Series: The Symphonic Poem

I don’t know how much ‘into this’ I can get in one article, but maybe we’ll talk about it more throughout this series.

Coming off the three-month Russian Symphony Series I’d been planning (and writing) for so long, I got to thinking about what should follow it. Already lots of symphonies, and lots of Russian, so those are out, and there’s already been plenty of German and Austrian music, so what new theme could we use for the new year?

Why not the symphonic poem? It’s a great topic. Why?

  • It marked a turning point in classical music.
  • There are a lot of them.
  • I have neglected them.
  • Many composers from many cultures have written them, so
  • They tend to gather inspiration from the folk stories, ideas, and cultures of varied places.

Let’s get started.

At dinner before Mahler 2 a few months back, I was chatting with my fellow concertgoers (doing as best I could to explain in Chinese) about the history of the choral symphony, how Beethoven dropped the mic on the symphony with his ninth, and how it was, ultimately, for a while, bad for the future of the symphony as a form.

After that, for the next few decades, very few people wrote symphonies, the only three well-known symphonic composers that come to mind being  Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann, in that order, but Mendelssohn got a much earlier head start on symphonic writing than did Schumann, and Schubert’s symphonic writing didn’t fare terribly well during his lifetime.

In any case, music history, long story short, especially after Hector Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, described explicitly as a “choral symphony” kind of meant the form of the traditional symphony was called into question. People were also just afraid of losing in any comparison ever again to Beethoven’s ninth. It cast an enormous shadow.

So then what? The symphonic poem. Our first piece in this two-month (actually a little more) series is just an overture, but it works in a way we’ll talk about later. Although his pieces aren’t the first we’ll talk about, he was arguably the first person to use the term ‘symphonic poem, and he wrote a dozen of them. Franz Liszt!

His music for piano is famously enduring, but he (along with perhaps some help he had, which we shall discuss later) established the symphonic poem as a new form, program music, working with but outside of the rules or structure of the formal symphony. This ‘invention’ or development gave enormous freedom to composers who could finally work their way out of the creative box they’d been stuck in as a result of this persistent problem in composing the form.

They were free, and it was still a few decades after Beethoven’s ninth before this happened. Let’s go to a book, the Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era. Please turn your books to the end of the section on ‘symphony,’ on page 1117. It reads thusly with regards to the symphonic poem:

Franz Liszt combined the concert symphonies of Beethoven and Mendelssohn with the programmatic symphonies of Berlioz and propelled the symphony in a new direction. His “symphonic poems,” based on a literary or pictorial inspiration, were orchestral compositions not necessarily in the classical style. List’s innovations, encompassing harmonic experimentation and use of chromaticism, lyricism and counterpoint, exerted influence on the balance of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.

So yeah, that’s worth talking about, right? And a few of those names are in our series: first Mendelssohn (taking last week’s Midsummer Night’s Dream as a sort of jumping off point), then Liszt, and you’ll just have to stay tuned for the rest.

For the fun of it, let’s take a moment to see what happened to the symphony after Beethoven’s ninth.

  • Two of Mendelssohn’s symphonies, the Scottish and the Italian came along right on the Choral’s heels, in 1829 (Italian published in ’33, Scottish in ’42)
  • Symphony Fantastique in 1830 (which we very sadly will not get around to discussing this time)
  • Wagner’s (only completed) symphony in 1932
  • Louis Spohr, Niels Gade, Franz Berwald, George Onslow, Johannes Verhulst, Henry Litolff and some others obviously continued, some doggedly, to write symphonies, but these guys have very arguably been overshadowed by others or largely forgotten.

The few mentioned earlier, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann produced undoubtedly the most enduring symphonies (which is not to say they are ‘the best’ or anything), but we’ll be taking a look at many different composers’ contributions to the form that will also cover almost a century of music history (including a few big jumps along the way).

See you then!


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