Friday, December 09, 2005


Franz Liszt: Tone-Poems

With the single exception of Berlioz, the earliest non-Teutonic genius to adopt the symphonic medium of expression was Franz Liszt (1811-1886). To be sure, what he adopted and cultivated in an extraordinary manner, and to an epoch-making degree, may be called the symphonic medium only; Liszt never wrote a genuine "Symphony" in the classic, or even romantic sense, but, actuated by the impetuous originality and independence of his musical nature, he applied the traditional medium in such a wholly novel way as to transform its spirit completely; and for the new types which he produced he originated the name Symphonic-Poem. His intensely romantic spirit recognized emotional possibilities in the voices of the symphonic orchestra that had never been essayed (save by Berlioz), and he envisaged a sphere of poetic passionate experiences to which music, and music only, could give utterance.

Everyone who is familiar with Hungarian music, who has heard it in its genuine, strikingly original utterance, who has been deeply moved by the weird, irresistible appeal of its distinctive melodies and rhythms, now steeped in almost tragic melancholy, and again pulsing with the gypsy spirit of wild passion and joy;---everyone who knows the wonderful primitive beauty and fire of Magyar music, will recognize the heritage and the environment that were the foundation of Liszt's musical being. In him these native qualities were, however, modified and controlled by an exceptionally active and penetrating mind, and an exquisitely refined poetic spirit. It was the fusion of his very pronounced romantic nature with the preponderant and musical quality of his genius, that determined his attitude toward the Symphony and orchestral music in general, and impelled him to substitute the idea, and title, of Tone-Poem, in his instrumental compositions in larger form. Of this novel type, Liszt created no fewer than fifteen. Two of them: the Dante Symphony and the Faust Symphony, consist each of three distinct Divisions or Movements, and are therefore analogous to the genuine Symphony in dimensions; but there all resemblance ends, for in conception and structure they diverge widely from the classic model.

These novel compositions, to which the name Symphonic-Poem has been applied, are program-music in the best sense of the word---not descriptive in the narrow, inartistic pictorial manner of superficial composers, but music which engendered and guided by the fluctuating emotional dramatic phases of an epic poem, or of some suggestive, fruitful poetic idea. Liszt, in pursuing this romantic aim, originated the Leit-motif, or Leading Motive, which Wagner promptly adopted and developed to so supreme a degree in his operas. The Leading Motive corresponds technically to the principal Theme of the true Symphony, but is employed chiefly as an index, and not manipulated as thematic source of the "absolute" musical evolution.

The three Divisions of the Dante Symphony are: The Infernal Regions, Purgatory, and a Finale of considerable length entitled Magnificat---an angelic hymn, assigned to a female chorus.

The Faust Symphony is similarly, though more sharply divided into three Episodes: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles---the last containing a male chorus.

Both of these extensive works exhibit Liszt's originality, his extremely fine sense of tonal charm, and his amazing ingenuity, especially in certain constructive details, and in orchestration. It is generally conceded, however, that the melodic invention, the essential logical momentum and structural firmness of his works do not measure up to the skill he possessed in arranging and accentuating the emotional effects.

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