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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Symphonic Poems

What follows is a compilation of two radio scripts designed as an overview of the history of the symphonic poem. It's not intended to be an exhaustive survey, but it does aim to open up a deep, rich, and all too often ignored area of the repertoire. As the programming of traditional orchestral concerts becomes safer and safer - and therefore narrower and narrower - so much great, and simply enjoyable, repertoire is falling by the wayside. This post is designed to remind us that there's so much out there we're missing out on.



Quite often in the world of music, boundaries and compartments aren't as neat as we'd like them to be. Defining what is and isn't "chamber music" for example, is a vexed issue; everyone has their own feelings on this and there are no absolute definitions. Try defining a "symphony" and you'll rapidly discover that there are always exceptions and unusual examples.

In an area of orchestral music this is especially so, but it's an area which has given us some of the best examples of the composer's art, so it's an important area to explore. Even the name of the form is open to some debate, but here goes...

In this post I want to talk about symphonic poems. A symphonic poem is usually (see, we're already allowing for exceptions) described as a single movement work for orchestra which attempts to be illustrative or narrative in some way. As a form, the symphonic poem flourished from around 1850 until about 1930, and it's generally regarded as having been invented by Liszt, but as we'll see, depending on your definitions that's not necessarily the case. Richard Strauss wrote symphonic poems but preferred to call them "tone poems"; for the purpose of these posts I'll regard these terms as interchangeable.

Composers had been writing music which was descriptive or programmatic for centuries. Claudio Monteverdi imitated the galloping of horses and the clash of arms in The Combat of Tancred and Clorinda in 1624, and a century later Vivaldi's Four Seasons describe a multitude of things including the weather, barking dogs and sleeping shepherds. But with the dawn of Romanticism in Europe - at the start of the 19th century - there arose in orchestral music a rethinking of the form which at that time was called the overture. A new form of overture was invented, one not connected with an opera or incidental music for a play, which stood alone as a concert piece and which had a descriptive or narrative basis.

One of the earliest of these was an overture written by Beethoven in 1807 called Coriolan. Even though this was performed on one occasion at a performance of the play which inspired it, this work seems to have been conceived as a concert piece and it was certainly premiered as such. It doesn't seek to "tell a story" but the themes are clearly designed to suggest the character of Coriolanus as he appears in Heinrich Joseph von Collin's (not Shakespeare’s) play. Beethoven's overture is a symphonic poem in all but name. [listen]

Beethoven wrote other overtures - some designed for use with plays, some for his opera Fidelio - which are similar in nature to Coriolan. They contain a compacted version of the emotional landscape of the work to follow and thus, on their own, are prototypes of what was to become the symphonic poem.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Concert works of this nature became very popular in the generation of composers who followed Beethoven. Hector Berlioz wrote a number of concert overtures based on literary sources, such as Waverley and Rob Roy (based on Scott), and this one from 1831, based on Shakespeare's King Lear. [listen]

Hector Berlioz

Like Berlioz, Felix Mendelssohn also adored Shakespeare and his overture based on A Midsummer Night's Dream (initially a freestanding work but later used to open some incidental music for the play) is yet another example of the symphonic poem sort of overture. Mendelssohn's other concert overtures are also of this type, the most famous of which is The Hebrides. The others are less well-known but don't deserve their obscurity, such as Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (based on poems by Goethe) [listen] and The Fair Melusina, written in 1833. [listen]

Felix Mendelssohn

The last composer in the European mainstream who wrote overtures in the symphonic poem mode which I'll mention here is Robert Schumann, who wrote a concert overture based on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1851 after writing his fourth and last symphony. This work is very much in the mould of Beethoven's Coriolan, a dark and serious work which evokes the general sentiments of the play rather than trying to tell the story. [listen]

Robert Schumann

Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn and Schumann are of course only the four biggest names in this period. Many other composers followed Beethoven's lead and the literary or descriptive concert overture was very popular in the first half of the 19th century. Even Wagner composed a Faust overture early in his career which is a fascinating indication of what might have been had he not so single-mindedly devoted himself to opera. However it took another true individual to take this form and develop it in the spirit of mid-19th century artistic freedom, and this individual was Franz Liszt.

Liszt is remembered primarily today as a composer for the piano, and this is logical as he was the most famous piano virtuoso on his time. He composed a staggering amount of virtuoso piano music, hundreds of pieces, but what is often forgotten is the fact that he composed in other genres as well. He wrote organ music, choral music, songs, even a one act opera. But his orchestral music is particularly important. There are two major symphonies (the Faust and Dante symphonies, which are obviously based on literary sources) but germane to this discussion are the twelve works he composed between 1848 and 1858 for which he invented the term "Symphonische Dichtung" - symphonic poem.

Franz Liszt

The borderline between Liszt's two literary symphonies and the twelve symphonic poems is rather blurred. Some of the symphonic poems are large-scale works in several section which could be called "movements", and the first is the longest, taking about half an hour to perform. It was written in 1848 and 1849 and is based on a poem by Victor Hugo. Called Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne, it's known in English as the Mountain Symphony and rather than tell a story, its various sections evoke the emotional states of the poem which inspired it. [listen]

Liszt's second symphonic poem was called Tasso: Lament and Triumph, and this was followed in 1854 by the best-known of the twelve, Les Préludes. This piece, once played regularly in concerts, is decidedly out of fashion with orchestras these days. I for one think it's about time we played it again because it's magnificent. The ending never fails to send a chill down my spine. [listen]

All of Liszt's symphonic poems are gripping, individual works which exhibit enormous creativity, but because he’s primarily remembered as a composer of piano music, they’re also almost totally unknown to the average music lover, which is a tragedy. After Les Préludes came the Heroic Elegy, Prometheus, Mazeppa, Orpheus, Festival Sounds, Hungaria, The Ideal, The Battle of the Huns, and Hamlet.

The opening of Prometheus is an example of Liszt's modernism. The power of Prometheus's struggle is evident in music which sounds far more recent than 1850. [listen]

Adam: Prometheus (1762)

Liszt's symphonic poems, unlike those of some later composers, don't attempt to tell a story in the course of the music. Even in Hamlet, composed in 1858, the action of Shakespeare's play is suggested and described in general terms, and not depicted in music step-by-step. Still, Liszt did add some woodwind melodies which he said referred to Ophelia, but that's as specific as it gets. The passion and anguish of Hamlet himself, though, is never far from the surface and Liszt surely assumed that his audiences would know the play and be able to draw their own connections from his music. [listen]

The Battle of the Huns (Hunnenschlacht in the original German) was first performed in 1857 and it's an extraordinary piece. Its inspiration is visual rather than literary, a painting by the artist Wilhelm von Kaulbach based on the battle between the Christians and the Huns in 451. Specifically it depicts the legend in which the spirits of those killed in the battle rose toward heaven and continued their battle in the sky for three more days. To portray this in music Liszt set himself the daunting task of writing battle music which is often rather soft, his stated aim being to draw the eyes of the listener upward to the sky. The inevitable outburst happens, though, with the Huns represented in barbarous, violent music, and the Christians with the organ playing the hymn Crux fidelis. [listen]

Wilhelm von Kaulbach: The Battle of the Huns

I've spent quite a bit of time on Liszt's symphonic poems for a couple of reasons. Firstly he invented the term and wrote a substantial body of work exploring the concept, and secondly, most of this body of work is not widely known or regularly played today, and I think it should be. But it's interesting that in writing, performing and - most importantly - publishing his symphonic poems in Germany, Liszt didn't establish a lineage of other composers who took up the idea and wrote their own symphonic poems. German composers largely ignored the form in the mid-to-late 19th century for one peculiarly German reason. German music in the second half of the 19th century was dominated by two composers, Wagner and Brahms. One usually had to ally oneself with one or other approach to composition. Either one was Wagnerian, devoted to the idea of music drama, which usually meant opera, or one was Brahmsian, devoted to the idea of symphonic composition. Neither Wagner nor Brahms wrote symphonic poems in the Lisztian sense so it stood to reason that neither did their respective followers.

Liszt's ideas were more readily taken up outside Germany, at least initially. We'll look now at how composers in the Czech lands and Russia responded to the form.

In 1857, when Liszt was coming to the end of his symphonic poem decade, he was visited in Weimar by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. The friendship between the two composers led to Smetana writing a series of symphonic poems of his own between 1857 and 1861. These are Richard III, Wallenstein's Camp, and Hakon Jarl. Again, literary sources provided the impetus. In Richard III, Smetana follows the Lisztian lead and depicts the course of Shakespeare's play in only general terms; he didn't give the work a detailed program. A sense of inevitable doom infuses the whole work, though, and it is clear that the rise and fall of the wayward king is clearly at the forefront of Smetana's mind. [listen]

Bedřich Smetana

Of course, Smetana's most famous symphonic poems were written some years later, in the 1870s. The six nationalistic tone poems making up the cycle Má Vlast (My Country) are among the most important music in the Czech nationalist tradition. (The most famous is the second, Vltava - formerly known as Die Moldau - but all six are magnificent.) They are important to mention as they represent not only one of the landmarks in Czech music, but also probably the first time a composer used the symphonic poem in a cycle of multiple works meant to be considered together. [listen]

A generation younger than Smetana, his compatriot Antonín Dvořák composed two groups of symphonic poems in the 1890s, right near the end of his life. One group of three - In Nature's Realm, Carnival and Othello - were originally conceived as a trilogy called Nature, Life and Love, but they were eventually published as three separate concert overtures. The second group comprises five works: The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Wood Dove and The Hero's Song. These are not widely known today, although The Noon Witch is occasionally played. The Hero's Song (sometimes called Heroic Song) is in fact Dvořák's last orchestral work and unlike the symphonic poems (which are based on known literary sources) it's not based on anything other than a general idea of heroism. The unnamed hero (certainly not the composer) sets out to conquer the world, has a major setback, recovers and triumphs. It contains some beautiful music. [listen]

Antonín Dvořák

Other Czech composers took to the symphonic poem as well. Zdeněk Fibich and Vitěslav Novák are not remembered much outside the Czech Republic today, but Josef Suk is more widely known. Like Liszt, Suk wrote descriptive symphonies (Asrael and Summer's Tale) but he also wrote true symphonic poems. The Ripening is a complex, major work lasting about three quarters of an hour which uses the harvest as an analogy of the human condition. On the other hand, Prague is a single movement symphonic poem but it still lasts nearly half an hour. It was sparked by homesickness but given renewed impetus by the death of Dvořák, which occurred as Suk was composing the piece. It was first performed in 1904. [listen]

Of more recent Czech composers, there are two works by Leoš Janáček which come into the category of symphonic poem: The Fiddler's Child and The Ballad of Blaník.

We have time to briefly mention the symphonic poem in Russia, which took similar paths to those we've already encountered from elsewhere. Some are described as symphonic works, while others are described as overtures, but these works - by all the major names in late Romantic Russian music - are all symphonic poems in essence.

Works like Balakirev's Tamara, Mussorgsky's St John's Night on Bald Mountain, Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia, as well as Sadko and Skazka by Rimsky-Korsakov are all Russian examples of the symphonic poem, as is Glazunov's Stenka Razin.

I'll finish this part, though, with mentioning two of the best-known names in Russian music: Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Rachmaninov. Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, while described as an overture, is in fact a symphonic poem, as is the even more overwhelming Francesca da Rimini. Far less well known though is Tchaikovsky's symphonic poem on Hamlet, as masterful work which contains beautiful passages like this which no other composer could have written. [listen]

Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky

Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus, and even Shostakovich's October can all be considered great Russian examples of the symphonic poem, but I want to end this section of my survey with the music of Rachmaninov.

Rachmaninov's early tone poem The Rock (composed in 1893) is clearly influenced by Tchaikovsky, but his 1909 work, The Isle of the Dead, is one of his greatest creations. The Isle of the Dead was inspired by a painting by Arnold Böcklin of the Greek ferryman of the dead, Charon, conveying a corpse across the River Styx. (Böcklin made five versions of the painting in the course of the 1880s.) Rachmaninov's melancholy 20-minute musical response to this is masterful, deeply brooding and moving, beautifully executed from start to finish. [listen]

Sergei Rachmaninov

Böcklin: The Isle of the Dead (first version, 1880)

The symphonic poem has given to us some of the riches of the orchestral repertoire, many of which need to rediscovered by audiences and orchestras alike. In part two we'll continue our exploration of the symphonic poem by looking at examples from France, Britain and Finland, and at the work of the German composer who finally took up Liszt's idea and made it unmistakably his own.


This is the second part of a post looking at the orchestral form known as the symphonic poem. This term was coined by Liszt in the mid 19th century to describe his descriptive orchestral works which were inspired by ideas from literature or other arts. Liszt's twelve symphonic poems grew out of the programmatic overture of the early Romantic period, and we also looked at how composers in Bohemia and Russia took up the symphonic poem and made it their own. Liszt, although Hungarian-born, lived and worked for most of his life in Germany, yet in the Wagner-versus-Brahms world of German music in the second half of the 1800s, the symphonic poem did not become firmly established until almost the end of the century, something we'll look at in this post a little later on.

In this part we're going to look at other national expressions of the symphonic poem, and focus on the work of the German composer who took up the symphonic poem and made it his own.

Firstly, to France. One only has to think of Berlioz to realise that descriptive music was well established in France in the early 19th century. I made reference to Berlioz's dramatic overtures in part one as examples of antecedents to the symphonic poems of Liszt. Even more interesting is the fact that César Franck wrote an orchestral work based on the same literary source as Liszt's own first symphonic poem (the Mountain Symphony) some years before Liszt, so there was certainly interest in descriptive orchestral music in France by the time Liszt began his decade of symphonic poem composition in 1848.

However it wasn't until the 1870s, with the establishment of the National Society, that the symphonic poem proper really took off in France. The Society was designed to promote the work of younger composers and to premiere new French music, and symphonic poems were part of the Society's programs right from the start.

In 1872, a year after the Society was founded, Camille Saint-Saëns premiered the first of his four symphonic poems at the Society's concerts. This was Omphale's Spinning Wheel, and the motion of the spinning wheel is evident right from the start. [listen]

Camille Saint-Saëns

Of Saint-Saëns’ other three symphonic poems, written soon after Omphale's Spinning Wheel, the best known is Danse macabre. The other two are Phaëton and The Young Hercules. The Young Hercules is the closest in style to Liszt's symphonic poems. One writer said that Saint-Saëns' symphonic poems are "illustrations, not translations" because they don't attempt a deep penetration of the subject. The Young Hercules, while it lacks the spooky popularity of Danse macabre, is an attractive and well-written work which, with Omphale's Spinning Wheel and Phaëton, could well stand revival in concerts today. [listen]

Saint-Saëns dedicated The Young Hercules to another French composer, Henri Duparc. Duparc is remembered today almost exclusively as a writer of songs (and the Duparc songs are very beautiful), but he wrote an extraordinary symphonic poem in 1875 called Lénore, based on a German ballad by Gottfried Bürger. The medieval story of love and death with its supernatural horse ride of course appealed to the Romantic mind, and Duparc's treatment of the story is masterful. Saint-Saëns clearly admired the work as he made a two-piano arrangement of it. [listen]

Henri Duparc

Many other French composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wrote symphonic poems. Vincent d'Indy wrote a trilogy of symphonic poems called Wallenstein between 1873 and 1881 and it's probably no coincidence that 1873 was the year d'Indy visited Liszt. After his early attempt at a symphonic poem in the 1840s, César Franck wrote a number of essays in the form in the 1870s and 1880s, including The Aeolids, The Accursed Huntsman, The Djinns and Psyche. At the same time Ernest Chausson wrote one of his two surviving symphonic poems, Viviane. Dating from 1882, Viviane was Chausson's first purely orchestral work, based on a legend from the knights of the round table. [listen]

Ernest Chausson

Some French symphonic poems from this period are very famous indeed. Debussy's Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun of the 1890s is one of the most important works in European music history, and one of the most popular of all classical works = Paul Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice - dates from 1897. Both are symphonic poems in the strictest sense of the word; both are inspired by literature and seek to be descriptive, even (in the case of the Dukas) narrative. Ravel's La Valse (completed in 1920), even though it was intended to be a ballet score, was called a "choreographic poem" by the composer so it too could also come into this category.

The final French composer I want to mention in this context is Albert Roussel, who died in 1937 and who was a pupil of d'Indy. Roussel's first major orchestral work was a 1903 symphonic poem based on Tolstoy called Resurrection. Shortly after this he wrote a symphonic poem in four movements which is sometimes referred to as his first symphony. Called The Poem of the Forest, the work was built up over some time, eventually comprising a cycle of four movements evoking the seasons. [listen]

Albert Roussel

We now return to Germany, where Liszt invented the symphonic poem in the 1840s. Although some German composers did write symphonic poems in the decades following, it wasn't really until the 1880s that one German composer took up the form with the same sort of enthusiasm as had Liszt. This composer was Richard Strauss who wrote an amazingly innovative and brilliant series of symphonic poems over a period of about seventeen years, between 1886 and 1903.

Strauss preferred the term Tondichtung (sound poem, or tone poem) to describe his own works in this form but to my mind there is no real difference between symphonic poem and tone poem. Some writers see the tone poem as being less reliant on symphonic structures and procedures than the symphonic poem, but to quote Grove, "the distinction has never been strictly applied". I have always regarded the terms as synonymous.

Like Roussel and others, Strauss arrived at the symphonic poem by way of the symphony proper. His descriptive symphony (he called it a "symphonic fantasy") Aus Italien (From Italy) was composed in 1886 when he was only 22 and it's his first orchestral work with a programmatic or pictorial inspiration. From here flowed his incredible series of seven tone poems, to which must be added two symphonies which are really multi-movement tone poems.

Strauss's inspirations are wide and varied: literature, legends, philosophy, even his own life. The resulting works are among the major creations of late Romantic music, hugely demanding to play and overwhelming in their effect on the listener. The orchestral tone poems are one of the areas in which Strauss made a unique and priceless contribution to European art. The other two are his operas and his songs.

Richard Strauss, aged 22 (1886)

Strauss's first tone poem was Macbeth, the first version of which was written between 1886 and 1888. It underwent two major revisions before the composer was finally happy with it, but the final work is a powerful encapsulation of the emotions, leading characters and even some of the events of Shakespeare's play. [listen]

Strauss made it quite clear that he felt free to invent or adapt existing forms and structures for dramatic or narrative ends when it came to writing tone poems. Macbeth hints at sonata form but it’s actually very freely constructed. After Macbeth came Don Juan, generally regarded as Strauss's first masterpiece. Written in 1888, it's hard to remember that the composer was still only 24 when he wrote this, such is the assurance and panache with which the whole thing is brought off. It's one of the great orchestral test pieces, a virtuoso work from start to finish. [listen]

Of a completely different nature altogether is his next tone poem, Tod und Verklärung (Death and Transfiguration), completed in 1889. It's not based on any literary source, but rather a sequence of ideas invented by Strauss himself which describe the final moments of a creative artist. It's dark, brooding and intensely serious.

The old German legend of Till Eulenpiegel is the inspiration for the next tone poem. Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks) is sentimental, riotously funny and stunningly brilliant, and it was completed in 1895.

Straight after this Strauss delved into the world of philosophy by composing a tone poem based on eight passages of the writings of Nietzsche. The opening of this work, Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spake Zarathustra), is widely known from Stanley Kubrick's use of its opening section in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this pop culture reference is unfortunate in that it renders the rest of the work almost totally unknown. It is a miraculous piece where a composer attempts - and in my view succeeds - to paint in music philosophical ideas which no other composer had thought possible of such treatment. Zarathustra was completed in 1896.

The final two tone poems proper are among the treasures of western music. Don Quixote was completed in 1897 and in this Strauss uses variation form to depict in music elements of Cervantes' famous story of the wayward knight and his sidekick. The major roles for solo cello (usually played in the soloist’s position) and viola (usually played by the principal viola in the orchestra) make this work part concerto, part tone poem, part theme and variations, and it works brilliantly. [listen]

Don Quixote was sketched and planned concurrently with Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life), which was completed in 1898. This remains today one of the great orchestral showpieces, and in this work Strauss's inspiration is none other than himself. The "hero" of the title is the hero-artist standing against his critics; it is an idealised self-portrait of the composer and his wife, and their world, viewed from the point of view of a lively, prodigiously talented 34-year old. [listen]

Quite apart from its programmatic content, looked at as pure music one sees that A Hero's Life is in fact a one movement symphony. As such it was appropriate that Strauss's next major work would be a fully-fledged symphony which was in fact a large-scale tone poem. Having written his idealised self portrait in A Hero's Life, Strauss followed it up with a parody of the same subject in the Symphonia Domestica, the "domestic symphony", which he completed in 1903. By this stage in his career Strauss was getting more involved in opera and it was on that form that his energies were focused thereafter. However many years later he wrote one more symphonic tone poem, the mighty Alpine Symphony, which was written between 1911 and 1915.

We have space left to look briefly at symphonic poems in other countries. The effect of Strauss's masterpieces was to reveal the true potential of the form and many composers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wrote their own symphonic poems.

British composers such as Sir Arnold Bax, Sir Edward Elgar, Frank Bridge and Frederick Delius all wrote memorable symphonic poems, to name only four. Bax's Tintagel is near the top of my "works which really are unjustly neglected" list. Dating from 1917 when he was in the midst of a passionate love affair, and written in Cornwall by the ruined castle after which the piece is named, Tintagel is a glorious evocation of the sea as a metaphor for human desire. [listen]

Arnold Bax

Bax's Tintagel is about a quarter of an hour long; on a much larger scale is the symphonic poem written a few years earlier by Sir Edward Elgar, Falstaff. Elgar, like so many other composers, found inspiration in Shakespeare, and in 1913 wrote his 35-minute long "symphonic study" of the famous knight from Henry IV. Elgar's music is designed to illustrate specific events and characters, and it's a masterful example of the mature composer's ability to handle large scale structures, not to mention the orchestra. [listen]

Edward Elgar

Italian composers wrote symphonic poems, perhaps the most famous of which are those of Ottorino Respighi, Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome in particular. But to end our all-too-brief survey I want to look north to Finland and to the music of Jean Sibelius.

Jean Sibelius

Sibelius made a major contribution to the symphonic poem genre throughout his whole composing career, from En Saga in 1892 to his last major work, Tapiola, in 1926. Tapiola describes the domain of the forest god, Tapio, and it is an incredibly powerful work, written in Sibelius's uncompromising, driven late style. It contains a wonderful storm sequence near the end. [listen]

The symphonic poem as a major form ceased to flourish by about 1930 although there are notable examples of course from after that date. But in the 80 years or so after Liszt's invention of the term and demonstration of its potential, composers from across the western tradition have shown it to be a vibrant and powerful means of expressing in music ideas from all manner of sources.

It's sad to reflect that the symphonic poem is only occasionally included in orchestral programs; at least this seems certainly to be the case in Australia. The overture-concerto-interval-symphony model, while often decried, maintains its stranglehold on the usually too-safe programming going on in the orchestral world. Replacing the overture with a Liszt or Bax symphonic poem, or replacing the symphony with one of the larger-scale examples mentioned (something we only ever see done with two or three works of Richard Strauss these days) would be a good start. As this post indicates, there’s a rich and deep source of imaginative and engaging music in the symphonic poem genre, and it’s one which should be explored more readily.

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2010.

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