Welcome to our second instalment of the At Home Guide, a regular column designed to help you get to grips with the wealth of great performances in our on demand archive. This week, we’re looking at our collection through the lens of the symphonic or “tone” poem.

Portrait of Richard Strauss in 1918 © Max Liebermann | Public domain
Portrait of Richard Strauss in 1918
© Max Liebermann | Public domain

A herd of flutter-tongued brass instruments bleats across the soundscape. Muted, near-atonal dissonances suggest our hero’s befuddled mind. Elsewhere, a tumbling harp glissando sees our hero knocked from his horse, while woodwind and strings paint a picture of his unattainable love. Strauss’ tone poem Don Quixote (seen here performed by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra) is a prime example of the way in which Romantic composers used the sound palette at their disposal to portray a narrative, often itself borrowed from other, non-musical sources in a single movement. Drawing from Cervantes’ classic tale of comic chivalry, Strauss rendered the narrative using only tone and texture, representing the episodes of the novel with sound rather than words. While the perceived literalism of this approach drew the ire of contemporary critics, today we can see that it  has inspired some of the most memorable and enduring works in the classical canon. 

Gustave Doré's illustration Cervates' <i>Don Quixote</i> © Public domain
Gustave Doré's illustration Cervates' Don Quixote
© Public domain

Both the form and the term “symphonic poem” were innovated by the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, whose wrote a series of 13 pieces in the form. The most famous of these, Les préludes draws from the writings of the French poet Alphonse de Lamartine. While this “program music” - purely instrumental music portraying elements of a text or narrative - proved popular with concertgoers, it was less well-received by cultural commentators, who perceived it as a banal, populist divergence from “absolute music” - that is, music existing in and of itself, with no reference to outside sources. The most prominent of these critics was Eduard Hanslick, who complained,  “This is no ‘tone painting’ but rather a tumult of brilliant daubs, a flailing tonal orgy.”

Yet as the Romantic era progressed, the form only grew in popularity. A major work came in the form of the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana’s series Má vlast, a set of six symphonic poems composed in tribute to his homeland. While Liszt’s tone poems drew from literary narratives, Smetana’s work portrayed narratives inspired by the landscapes, history and folklore of his native country. Perhaps the most famous in this series is Vltava, a piece commonly known by its German name, Die Moldau. In the piece Smetana uses the orchestral tones and textures at his disposal to portray the journey of the titular river, starting life as two mountain streams (one warm and one cold), before joining together in a flowing current, past Prague and off into the distance. Along the way, we meet a group of huntsmen (illustrated by horns) and a farmer’s wedding party, portrayed by a lively polka rhythm. The river itself is symbolised by a densely-orchestrated, majestic theme which is laced throughout the piece. Join the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic on their journey down Smetana’s river. Czech tone poetry is also represented by Antonín Dvořák, whose 1896 piece The Golden Spinning Wheel deals with a somewhat macabre poem from Karel Jaromir Erben’s collection of folk songs. Go here to see the Essen Philharmonic Orchestra perform the work in full.

Literary sources also proved fruitful for French composers working in the field of the symphonic poem, inspiring one of the most important pieces in the classical canon. Yet the writers of these sources weren’t always willing contributors. Indeed, Stéphane Mallarmé, whose poem became the inspiration behind Debussy’s famed 1894 piece Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, was reportedly aghast when he heard that his words were to be translated into mere tone. Debussy himself, however, called Prélude “a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem,” and it is true that the material in the composer’s work is at a further remove from its source than other symphonic poems. Its dreamy atmosphere and fluttering flute bring to life the thoughts and desires of a mythical faun, chasing after nymphs on a hot afternoon before finally falling asleep. The work was persuasive enough to even win over the poet, who wrote to Debussy after attending the first performance, “The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents a dissonance with my text only by going much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness.” Later, the sense of narrative and movement inherent in the symphonic poem form was made explicit when the Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky choreographed a ballet to Debussy’s L'Après-midi d'un faune. Watch the Essen Philharmonic perform the symphonic poem here.

The symphonic or tone poem is strongly associated with Romanticism, and as such proved a particularly fruitful source of inspiration in the country from which much of the energy of the Romantic movement flowed: Germany. Here, Richard Strauss took on the form wholeheartedly, and his works in this style can be said to form some of the most enduring parts of his oeuvre. One of these is his 1889 composition Tod und Verklärung, or “Death and Transfiguration”, seen here performed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. It portrays the dying moments of an artist, who retreats into a reverie of the past events of his life, before ascending to his final transfiguration in heaven. Here, Strauss uses solemn string and timpani figures to represent the fading heartbeats of the artist, while the ascension of the soul in the final moments is seen in the arching upward glissando toward the end of the work. So illustrative was the work that Strauss reportedly attested on his deathbed that the experience of dying felt precisely the same as the way he had composed it in Tod und Verklärung.

Discussion of Strauss’ tone poems would be amiss without reference to one hugely popular work. Fans of the work of Stanley Kubrick will know it well, yet the piece is so embedded within our cultural consciousness that anyone owning a radio or television will likely have heard it. Also Sprach Zarathustra shocked audiences when it was first performed in 1896, due to the stark forcefulness of its opening “sunrise” fanfare. With its soaring figures and powerful motifs, it was intended to give musical form to the themes presented in Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical novel of the same name. Strauss divides the work into eight sections, with an introduction and epilogue, in an attempt to represent the philosophical fragments seen in the text, with their rhetoric of affirmation and the Superhuman. You can see sections of the work given a somewhat comedic treatment by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra here. Strauss composed many other works in the tone poem form, including Macbeth, Don Juan and the autobiographical piece Ein Heldenleben, yet it is Zarathustra, perhaps partly due to its appearance in 2001: A Space Odyssey, that remains so indelibly marked in common memory.

Arnold Böcklin's <i>Isle of the Dead</i> © Public domain
Arnold Böcklin's Isle of the Dead
© Public domain

Even as Romanticism began to bleed into the modern era, works in the symphonic poem form continued to find favour. Sibelius’ Finlandia (1900) portrayed the composer’s homeland with an inspired sense of nationalistic fervour, while Rachmaninov’s 1907 composition Isle of the Dead related a painting by the Swiss Symbolist artist Arnold Böcklin. By the time of the Second World War, however, the regard of program music had fallen deeply, and terms such as symphonic and tone poem ceased to be applied to new works. Yet while composers continued to argue for music’s abstraction and independence from other works, the great programme music of the Romantic era was and is still regularly enjoyed across the world. While composers and musicologists try to exalt music as a separate artform, it seems that audiences and music lovers delight in its ability to spill out into other disciplines.