The Symphonic Poem


Beethoven's Overtures, written chiefly for dramas but transcending their original function as curtain-raisers, are among the principal ancestors of the symphonic poem.  Among the best are  "Leonore No. 3," the third piece written to be the overture to "Fidelio" but replaced by what is now known as the "Fidelio" Overture; the overture to "Coriolan", a characteristic C minor work; and the overture to Goethe's drama "Egmont," for which Beethoven also wrote the incidental music frequently called for in the drama.

Composers and Their Works

The foremost composer of program music after Berlioz was Franz Lizst, twelve of whose symphonic poems were written between 1848 and 1858; a thirteenth was written in 1881-82.  The name "symphonic poem" is significant:  these works are symphonic but Liszt did not call them symphonies, presumable because they are relatively short and are not divided into separate movements in a conventional order.  Instead, each is a continuous form with various sections more or less contrasting in character and tempo, and a few themes which are developed, repeated, varied, or transformed in accordance with the particular design of each work.  "Poem" in the designation may refer simply to the root meaning of the word -- something "made" or invented -- or perhaps to the poetic content in the sense of the program of each work; for the content and form in every instance are suggested by some picture, statue, drama, poem, scene, personality, thought, impression, or other object not identifiable from the music alone;  it is, however, identified by the composer's title and usually also by a prefatory note.  Thus "The Battle of the Huns" is related to a painting, "Mazeppa" to a poem, "Hamlet" to Shakespeare's hero, "Prometheus" to the myth and also to a poem by Herder, and so on.  The program does not tell the story of the music, but runs parallel with it -- evoking, in a different medium, analogous ideas and similar states of feeling.

"Les Preludes" was said by Lizst to be "after Lamartine," but the fact is that he wrote the music first as an overture to a choral work; only later, when he decided to publish it separately, did he look for a program, and eventually made one up which consisted of a condensation of the ideas of one of Lamartine's "Meditations poétiques."  It is well designed, melodious, effectively scored, and filled with extravagant theatrical gestures.  "Die Ideale" is liberally interspersed with quotations from Schiller's poem of that title.  Probably, the best of the symphonic poems are "Orpheus" and "Hamlet," but "Les Preludes" is the most commonly performed.

Liszt's symphonic poems were widely influential in the 19th century.  The form was imitated by such composers as Smetana ("Má Vlast"), Franck ("Psyché"), Saint-Saëns ("Danse macabre"), and Tchaikovsky ("Francesca da Rimini").

There are two kinds of program for a symphonic poem:  one, which we may call the "philosophical," lies in the realm of general ideas and emotions, unattached to particular incidents; Liszt's "Les Preludes", and most of his other symphonic poems, have a program of this sort.  The other, which we may call the "descriptive" type, requires the composer to render or attempt to illustrate in music particular nonmusical events; most of Berlioz's programs are of this kind.

Strauss wrote symphonic poems to both philosophical and descriptive programs.  His best works of the philosophical type are "Tod und Verklärung" (Death and Transfiguration, 1889) and "Also sprach Zarathustra" (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896);  of the descriptive type, "Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche" (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, 1895), and "Don Quixote" (1897).  Strauss' first completely mature work, "Don Juan" (1889), is vividly scenic and descriptive music of tremendous verve, with brilliant orchestration.  "Ein Heldenleben" (A Hero's Life, 1898) has an autobiographical program that is a mocking defiance of Strauss' critics.

In "Till Eulenspiegel," the popular favorite among his symphonic poems, Strauss developed a comic program in music of unfading freshness and melodic attractiveness.  The realistic details of Till's adventures are so thoroughly blended with the musical flow that the work could easily be heard simply as a character sketch of a particularly appealing rascal, or even more simply as a piece of unmeditated musical humor, reminiscent of Haydn.  In no other work does Strauss seem so unconstrained, so spontaneously himself, as in this merry musical tale.

Shortly before 1900 two important symphonic poems were written in France, Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" (1894) and Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (1897).

Sibelius wrote several symphonic poems in the 1890s, three of which are:   "En Saga," "The Swan of Tuonela," and the familiar "Finlandia"   He revised them around 1900.  The principal later symphonic poems were "Pohjola's Daughter" (1906) and "Tapiola" (1925).

The 20th-century repertory includes Debussy's "La Mer" (1903-1905); Stravinsky's "Feu d'artifice" (1908); Elgar's "Falstaff" (1913); Respighi's Roman trilogy "The Fountains of Rome" (1917), "The Pines of Rome" (1924), and "Roman Festivals" (1929);  Gershwin's "An American in Paris" (1928);  Honegger's "Pacific 231" (1923), and "Rugby" (1928).