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Liszt - Symphonic Poems - 05 Prometheus



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 - Prometheus, symphonic poem No. 5

In 1850, Franz Liszt composed an overture and eight choruses with orchestra accompaniment for Johann Gottfried Herder's Der entfesselte Prometheus (Prometheus Unbound), a mythological work of thirteen scenes meant as a sequel to Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound. This was to be performed for the Herder Festival scheduled for August of that year in Weimar. Liszt gave indications for the orchestration, and from these notes Liszt's helper Joachim Raff produced a score which was used in the first performance.

In 1855 Liszt revised both the overture and the choruses, added new instruments, mainly woodwinds, which resulted in the expansion of the overture to a symphonic poem and the choruses to a concert stage work. The symphonic poem was first performed on 18 October 1855.

The work that was composed to illustrate the imprisonment, pain, hope, and the final triumph of Prometheus turned out to be incomprehensible to the contemporary public because of the many dissonances in the music. The choral parts ended too soon and were unusable, but the overture acquired its own life as a symphonic poem thanks to many performances of it by conductor Hans von Bülow.

For the performance of the revised choruses, Weimar critic Richard Pohl condensed Herder's work into prologues to be read before each chorus. Unlike Herder's allegorical text, Pohl's prologues develop Prometheus' character, emphasizing both his sufferings and his turbulent relationship with Zeus. They also create an intensity not present in Herder's drama, which carries over into the symphonic poem, from the furious opening (marked Allegro energico ed adagio assai) to the principal musical material (marked Allegro molto appassionato).

The source of the experience

Liszt, Franz

Concepts, symbols and science items



Science Items

Activities and commonsteps