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Liszt - Symphonic Poems - 02 Tasso, Lamento e trionfo



Type of Spiritual Experience


A symphonic poem or tone poem is a piece of orchestral music in one movement in which some extramusical program provides a narrative or illustrative element. This program may come from a poem, a story or novel, a painting, or another source. The term was first applied by Liszt to his 13 one-movement orchestral works in this vein. They were not pure symphonic movements in the classical sense because they dealt with descriptive subjects taken from mythology, Romantic literature, recent history or imaginative fantasy. In other words, these works were programmatic rather than abstract. The form was a direct product of Romanticism which encouraged literary, pictorial and dramatic associations in music. It developed into an important form of program music in the second half of the 19th century.

The symphonic poems of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt are a series of 13 orchestral works, numbered S.95–107. The first 12 were composed between 1848 and 1858 (though some use material conceived earlier); the last, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (From the Cradle to the Grave), followed in 1882. These works helped establish the genre of orchestral program music—compositions written to illustrate an extra-musical plan derived from a play, poem, painting or work of nature. They inspired the symphonic poems of Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, Richard Strauss and others.

In chronological order the symphonic poems are as follows, though the published numbering differs as shown:

  • No. 1 Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne, after Victor Hugo (1848–49; originally orchestrated by Joachim Raff, third orchestral version by Liszt, 1854)
  • No. 3 Les préludes, after Lamartine (1848) based on the prelude to the cantata Les quatre elements (1845)
  • No. 2 Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo, after Byron (1849 from earlier sketches, orchestrated by August Conradi and Raff; expanded and orchestrated by Liszt, 1854)
  • No. 5 Prometheus (1850, originally overture to Choruses from Herder's Prometheus Unbound)
  • No. 8 Héroïde funèbre (1849–50) (based on the first movement of the unfinished Revolutionary Symphony of 1830)
  • No. 6 Mazeppa, after Victor Hugo (1851)
  • No. 7 Festklänge (Festal Sounds) (1853)
  • No. 4 Orpheus (1853–4)
  • No. 9 Hungaria (1854)
  • No. 11 Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns), after the painting by Kaulbach (1856–7)
  • No. 12 Die Ideale, after the poem by Schiller (1857)
  • No. 10 Hamlet, after the drama by Shakespeare (1858)
  • No. 13 Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (From the Cradle to the Grave) (1881–2)

Liszt attempted in the symphonic poem to extend this revitalisation of the nature of musical discourse and add to it the Romantic ideal of reconciling classical formal principles to external literary concepts. Their composition proved daunting, requiring a continual process of creative experimentation that included many stages of composition, rehearsal and revision to reach a version where different parts of the musical form seemed balanced.

When Liszt started writing symphonic poems, "he had very little experience in handling an orchestra ... his knowledge of the technique of instrumentation was defective and he had as yet composed hardly anything for the orchestra." For these reasons he relied first on his assistants August Conradi and Joachim Raff to fill the gaps in his knowledge and find his "orchestral voice"  Raff, "a gifted composer with an imaginative grasp of the orchestra", offered close assistance to Liszt.  Also helpful were the virtuosi present at that time in the Weimarian Court orchestra, such as trombonist Moritz Nabich, harpist Jeanne Pohl, concertmaster Joseph Joachim and violinist Edmund Singer. "[Liszt] mixed daily with these musicians, and their discussions must have been filled with 'shop talk.'”

A description of the experience

Franz Liszt - Tasso, Lamento e Trionfo

Conductor: Michel Plasson
Orchestra: Dresdner Philharmonie

Franz Liszt composed his Tasso, Lamento e trionfo (Tasso, Lament and Triumph) in 1849, revising it in 1850–51 and again in 1854. It is numbered No. 2 in his cycle of 13 symphonic poems written during his Weimar period.

It is based on Goethe’s portrayal of Tasso and focuses primarily on his position as court poet of the Este family in Ferrara within the political intrigues of court life. Liszt, however, was more drawn to the poet's inner conflicts and the seven years he spent in St. Anna's Hospital, an insane asylum. It was actually the suffering and eventually triumphant Tasso that inspired Liszt's imagination. In his preface to Tasso, Liszt refers not only to Goethe but also to Lord Byron's poem on Tasso, admitting to being influenced by the latter. He adds:

Tasso loved and suffered at Ferrara, he was avenged at Rome, and even today lives in the popular songs of Venice. These three moments are inseparable from his immortal fame. To reproduce them in music, we first conjured up the great shade as he wanders through the lagoons of Venice even today; then his countenance appeared to us, lofty and melancholy, as he gazes at the festivities at Ferrara, where he created his masterworks ; and finally we followed him to Rome, the Eternal City, which crowned him with fame and thus pays him tribute both as martyr and as poet.

This work calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in Bb, bass clarinet in Bb, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in Bb and C, 4 trumpets in C, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone, tuba, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, harp, and strings.

Liszt's first sketch for this work is dated August 1, 1849. He had heard the principal theme for Tasso in Venice, Italy several years earlier, however, using it in the 1840 version of his piano piece "Chant do Goldolier" in Venezia e Napoli. Liszt completed the 1849 version of Tasso as an overture in two sections, giving it to August Conradi to orchestrate. Liszt later asked Joachim Raff to produce a new score in 1850–51. Liszt then revised this score extensively, adding a central section. This version was performed on April 19, 1854 in Weimar, conducted by Liszt.

Calmer than either of the outer sections, the central section was intended to depict Tasso's more stable years in the employment of the d'Este family in Ferrara. In a margin note Liszt informs the conductor that the orchestra "assumes a dual role" in this section, with strings playing one self-contained piece while woodwinds play another.

The secondary theme is in E major, a relatively distant major key of a raised third in a minor-key piece. He would use this same raised-third relationship, possibly with a similar intent effectively, in both Prometheus and the Faust symphony. Tonal expectations continue to be undermined with the central minuet, written in F-sharp major and tonally distant from the work's tonic, adding to a sense of disassociation.


The source of the experience

Liszt, Franz

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