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Tones Poems in Excelcis

The MHS Review 402, VOL. 12, NO.5 • 1988

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Frank Cooper


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Poems, paintings, places, myths, and legends were the stuff of new music written during the peak years of roman­ticism. Tone poems they were called, or symphonic poems, and they were im­passioned expressions of an avant-garde led by Franz Liszt. Critics loathed these works for the same reason that the public loved them: their music burst the restraints of classical form.

Today we can hardly imagine how fierce was the controversy that raged over Liszt's innovation. His daring in­spired many others as he, in turn, had been inspired by such works as Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony and Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave Overture. Trouble was, detractors claimed, those works were meant not to represent something nonmusical, only to suggest it while keeping to standard forms. Thus, propriety was upheld, as it were, to edify the public.

Yet the public abandoned itself to the wild emotionalism and vivid pic­torialization of the Lisztian alternative. Thrills became the order of the day. Paintings were brought to life through sound. Fresh meaning was given to characters out of literature and history. Geography was made palpable in the concert hall, mythology made manifest, and history reenacted. History was made, too, as the genre attracted such later masters as Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy.

Our pleasure in tone poems lies part­ly in their capacity to stir our minds as well as our blood. We quicken to the flamboyant instrumental colors, surging dynamic ranges, virtuoso orchestral demands, and, of course, extra-musical ideas. Oddly, recent years have seen some neglect of this exciting body of literature. So, the Society has moved to make up for lost time in a big way with this release. More than half of the 13 tone poems which Franz Liszt composed can be found here in celebrated performances which, until this month, were available only on expensive European imports. It is a bounty not to be passed over.

Les preludes is, along with Fingal's Cave (see above), familiar to all who remember the Flash Gordon serials of a few decades ago. Liszt, however, did not dream of it in such a context. He appended Lamartine's huge ode of the same name to it when he had the work published. For Tasso, the composer acknowledged two sources, a play by Goethe and a poem by Byron--­doubtless identifying with the subject, a tragically misunderstood genius. Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (What one hears on the mountain) owes its in spiration to Hugo's poem about the duality of the spiritual (Nature) and the material (Mankind).

Prometheus, the mythic fire-giver, is shown as a polyphonically complex be­ing who, like Liszt, points the way to the future. The brilliant fanfares of Festklange were deemed by Liszt as ''my wedding music," although he announc­ed no specific story or source (and never married). Mazeppa, prompted by another Hugo poem, portrays the pain­ful convulsions of the Ukrainian folk hero who, naked, was tied on horseback and subjected to a wild ride across the steppes. Heroide funebre (Heroic elegy) harkens eloquently back to the desola­tion and ruins of the revolution in Paris in July 1830.

Of immense historical significance and exceptional entertainment values, these works are quintessential expressions of the most romantic of the Great Romantics.

Review of Volume I of the Symphonic Poems by FRANZ LISZT Page 1

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