Franz Liszt – Four Symphonic Poems
About the author:
Liszt was the only contemporary whose music Richard Wagner gratefully acknowledged as an influence upon his own. His lasting fame was an alchemy of extraordinary digital ability — the greatest in the history of keyboard playing — an unmatched instinct for showmanship, and one of the most progressive musical imaginations of his time. Hailed by some as a visionary, reviled by others as a symbol of empty Romantic excess, Franz Liszt wrote his name across music history in a truly inimitable manner.
From his youth, Liszt demonstrated a natural facility at the keyboard that placed him among the top performing prodigies of his day. Though contemporary accounts describe his improvisational skill as dazzling, his talent as a composer emerged only in his adulthood. Still, he was at the age of eleven the youngest contributor to publisher Anton Diabelli’s famous variation commissioning project, best remembered as the inspiration for Beethoven’s final piano masterpiece. An oft-repeated anecdote — first recounted by Liszt himself decades later, and possibly fanciful — has Beethoven attending a recital given by the youngster and bestowing a kiss of benediction upon him.
Though already a veteran of the stage by his teens, Liszt recognized the necessity of further musical tuition. He studied for a time with Czerny and Salieri in Vienna, and later sought acceptance to the Paris Conservatory. When he was turned down there — foreigners were not then admitted — he instead studied privately with Anton Reicha. Ultimately, his Hungarian origins proved a great asset to his career, enhancing his aura of mystery and exoticism and inspiring an extensive body of works, none more famous than the Hungarian Rhapsodies (1846-1885).
Liszt soon became a prominent figure in Parisian society, his romantic entanglements providing much material for gossip. Still, not even the juiciest accounts of his amorous exploits could compete with the stories about his wizardry at the keyboard. Inspired by the superhuman technique — and, indeed, diabolical stage presence — of the violinist Paganini, Liszt set out to translate these qualities to the piano. As his career as a touring performer, conductor, and teacher burgeoned, he began to devote an increasing amount of time to composition. He wrote most of his hundreds of original piano works for his own use; accordingly, they are frequently characterized by technical demands that push performers — and in Liszt’s own day, the instrument itself — to their limits. The “transcendence” of his Transcendental Etudes (1851), for example, is not a reference to the writings of Emerson and Thoreau, but an indication of the works’ level of difficulty. Liszt was well into his thirties before he mastered the rudiments of orchestration — works like the Piano Concerto No. 1 (1849) were orchestrated by talented students — but made up for lost time in the production of two “literary” symphonies (Faust, 1854-1857, and Dante, 1855-1856) and a series of orchestral essays (including Les préludes, 1848-1854) that marks the genesis of the tone poem as a distinct genre.
After a lifetime of near-constant sensation, Liszt settled down somewhat in his later years. In his final decade he joined the Catholic Church and devoted much of his creative effort to the production of sacred works. The complexion of his music darkened; the flash that had characterized his previous efforts gave way to a peculiar introspection, manifested in strikingly original, forward-looking efforts like Nuages gris (1881). Liszt died in Bayreuth, Germany, on July 31, 1886, having outlived Wagner, his son-in-law and greatest creative beneficiary.
About this work:
The Symphonic Poems (S.95-107) are a series of 13 orchestral works by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. The first 12 were composed in the decade 1848–58 (though some use material conceived earlier); the last, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (From the Cradle to the Grave), followed in 1882. They were enormously influential in establishing the genre of orchestral programme music—music written to illustrate an extra-musical plan derived from a play, poem, painting or work of nature—and they inspired the symphonic poems of Bedrich Smetana, Richard Strauss and others.
Liszt’s intent was for these single-movement works, according to Hugh McDonald in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980), was for them “to display the traditional logic of symphonic thought.” That logic, embodied in sonata form as musical development, was traditionally the unfolding of latent possibilities in given themes in rhythm, melody and harmony, either in part or in their entirety, as they were allowed to combine, separate and contrast with one another. To the resulting sense of struggle Ludwig van Beethoven had added an intensity of feeling and the involvement of his audiences in that feeling, beginning from the Eroica Symphony to use the elements of the craft of music—melody, bass, counterpoint, rhythm and harmony—in a new synthesis toward this end.
Liszt attempted in the symphonic poem to extend this revitalization of the nature of musical discourse and add to it the Romantic ideal of reconciling classical formal principles to external literary concepts. Toward this end, he combined elements of overture and symphony with descriptive elements, approaching symphonic first movements in form and scale. While showing extremely creative amendments to sonata form, Liszt utilized compositional devices such as cyclic form, motifs and thematic transformation to lend these works added coherence. Their composition proved daunting, with a continual process of creative experimentation that included many stages of composition, rehearsal and revision to reach a version where different parts of the musical form seemed balanced.
Liszt also provided written prefaces for nine of his symphonic poems. Possibly knowing well how the public liked to attach stories to instrumental music in an attempt to explain the inexplicable, and feeling that since many of these works were written in new forms, some sort of verbal or written explanation would be welcome, he provided context before others could invent something to take its place. However, Liszt’s view of the symphonic poem tended to be evocative rather than purely pictorial, usually refraining from narrative and literal description in the music. In this regard he differed not only from contemporaries such as Hector Berlioz but also from many who would follow him in writing symphonic poems, such as Smetana, Dvorak and Richard Strauss.
1. Les Préludes Poem No.3 (16:48)
2. Orpheus Poem No.4 (11:58)
3. Ungarische Rhapsodie No.5 (12:55)
4. Tasso-Lamento e Trionfo, Poem No.2 (20:21)
Londoner Festival Orchestra
Alfred Scholz: conductor
Stereo, DDD, mp3, 320 kbps, 143.76 Mb, 62:02 minutes. Covers included.