstract ideas known as topoi (such as love, war, nature, perfection) as well as concrete objects through use of a programme and other means of descriptive context.12 Liszt was particularly fond of depicting rebirth, triumph, and apotheosis in his music, even altering the final lines of a Schiller poem he used as a programme note to give it a more jubilant ending of apotheosis. 13 14 Through his Symphonic Poems, Liszt proved that Programmatic Music could convey meaning through music in ways Absolute Music never could. Liszt hoped that his treatment of common themes and concepts would make his music popular and universally accessible to all listeners.
However, when Liszt began performing his Symphonic Poems across Europe and North America over the years 1855-1861, he was inundated with a barrage of scathing slander from critics and fellow composers. Even in Liszt’s native Germany, there were few listeners who appreciated or understood his new genre, preferring instead to cling to spent and overused Sonata and dance forms.15 Liszt’s conservative detractors disparaged his frequent use of sharp dissonance, unusual modulations, and abrupt contrasts in tempo and colour.16 However, such techniques were favorites among other composers of the Romantic avant-garde like Wagner, Schumann, and Berlioz, and today are recognized as signature features of Romantic style. The far more serious accusations were critics’ frequent descriptions of Liszt’s works as “hopelessly muddled and formless.”17 They rightly noted that Liszt did not adhere to Sonata form or any other pre-existing form in his Symphonic Poems, and this lack of a universal, recognizable form made Liszt’s pieces incomprehensible and monotonous to them. 18 19 Their atavistic outlooks made it impossible for them to understand the Symphonic Poem, which was a “quantum leap forward” in musical form and expression.20 Their hasty dismissal of Liszt’s music on grounds of formlessness missed the mark entirely. In reality, Liszt’s primary reasons for inventing the Symphonic Poem were problems of form and structure, although his solution was unlike anything that listeners of his day had ever heard before.21
Liszt had no interest in stock forms that had been used for over a century. In his mind, symphonic music had stagnated under the constraints of Sonata form and needed to be emancipated from the “thraldom of formalism.”22 Rather than endlessly repeating the Classical formula, Liszt chose to strike out into uncharted waters and seek an entirely new form. “New wine demands new bottles,” Liszt wrote, explaining the woeful inadequacies of Classical Sonata form to encapsulate the unique and expressive music of the Romantics.23 Liszt strove to invent a form in which the unique emotions of each composer could be made manifest; he needed a more flexible form, one that moved “away from the collective and toward the unique.”24 The forms that Liszt’s critics wanted him to adhere to had become cliché, and “breaking with clichés” had become a motto of Liszt and his disciples.25 Beethoven had never hesitated to modify structural forms when he felt he needed to, Liszt reasoned, so why should he?26 Above all, Liszt believed that “form should never become formula” — a piece’s structure ought to be determined by its contents, not the other way around.27 This philosophy would become the foundation on which Liszt pioneered the Symphonic Poem. Rather than using a dictatorial structure of exposition and recapitulation, Liszt chose to adopt a freer system of establishing a set of themes, modifying and juxtaposing them throughout the remainder of the piece — a technique now known as thematic transformation.28
Despite the assumptions of his detractors to the contrary, Liszt took the utmost care in ensuring that his works would not be without structure. He decided to use thematic transformation to establish structure and unity within his musical works. Thematic transformation starts with the successive presentation of multiple themes or motives, establishing the bedrock from which the rest of the musical material will be derived. Similar to Wagner’s use of leitmotif, these themes can represent anything: a character, a mood or emotion, even an abstract idea. The themes can then be varied and manipulated to a limitless degree according to the composer’s wishes. They can even interact with one another for narrative effect; for example, Liszt’s Hunnenschlacht features all four motives sounding simultaneously in intense counterpoint to illustrate conflict.29
While a lesser composer might find his efforts at thematic transformation resulting in wearisome repetition and monotony, Liszt was a master at transfiguring his melodies completely in remarkable and ingenious ways. For example, in Tasso, the dark and brooding opening theme metamorphoses into a fanfare of triumph at the work’s conclusion.30 Using thematic transformation, master composers such as Liszt could “squeeze the maximum value” from any motivic fragment they imagined.31
Thus Liszt avoided the predictability of rigid Classical forms by utilizing thematic transformation, allowing each of his Symphonic Poems to remain fresh and unique to its hearers. But he also viewed thematic transformation as a means of expressing poetic and narrative ideas through his music, and as the next step in moving Programmatic Music towards “philosophical sublimity.”32 Composers of Programmatic Music such as Berlioz had long been plagued with the problem of conveying messages and ideas with their music rather than simply illustrating narrative events given by a program, such as in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Since Liszt’s themes could be directly identified with distinct characters or ideas, the manner in which they are transformed could convey a specific message about those characters or ideas. For example, in Hunnenschlact, Liszt pits the “Christian” theme (taken from the tune Crux fidelis) against the theme of the Huns to illustrate a clash of ideologies. By the end of the piece, only the Crux fidelis remains, standing triumphantly in monumental fortissimo to portray the triumph of Christianity over paganism.33 Once listeners know what the themes represent, they need no further program to explain what the interaction of those themes signifies.
But how is the audience to know what the themes of a Symphonic Poem represent? If left to their own devices, they could interpret the themes in any number of fantastical and unintended ways. The answer is a very essential part of Programmatic Music: the program. In order provide the audience with enough context to understand his music, Liszt provided descriptive titles for all of his Symphonic Poems and helpful program notes for many of them. Liszt’s program notes were never detailed blueprints of structure and narrative, as in Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Rather, Liszt treated his program notes as prefaces, intending them to gently nudge his listeners towards his intended message and “guard [them] against a false interpretation.”34 To this end, Liszt’s program notes were much vaguer than Berlioz’s, often merely describing his general impetus in writing the piece or reproducing a poem that inspired the composition. They were extensions of the titles, not detailed blueprints.35 Together with the title, however, each Symphonic Poem’s preface was enough to provide astute listeners with enough context to adequately understand the poetic ideas of the piece.
However, Liszt’s programmatic works and their extra-musical content provoked heavy critique from his conservative critics.
Many of his detractors (such as Eduard Hanslick) felt that Liszt was using his extra-musical sources as a crutch to camouflage poor music that could not stand on its own merit.36 The same voices that accused Liszt’s music of formlessness assumed that Liszt derived his pieces’ structure from his programmes, which they considered the height of compositional laziness. However, Liszt never used his extra-musical sources as architectural blueprints, but rather as a foundation of poetical inspiration. Liszt refused to place his music in “subordination... to literary details,” avoiding strict scene-by-scene portrayals of his narrative sources.37 For example, his Faust Symphony is closer to a three-part character study than a literal portrayal of Faust ’s plot.38 Rather, as mentioned above, he derived his structure from the music itself, allowing the transformation and manipulation of his themes to convey his message. Liszt’s Symphonic Poems were never intended to be “representational in the strict sense of being about specific things or events.”39 Liszt always placed the integrity of the music above faithful portrayal of the narrative, ensuring that his Symphonic Poems could stand on their own compositional merit — despite his detractors’ assertions to the contrary.
Through his development of the Symphonic Poem, Liszt succeeded in permanently altering the direction of orchestral music. His use of thematic transformation as a structural framework gave later composers the freedom to escape the stale and stagnating chains of Sonata form.40 In the decades after Liszt’s debut of the genre, the Symphonic Poem skyrocketed in popularity as thematic transformation and programmatic aspects began to permeate most large-scale orchestral works. By the turn of the century, there was “little or no difference between the symphony and the symphonic poem.”41 It was during this time that Richard Strauss, arguably the most talented composer of Symphonic Poems, carried the genre to its “extreme limits.”42 If Liszt represents the birth of the genre, then Strauss surely marks the “zenith of the symphonic poem as an art-form.”43 Unlike Liszt, Strauss first proved that he could write proficiently in a traditional, conservative style before choosing to follow Liszt down the Romantic path of greater expressivity, heightened dissonance, and Programmatic Music.44 Like Liszt, Strauss noticed the stark incompatibility between the “musical-poetic content that [he wished] to convey” and the constraints of Classical Sonata form.45 With this contradiction in mind and the additional influence of fellow composer Alexander Ritter, Strauss began to champion the Symphonic Poem genre under the slightly modified moniker, Tondichtung (literally, Tone-Poem).
It is one of the most fascinating ironies of history that the Symphonic Poem was born under Franz Liszt and reached its culmination with Richard Strauss; Strauss was a “grand-student” of Liszt’s, with Hans von Bülow serving as the bridge. Bülow was one of Liszt’s most dedicated disciples46 and later served as one of Strauss’s compositional mentors. Through Bülow, Strauss inherited the “spirit” of Liszt, and thus their music shares many similarities. Like Liszt, Strauss did not primarily seek to create an illustration of narrative events with his Tone-poems, but portrays the subject matter of his program in a much more abstract manner. Similarly to Liszt’s Faust Symphony, Strauss’s Macbeth interprets Shakespeare’s tragedy as a study of the titular character’s internal turmoil rather than a depiction the play’s external events.47 Strauss also despised critique of his music as “formless,” calling such allegations “sheer bigotry.”48 He shared Liszt’s goal of ensuring that his music, though programmatic, could stand on its own compositional merit in terms of logical structure and thematic development.49 Strauss even invited listeners to think of his Tone-poems as absolute music if they desired, confident that his pieces would withstand critical scrutiny.50 Finally, Strauss and Liszt both utilized very advanced harmonic language that was considered grotesquely dissonant to their contemporaries. Liszt justified his use of dissonance by prophetically predicting the future use of complete atonality.51 Strauss, on the other hand, was unashamed to have his music called ugly as long as he succeeded in expressing his musical ideas, saying: “I may now directly aim at expressing the ugly in music; the achievement may be considered beautiful ten or fifty years hence.”52 Indeed, the vantage point of history has confirmed Strauss’s assessment.
Strauss and his Tone-poems did differ from Liszt in a number of significant ways, however. Strauss was more ambitious than Liszt in the magnitude and length of his works, most of which rival the length of Beethoven’s masterpieces and other “symphonies of a bygone age.”53 Also, where Liszt was eager to provide programme notes as a guide to his listeners, Strauss adamantly refused to explain his pieces in such a manner, even for works most directly tied to external narrative like Don Quixote and Till Eulenspiegel.54 Concerning Eulenspiegel, Strauss was perfectly content to leave his listeners “to crack the hard nut” which he had prepared for them.55 Finally, while Liszt reveled in depicting abstract concepts, Strauss was a master of musically painting concrete events, making them “recognizable to the inner eye.”56 With his flair for portraying the concrete,
Strauss created intensely prosaic works such as Don Juan, Don Quixote, Till Eulenspiegel, and Sinfonia domestica. 57 Since Strauss, the popularity of the Symphonic Poem has drastically declined, leaving many to speculate that the genre reached its maximum potential under the masterful hand of Strauss and has therefore expended its potential for further growth.
The Symphonic Poem has left a permanent mark on the history of orchestral music, however. Had Liszt not been bold enough to challenge established norms and boundaries in his age, instrumental music would have grown stale and stagnant under the weight of its own oppressive form, wilting away in the shadow of Beethoven. The Symphonic Poem opened the eyes of audiences everywhere to the power of music to convey messages and illustrate abstract concepts. Even traditional symphonic structure “owes at least some aspects of its evolution” to the freedom and expressivity of the Symphonic Poem.58 Liszt’s technique of thematic transformation as a rhetorical device and as a unifying structure still permeates contemporary music to this day. The Symphonic Poem as an orchestral genre may still have potential to flourish again in the future. “The scope of the symphonic poem is almost infinite,” writes one critic and musicologist, “the more that music develops its orchestral technique... the more paths are likely to be opened up along which the symphonic poem can progress.”59 Indeed, Liszt specifically designed the genre to have the necessary flexibility and adaptability to meet the expressive needs of any composer in any time period. It is quite possible to imagine that, “whereas the symphony has already found its Beethoven, the greatest genius of the symphonic poem is still to come.”60
Perhaps, like the Phoenix of mythology, the Symphonic Poem has only seemed to die in preparation for a triumphant and glorious future revival.
Abraham, Gerald ed. Romanticism (1830-1890). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Antcliffe, Herbert. “The Symphonic Poem since Liszt.” The Musical Times 52 (1911): 520-521. http://links.jstor.org/ dddddsici?sici=0027-4666%2819110801%2952%3A822%3C520%3ATSPSL%3E 2dddd.0.CO%3B2-7 (accessed March 22, 2012).
Dahlhaus, Carl. Nineteenth-Century Music. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1989.
Gibbs, Christopher Howard. Franz Liszt and his World. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Gilliam, Bryan ed. Richard Strauss and His World. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Gilman, Lawrence. Stories of Symphonic Music: A Guide to the Meaning of Important Symphonies, Overtures, and Tone-Poems from Beethoven to the Present Day. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1907.
Johns, Keith T. and Saffle, Michael. The Symphonic Poems of Franz Liszt. Stuyvesant, New York: Pendragon Press, 1997.
Mendl, R. W. S. “The Art of the Symphonic Poem.” The Musical Quarterly 18 (1932): 443-462. http://links.jstor.org/sici? lllllsici=0027-4631%28193207%2918%3A3%3C443%3ATAOTSP%3E2.0.CO%-L (accessed March 22, 2012)
Niecks, Frederick. Programme Music in the Last Four Centuries. London: Novello and Company, 1906.
O’Connell, Charles. The Victor Book of Overtures, Tone Poems and Other Orchestral Works. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950.
Watson, Derek. The Master Musicians: Liszt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt, Volume Two: The Weimar Years. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989.
———. Franz Liszt, Volume Three: The Final Years. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996.
1 Frederick Niecks, Programme Music in the Last Four Centuries: A Contribution to the History of Musical Expression (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1969), 265.
2 Keith T. Johns, The Symphonic Poems of Franz Liszt (Stuyvesant, New York: Pendragon Press, 1997), 83.
3 Ibid. 5.
4 Niecks , 265. Gerald Abraham ed., Romanticism (1830-1890) (Oxford: Oxford
5 University Press, 1990), 537-538.
6 Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth-Century Music (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1989), 238.
7 Herbert Antcliffe, “The Symphonic Poem since Liszt,” The Musical Times 52 (1911), 521, http://links.jstor.org/sici? sici=0027-4666%2819110801%2952%3A822%3C520%3ATSPSL%3E2.0.CO%3B2-7 (accessed March 22, 2012).
8 Johns, 105.
9 Niecks , 281.
10 Dahlhaus , 237.
11 Johns , 9.
12 Ibid., 136.
13 Ibid., 19.
14 Lawrence Gilman, Stories of Symphonic Music: A Guide to the Meaning of Important Symphonies, Overtures, and Tone-Poems from Beethoven to the Present Day (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1907), 161.
15 Abraham, 509.
16 Johns, 98.
18 Abraham, 493.
19 Johns, 94.
20 Alan Walker, Franz Liszt, Volume Two: The Weimar Years (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989), 301.
21 Johns, 6.
22 Antcliffe, 520.
23 Walker, Franz Liszt, Volume Two, 357.
24 Johns, 9.
25 Christopher Howard Gibbs, Franz Liszt and his World (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006), 505.
26 R. W. S. Mendl, “ The Art of the Symphonic Poem,” The Musical Quarterly 18 (1932), 445, http://links.jstor.org/sici? sici=0027-4631%28193207%2918%3A3%3C443%3ATAOTSP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-L (accessed March 22, 2012).
27 Derek Watson, The Master Musicians: Liszt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 188.
28 Dahlhaus, 239.
29 Johns, 60.
30 Charles O’Connell, The Victor Book of Overtures, Tone Poems, and other Orchestral Works (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 262.
31 Abraham, 497.
32 Dahlhaus, 238.
33 Johns, 60.
34 Walker, Franz Liszt, Volume Two, 306.
35 Abraham, 494.
36 Johns, 105.
37 Abraham, 494.
38 Ibid., 581.
39 Walker, Franz Liszt, Volume Two, 305.
40 Dahlhaus, 364.
42 Abraham, 525.
43 Mendl, 452.
44 Niecks, 517.
45 Bryan Gilliam, ed., Richard Strauss and His World (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 67.
46 Niecks, 282.
47 Gilman, 266.
48 Dahlhaus, 361.
49 Ibid., 362.
50 Niecks, 511.
51 Alan Walker, Franz Liszt, Volume Three: The Final Years (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1996), 440.
52 Niecks, 512.
53 Mendl, 452.
54 Abraham, 531.
55 Gilman, 270.
56 Gilliam, 309.
57 Gibbs, 554.
58 Dahlhaus, 268.
59 Mendl, 461.
60 Ibid., 462.