Franz Liszt (1811 -1886)
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 orderto avoid the trouble of considering his claims as one of the most remarkable ofcomposers". As a writer of orchestral music, a writer for orchestra, FranzLiszt was a complete original. He may not single-handedly have invented eitherthe symphonic poem or the programme symphony -Mozart and Beethoven, minorAustrian composers and French revolutionaries, Berlioz and Mendelssohn all gotthere before him -but he alone impressed their modern form. His Faust andDante Symphonies, and the twelve symphonic poems dedicated to hiscompanion the Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein, dating from his years asGrand Ducal Director of Music Extraordinary to the Weimar Court, were collectivelyto cast a significant shadow across the orchestral arena of late romanticism.
From Smetana, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky and Franck to Richard Strauss, Respighi, Sibeliusand Bax via Debussy and Schoenberg, few escaped their charismatic influence, orwanted to.
Taking a creative, though not formal, cue fromthe 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 totriumph, 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 maybe extra- musically prescribed (usually poetry or painting, or the heroicideal), their organization is not. As Liszt himself wrote in 1855, in an essayon Berlioz's Harold in Italy, "the programme has no other end thanto make some preliminary allusion to the psychological motives that haveimpelled the composer to create his work and that he has sought to embody init". Like Bach's fugues or Mozart's concertos there is no such thing as atypical Liszt symphonic poem. Conceptually they are very varied, "freelycomposed" pieces embracing facets from sonata to funeral march, overtureto symphony, but their multi-divisional, single-movement frameworks, internallyunified by different means of thematic transformation, are a common feature, asare 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 apictorial "design" by the Hungarian Count Mihcily Zichy, reproducedon 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, reconstructedby the present writer in 1986. An agitated statement, the second brings in thefull orchestra and opposes two ideas, a hammering unison motif and a nobilmentecantando melody of uncannily Sibelian imagery and sound. Both are repeateda tone higher, reaching a climax in a conflict where the rhythm of the formeropposes the contour of the latter, eventually taking over in adenouement underlined by a prominent timpani solo, again prophetically Sibelian.
The final section combines the themes of the first and second, fadingaway in an unaccompanied cello phrase reminiscent expressively of aMagyar funeral dirge.
It was through the medium of the symphonic poemthat Liszt opened and closed his account as a composer for orchestra. Takingthe form of a slow sonata movement, without development, Orpheus (1853-54)was the fourth in order of publication. Conceived as an introduction to Gluck'sOrfeo ed Euridice, directed by Liszt in February 1854, its stimulus wassaid to have been an Etruscan vase in the Louvre showing Orpheus, "thefirst poet-musician, clothed in a starry rose", playing his lyre andtaming the wildness of beast and man. A poetic masterwork, its enigmatic finalsequence of chords, rising, as Liszt said, gradually like the vapour ofincense... a transparent cloak of ineffable and mysterious harmony, - looks tothe 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 Germandramatist Friedrich Schiller, freely re-distributed by Liszt in the interestsof musical cogency. Planned originally as a tripartite symphony harmonicallyand thematically unified by the interval of a third, but eventually cast in thecontinuous form of its companions, reminiscent of the sonata and concertos, itsmain subdivisions comprise: (a) Slow Introduction (vanished joys andideals); (b) Allegro spiritoso (aspiration, love, truth, fortune, fame);(c) Andante (disillusionment, loneliness, hope); (d) Allegretto /Allegro spirito molto (fulfilment and purpose); (e) Apotheosis ("Faithin the Ideal... Life's highest aim", referring back to motifs from section(b). Together with the Faust Symphony, Die Ideale was first played underLiszt'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 consideredby Hans von Bulow to be "unperformable". Intended as an overture toShakespeare's play, produced in Weimar in 1856, it impresses among the very finest examples ofnineteenth century musical character study. In the tradition of Beethoven's Coriolan,its preoccupation throughout is not with the incident of the tragedy somuch as the psychology of Hamlet himself, on the one hand, "pale, fevered,suspended between heaven and earth, the prisoner of his doubt andirresolution" (letter, 26th June 1858), on the other, a prince with abattle-plan awaiting his moment to exact revenge. In such an intenselyuncompromising portrait, with not a gesture wasted, even Ophelia is reduced toa "shadowy picture", by way of two fleeting interludes added later tothe central Allegro. As Liszt put it, "Yes, she is loved by Hamlet,but Hamlet, like every exceptional person, imperiously demands the wine of lifeand will not content himself with the buttermilk. He wishes to be understood byher without the obligation to explain himself... She collapses under hermission, 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 surenesshas not allowed her to remain on the level of Hamlet".