Franz Liszt and the symphonic poem

Early in his career, no one would have guessed that Franz Liszt would ever become capable of writing symphonic poems like Les Préludes. He was a piano virtuoso, known for the flashy brilliance of his playing. Most piano virtuosos of his generation and earlier contented themselves with composing what Robert Schumann scorned as Philistine music. Schumann recognized that Liszt wrote musically more substantial pieces. Therefore it makes sense that out of all the famous virtuosos, Liszt would invent the symphonic poem.

Franz Liszt, a different sort of piano virtuoso

It appears that the most famous and notorious of these Philistine virtuosos had tremendous skill at the keyboard, but not particularly well-rounded musical training. They churned out sets of variations on popular tunes that all seemed to be based on stock formulas. Liszt had studied composition and theory with Antonio Salieri, Fernando Paer, and others. They are not highly regarded composers today, but were excellent teachers.

Still, the kind of people who succeeded on the touring virtuoso circuit and the salons of Paris rarely ventured far from writing piano music. Liszt wrote his share of (much better) variations and fantasies. He also made piano transcriptions of orchestral music in order to introduce it to audiences that might otherwise have no opportunity to hear it.

He eventually came to an artistic crossroads when someone challenged him to perform Beethoven sonatas. Philistines, or partisans of what can more kindly be called high-status popular music, had long waged a war of words against partisans of what was already called classical music. Liszt’s embrace of Beethoven coincided with the eventual merger of these two audiences.

Franz Liszt develops the symphonic poem

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Franz Liszt conducting


How and why, then, did the piano virtuoso Lizst become an influential orchestral composer? His formal study with music teachers of high artistic standards laid the foundation. His informal study of orchestral scores for the purpose of making his piano transcriptions gave him a background that most piano virtuosos never acquired. He needed only to study how to orchestrate in order to take that step.

As composer of orchestral music, Liszt invented the symphonic poem, a single movement work intended to convey a literary idea. Structually, his 13 symphonic poems are based loosely on sonata form, but Liszt had never studied with sonata form composers.

As someone long on the other side of the popular/classical divide, he saw no reason to use old forms and procedures just because Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven had. That attitude brought on a new war of words between followers of Brahms on one hand and Wagner and Liszt on the other.

Lizst developed procedures for combining all of the tempos, meters, and key-relationships of a four-movement symphony into a single movement. He had to find a way to preserve the unity of such a complex movement. He developed a method of using thematic transformation to derive all of the material traditionally used in later movements from the opening theme.

Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems and artistic controversy

Although Liszt composed a baker’s dozen of symphonic poems, only Les Préludes became part of the standard orchestral repertoire. All of them remained puzzling, difficult, and controversial music during his lifetime.

First, audiences were not used to hearing such complex music. Generally speaking, audiences like new music to be reasonably familiar at first hearing. Audiences for any kind of popular music demand it. Audiences for classical music have always preferred the music of older masters.

In part to help the audience along, Lizst usually wrote prefaces to his symphonic poems. He knew that audiences of his time liked to attach stories to music. The prefaces enabled him to prevent anyone else from attaching a different narrative.

For a long time, most musicians believed that these prefaces explained Liszt’s intentions in composing the music, or as they were called, the program of the music. As it turns out, though, he composed the music long before he wrote the supposed programs.

Second, the orchestras and conductors had trouble learning the music. They found all of those tempo changes and innovative chromatic harmonies difficult to learn. Although he wrote for a large orchestra, Liszt often used chamber music textures. He wrote extended solo passages with very light accompaniment and other extended passages that used only a small number of instruments.

In these places, the players had to navigate the technical difficulties without the safety net of the rest of the orchestra covering up any mistakes they made. Most small-town orchestras were not capable of playing Liszt’s symphonic poems at all, and that introduced another very practical difficulty.

The market for purchasing Liszt’s symphonic poems was so small that most of them were not available in printed parts until the 1880s. Lizst composed all but one of them between 1848 and 1858. Therefore he had to pass out manuscript parts for every performance. After a while, those parts had so many annotations written by previous performers that reading them at all became another big headache for the musicians.

It is no wonder, then, that only one of Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems became a staple of orchestral music. It’s only because of the efforts of younger conductors in his orbit that any of them survived at all.

Illustration credit: Unknown artist, ca. 1918. Public domain, from Wikimedia

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