Exploring: Liszt and the Symphonic Poem

Serendipity leads me in my choices at the library. Sometimes I get lucky.

There is so much more to Liszt than his abilities as a pianist, or his virtuoso compositions for piano such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies. Did you first encounter this music with the help of Bugs Bunny (for Rhapsody #2)?

By coincidence you may have heard that Sardanapale a Lisztian opera has been unearthed, recently completed and premiered this week. I can only go by
• what I have read online
• What I heard in the trailer

As it turns out Sardanapale is mentioned and is an important piece of subtext in one of the three recent Liszt books I’ve taken out of the library.  As I said, sometimes we get lucky.


The first of the books that I began this summer was by Joanne Cormac. When I saw the title—Liszt and the Symphonic Poem – I was hesitant: because I don’t know his symphonic poems. Is it enough to admire a composer, to like their music, even when you don’t know the works in question? I figured I’d learn something about the subject, discover a reason why I should want to listen to the symphonic poems, and perhaps find not only a new way of listening to them but even the other music of Liszt as well.

Yes there’s so much more to Liszt than just symphonic poems. For example early in the book Cormac tells us about Liszt’s ambition to be the next Donizetti, perhaps through Sardanapale and subsequent compositions. When I read this I wondered what he could be thinking. But with the completion of the work and an eventual recording of the project on the way we will have a whole different way of understanding his choices, and indeed to wonder at what might have been.

Let me repeat, there is so much to Liszt, he is still not fully understood. Cormac sheds some light on Liszt’s thinking:

Though Liszt’s decision to move to Weimar certainly raised eyebrows, it was perhaps less surprising than it first appeared. Through the 1840s, Liszt began to tire of his exhausting lifestyle and wanted to concentrate on composition…However Liszt had not won his place at the Weimar court because of his reputation as a composer, but through his virtuosic playing. The programme from his first public concert in Weimar is fairly typical of what he was generally playing for audiences at the time… He gave them what they wanted: familiar tunes and spectacle. He did not take the opportunity to showcase some of his more experimental music… Liszt would have his work cut out to convince the court to allow him to retreat from the piano and to persuade them to take him seriously as a composer. [Cormac 3]

And so while Weimar was to be Liszt’s home and base of operations, he had his sights set higher, namely Vienna, as he hoped

…that Vienna might supply a prestigious venue for the premiere of his first mature opera, Sardanapale, which he was working on at the time. Liszt’s letters show that in 1846 he was hopeful of taking up Gaetano Donizetti’s post, for the great opera composer was gravely ill. Nonetheless, Donizetti retained the post until his death in 1848. Timing was not on Liszt’s side, though it is doubtful whether he would have been offered such a prestigious post even if it had become available given his inexperience as a conductor. Equally, the absence of a successful opera in his compositional portfolio did not make him an obvious successor Donizetti. [5]

Based on conventional wisdom about Liszt, his strategy would be something akin to arrogance: unless one could hear reason to believe that he could write an opera (as this recording might help us to better assess & understand). However it came about that Liszt had his reality check, in rethinking his Viennese ambitions and turning instead towards a more realistic goal –namely the Weimar position—Sardanapale is again a likely subtext.

Cormac explains:

It was not until February 1848 that he decided to take up the post full time. At this point Liszt still retained hopes of completing Sardanapale and launching his career as a composer, and Weimar had a theatre, albeit small one. It also offered a place where he might experiment and refine his craft. He could safely premiere his new works on a small stage in relative obscurity before taking them to Vienna and other more prestigious venues. [6]

What happened? Weimar and the requirements of the job, first of all, and a change of heart. The book tells us about the symphonic poems while

From 1851 progress on Sardanapale slowed. The project had previously featured heavily in Liszt’s correspondence, but now disappeared completely. Instead Liszt’s thoughts turned increasingly to his orchestral series.[8]

And yes, that’s precisely what the book is really about, a profound shift in attitude & focus. I know only one of the baker’s dozen of symphonic poems, namely Les Preludes, troubled by the piece’s associations with the Third Reich.

I remember reading somewhere that it was one of Hitler’s favourites. But aside from that warhorse, I don’t know the others at all.

cormacWhat I’m finding especially fascinating in this book is that it’s not just musicology. We’re instead dealing with a multi-disciplinary study, embracing all the different aspects of Liszt’s life, all the different hats he was required to wear in Weimar. And so while we see Liszt turn away from his own Sardanapale score he is still involved with operas composed by others.  Cormac gives a modern flavor to some of the descriptions, in her analysis of the kinds of pressure in adaptations of Gluck for 19th century audiences.

The symphonic poems are settings of a variety of literary subjects & themes.  I realize now that I must study further. And so I’m persuaded, as Cormac has not only given me a rationale for taking Liszt more seriously as a composer, but makes me want to circle back to read her analyses when I have had a chance to explore the other symphonic poems.

Yes indeed, I’m hooked.

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