performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra under Bernard Haitink
Mendelssohn beat us to the punch with his overture/symphonic poem, but as we discussed in our introduction to this series, it’s Franz Liszt who ‘invented’ the concept of the symphonic poem, and today we will take a look at the first of the thirteen of these works that he wrote. It is the longest, as well, coming in at more than a half hour. That may not sound like much, but for the time, it’s quite large for a single-movement work, especially one that didn’t fit the symphonic mold (as expected).
The title translates to ‘what one hears on the mountain’ and is apparently sometimes referred to in German as the ‘Bergsymphonie’ or ‘mountain symphony,’ so yeah. Mountains. It’s inspired by the poem of Victor Hugo, of the same name, of which I know nothing.
And it really does sound that way. It’s ‘pastoral’ or nature-ish in the ways that Strauss’s Alpensinfonie and some of Mahler’s craggy, natural works are, but obviously precedes them by some decades. It has its big, mountainous, heavy majestic passages, but also heavily contrasts those with light, bucolic, solo, almost chamber-like passages with solo violin or flute. There are wonderful fanfares and powerful Wagner-like passages, and while it doesn’t fit the progress or layout of a traditional symphony, it’s of about the same length, and the contrast and content provide for what I’ve found to be a very enjoyable piece of music, so much so that I’m surprised that it isn’t played more.
Blair Johnston writes at Allmusic that “In Liszt‘s conception of program music — which differed considerably from that of many later composers — musical form always took precedence over text painting.” So pay attention for that later. As I stated earlier, I know nothing of Hugo’s work, but Johnston continues by saying that Liszt’s piece is in two main sections, then describing the source material as follows:
Hugo’s poem reflects the ongoing struggle between humanity and nature, as well as mankind’s longing to escape from the dismal realities of human life (the poem, significantly, was written just a year before the Paris Revolution of 1830).
I’ll link to it again because Johnson’s summary of the work is succinct and extremely clear, so go read it. These two large halves are broken down into their constituent parts, corresponding tot he above ideas of humanity, nature, whatever.
The first half plays with two main themes, one in E flat, one in F sharp, and these contend with each other for the entire first half of the piece in various ways. In the second half, the first (E flat) theme “…representing the glories of nature — is clearly the centerpiece, the F-sharp theme now relegated to a supporting role.” This is the general idea of the piece.
As I’ve said, I’ve quite enjoyed listening to the work, but I will also admit that I’ve been listening to it while writing, working, or doing other things, and it is maybe not a piece one can get lost in, jumping into Liszt’s world on the mountain, though the story and struggle are perhaps compelling.
The E flat theme opens the work, and sounds distinctly Wagnerian (which is backwards, chronologically, I know). It’s dramatic and flamboyant and exciting. A very Peer Gynt-type introductory sunrise bit (flute and oboe) enter after the dramatic introduction while tremolo strings and harp and others kind of continue to happen in the background. This first few minutes of the piece focus on this dramatic yet bucolic melody before stopping abruptly and giving attention to the contrasting idea in F sharp.
This theme is heroic, handsome, sharp, and more forceful, and it’s the one that really stands out the most in the work, to me. Brass fanfare, timpani, unison strings, really powerful stuff. Crunchy, decisive, inspiring, even. Commanding.
I really like these two themes as they’ve been presented, and I feel like anyone who listens to the first but, these two themes, could have really high expectations for the piece. However, listen for about six minutes, and there comes a clear seam, a moment where all the energy dies down. This kind of begins to work as a development section, where there’s some really quiet dramatic stuff, and a solo violin. This is where listeners should decide: either buckle up for the whole thing and maybe find something to read, or skip the next ten minutes or so, or even just tune in for the last five. If you’re not in a hurry to do anything, the music has its high points, but it just doesn’t do a whole lot.
Johnston pinpoints the reasons for this work’s failure to reach any kind of standard place in the repertoire: it’s just too long. That may seem odd after having talked about pieces like Mahler’s third symphony, which go on for nearly an hour and a half, so what’s the problem? This one work uses only minimal source material, and never seems to get too far away from it. It’s dragged out, Johnston says it is “far too overdrawn and bombastic — common criticisms of Liszt‘s music, which, though often unjustified, contain a great deal of truth in this instance.”
Edit yourself. Believe me, and you’ll know if you’re one of my three readers, I am wordy, but even when I feel compelled to share something in all its glorious detail, I can whittle away at it and manage to condense and hem and narrow down to a more manageable length. One wonders, though, what compelled the composer to create such a sprawling, open space for this work. If Mahler’s third symphony is an entire world, a journey that brings us from the depths of an abyss to the heights of heaven, then Liszt’s Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne is a handful of laps around the same mountain. It’s great if you like that mountain.
If the music is something you enjoy, if the space created by this music is charming or captivating or enjoyable, then maybe the listener finds no issue with kind of revolving or floating around the same musical space, exploring these two little ideas, but the main criticism seems to be that the piece doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s charm of pastoral, natural scenery, mountainous, craggy themes, the serene and the harsh, but ultimately, after more than half an hour of happenings, we haven’t really gotten that far. That’s okay if you like the place to begin with, but the piece, I suppose, doesn’t ever lift off and carry us away. That, for me, while a legitimate criticism, doesn’t deter me from enjoying the piece from some distance.
(I want to add here a fantastic resource I found about all of Liszt’s symphonic poems. It’s a thesis by Keith Thomas Johns from 1986. His analyses go far beyond anything I’m willing to spend time doing or am capable of doing, but the point that he makes regarding this first piece is that to understand or appreciate the work as it is, the listener must understand the program. That is an idea I don’t particularly care for, that extramusical ideas are critical to the understanding or enjoyment of a piece. If that’s the case, then I need to be given the homework assignment ahead of time, or have explicit program notes. In any case, there’s a somewhat extensive explanation of the structure and ‘story’ of the work as it relates to its source material. I figured it was worth mentioning in the interest of full disclosure.)
Remember, though, that while the composer himself was not young, this was one of his earlier orchestral works, and the first of its form. The Allmusic article acknowledges the impact that this piece (or at least Liszt’s body of symphonic poems as a whole) would have on future generations of composers, even though most of them wouldn’t have much staying power themselves. Again, this is the longest of his symphonic poems, and the following two we’ll discuss tomorrow and the day after are considerably shorter, but in my opinion at least, come from the same space: powerful horns, bucolic sounds, lots of contrast and drama and flash, so be on the lookout for those. This is by no means a standout of the series, or even just of Liszt’s contributions to the form, but I really don’t mind it. We will indeed come upon far more compelling examples, one of which is tomorrow. See you then.