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Observations placeholder

Liszt - Symphonic Poems - 04 Orpheus



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 - Orpheus, symphonic poem No. 4

Orpheus was written by Franz Liszt in 1853-4. He numbered it No. 4 in the cycle of 12 he wrote during his time in Weimar, Germany. It was first performed on 16 February 1854, conducted by the composer, as an introduction to the first Weimar performance of Christoph Willibald Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice. The performance helped celebrate the birthday of Weimar's Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, who was an amateur musician and a staunch supporter of Liszt at Weimar.

Orpheus is one of four symphonic poems Liszt composed as character sketches of men of creative genius, heroism or legend. (The other three poems are Tasso, Prometheus and Mazeppa.)  In his preface Liszt describes an Etruscan vase depicting Orpheus, then extols his civilizing effect on humanity.

Especially noteworthy is Orpheus's instrumentation, which includes two harps; their representation of Orpheus's lyre in the opening 14 bars immediately focuses the listener's attention on this instrument. Harpist Jeanne Pohl, one of the new virtuoso players brought to Weimar by Liszt to augment the court orchestra, inspired the composer to pen these effects.  The work is scored for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps and strings.

Orpheus is not a long work and takes the form of a gradual crescendo followed by a quiet ending which returns to the mood of the opening. Unlike many of Liszt's other symphonic poems, the music here remains largely contemplative. For this reason, it became a favourite piece of Liszt's son-in-law, the composer Richard Wagner.

The ethereal, chromatic ascent in the final bars attenuates any decisive closure that could be expected from a more conventional harmonic resolution. Combined with the closing theme of the second group, this ends the work as a cryptic vision which recalls the final moments of the story on which it is based. There the story's narrator, Thamyris, witnesses Orpheus disappearing into the clouds, leaving mankind the task of developing his teachings of civilisation.

"Eurydice disappeared from before his eyes, scattered in different directions, like smoke caught in a gentle breeze. She never saw him again, though he tried in vain to take hold of her spirit, wanting to tell her more. The ferryman of Orcus did not permit him to cross any more the barrier lake. What was he to do? Where could he go now that his wife was stolen from him again? What tears, what utterance could prevail upon the dead or the guardians of the dead? She, now cold, was sailing in the Stygian craft. They say that he wept for seven whole months in succession under a lofty crag beside the waters of the deserted Strymon and that he unfolded his story beneath cold caverns, soothing tigers and stirring oaks with his song, as Philomela, grieving under the shade of a poplar tree, laments her lost young, which a rough plowman saw unfeathered in their nest and removed. But she weeps through the night, and perched on a branch, renews her mournful song and fills up the countryside with sorrowful lamentation. No Venus, no marriage rite turns his thoughts. Alone he surveys the Hyperborean ice, snowy Tanais, and fields never bereft of Riphaean frost, bewailing his lost Eurydice and the ineffectual gift of Dis. Because the women of the Cicones had been spurned by him, amidst the rites of the gods and the nocturnal orgies of Bacchus they tore the youth apart and scattered him in pieces over the broad fields. Even then, when the Oeagrian Hebrus in the midst of its current bobbed and pitched his head, torn from his smooth, white neck, that same voice and cold tongue called the name Eurydice—Alas wretched Eurydice!—even while his soul was in flight. And the banks reechoed Eurydice along the course of the entire stream."

The source of the experience

Liszt, Franz

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Unrequited love