About this Recording
8.553355 - LISZT, F.: Symphonic Poems, Vol. 2 - Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe / Orpheus / Die Ideale / Hamlet (New Zealand Symphony, Halász)

Franz Liszt (1811 -1886) Symphonic Poems

Franz Liszt (1811 -1886)

Symphonic Poems

From the Cradle to the Grave / Orpheus / Die Ideale / Hamlet


"The world persisted to the end in calling [Liszt] the greatest pianist," declared Saint-Saens (1885), "in order to avoid the trouble of considering his claims as one of the most remarkable of composers". As a writer of orchestral music, a writer for orchestra, Franz Liszt was a complete original. He may not single-handedly have invented either the symphonic poem or the programme symphony -Mozart and Beethoven, minor Austrian composers and French revolutionaries, Berlioz and Mendelssohn all got there before him -but he alone impressed their modern form. His Faust and Dante Symphonies, and the twelve symphonic poems dedicated to his companion the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, dating from his years as Grand Ducal Director of Music Extraordinary to the Weimar Court, were collectively to cast a significant shadow across the orchestral arena of late romanticism. From Smetana, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Franck to Richard Strauss, Respighi, Sibelius and Bax via Debussy and Schoenberg, few escaped their charismatic influence, or wanted to.


Taking a creative, though not formal, cue from the concentrated digest of Beethoven's character-study overtures, Leonora No.3, Coriolan, Egmont, Liszt's symphonic poems deal not so much in description, representation or realism as suggestion, impression or symbolism. From elegy to triumph, they play on states of emotion and spirit. They evoke a mood, a scene, an identity, rather than tell a story or depict a situation. Their stimulus may be extra- musically prescribed (usually poetry or painting, or the heroic ideal), their organization is not. As Liszt himself wrote in 1855, in an essay on Berlioz's Harold in Italy, "the programme has no other end than to make some preliminary allusion to the psychological motives that have impelled the composer to create his work and that he has sought to embody in it". Like Bach's fugues or Mozart's concertos there is no such thing as a typical Liszt symphonic poem. Conceptually they are very varied, "freely composed" pieces embracing facets from sonata to funeral march, overture to symphony, but their multi-divisional, single-movement frameworks, internally unified by different means of thematic transformation, are a common feature, as are their extravagantly weighted orchestral tuttis, contrasted (futuristically) against textures of chamber-like transparency and economy.


A late work, From the Cradle to the Grave (1881-82) stands outside the principal canon of twelve. Drawing inspiration from a pictorial "design" by the Hungarian Count Mihcily Zichy, reproduced on the title-page of the first edition, its three sections or movements, sub-titled The Cradle (birth), The Struggle for Existence (life), and To the Grave, the Cradle of the Future (death), play continuously, with no more than a pause in between for breath. Thematically, the first, highly rarefied and delicate, Liszt derived from a piano piece, Wiegenlied (1880), and a berceuse, long since lost, for four violins, Die Wiege, reconstructed by the present writer in 1986. An agitated statement, the second brings in the full orchestra and opposes two ideas, a hammering unison motif and a nobilmente cantando melody of uncannily Sibelian imagery and sound. Both are repeated a tone higher, reaching a climax in a conflict where the rhythm of the former opposes the contour of the latter, eventually taking over in a denouement underlined by a prominent timpani solo, again prophetically Sibelian. The final section combines the themes of the first and second, fading away in an unaccompanied cello phrase reminiscent expressively of a Magyar funeral dirge.


It was through the medium of the symphonic poem that Liszt opened and closed his account as a composer for orchestra. Taking the form of a slow sonata movement, without development, Orpheus (1853-54) was the fourth in order of publication. Conceived as an introduction to Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, directed by Liszt in February 1854, its stimulus was said to have been an Etruscan vase in the Louvre showing Orpheus, "the first poet-musician, clothed in a starry rose", playing his lyre and taming the wildness of beast and man. A poetic masterwork, its enigmatic final sequence of chords, rising, as Liszt said, gradually like the vapour of incense... a transparent cloak of ineffable and mysterious harmony, - looks to the similarly extraordinary close of the B minor Piano Sonata.


More episodic and rambling, the twelfth, Die Ideale (1857), was based on, and contextually quotes from a poem by the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller, freely re-distributed by Liszt in the interests of musical cogency. Planned originally as a tripartite symphony harmonically and thematically unified by the interval of a third, but eventually cast in the continuous form of its companions, reminiscent of the sonata and concertos, its main subdivisions comprise: (a) Slow Introduction (vanished joys and ideals); (b) Allegro spiritoso (aspiration, love, truth, fortune, fame); (c) Andante (disillusionment, loneliness, hope); (d) Allegretto / Allegro spirito molto (fulfilment and purpose); (e) Apotheosis ("Faith in the Ideal... Life's highest aim", referring back to motifs from section (b). Together with the Faust Symphony, Die Ideale was first played under Liszt's direction in Weimar on 5th September 1857.


Chronologically the last to be composed (1858) and given its first public performance in 1876, Hamlet, was considered by Hans von Bulow to be "unperformable". Intended as an overture to Shakespeare's play, produced in Weimar in 1856, it impresses among the very finest examples of nineteenth century musical character study. In the tradition of Beethoven's Coriolan, its preoccupation throughout is not with the incident of the tragedy so much as the psychology of Hamlet himself, on the one hand, "pale, fevered, suspended between heaven and earth, the prisoner of his doubt and irresolution" (letter, 26th June 1858), on the other, a prince with a battle-plan awaiting his moment to exact revenge. In such an intensely uncompromising portrait, with not a gesture wasted, even Ophelia is reduced to a "shadowy picture", by way of two fleeting interludes added later to the central Allegro. As Liszt put it, "Yes, she is loved by Hamlet, but Hamlet, like every exceptional person, imperiously demands the wine of life and will not content himself with the buttermilk. He wishes to be understood by her without the obligation to explain himself... She collapses under her mission, because she is incapable of loving him in the way he must be loved, and her madness is only the decrescendo of a feeling, whose lack of sureness has not allowed her to remain on the level of Hamlet".


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