We know of Liszt today primarily as a proto-pop-star piano virtuoso, but the passionate Hungarian also possessed an incredible and uncanny poetic mind. With this intellect, he began to compose in a new and hitherto unknown form he called the symphonic poem. The emphasis here was not necessarily the formal structure of the piece, or the particular harmonic and motivic elements immanent to the logic of it (although this proved important in the symphonic poem) but rather on the portrayal and communication of symbolic and poetic subjects, such at the myths of Orpheus and Prometheus, the legends of Tasso and Mazeppa, and more metaphysical subjects such as those we find in Les Préludes and Von der Wiege bis sum Grabe (From the Cradle to the Grave).
It must be stressed that these symphonic poems were absolutely novel when Liszt wrote them predominantly through the 1850s. A strictly and utterly programmatic form — one that required no particular formal relationships and structures, unlike sonata form — had no clear precedents, and thus was the fruit of a towering musical and poetic genius. One such precedent would be Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, a work that Liszt was particularly and acutely aware of. But to compose a standalone, “single movement” piece that depicted explicitly, in musical terms, an abstract concept, myth or legend in their poetic and symbolic power was never before heard of.
In symphonic poems like Orpheus, we hear a most moving and powerful romantic moment in the climax as we imagine the tragedy and pathos of Orpheus in his travel through the underworld to retrieve his wife (only to lose her on the far end of the river Styx.) Liszt manages to capture the heartbreak and profoundly tragic mood that characterizes the myth, effectively constructing a musical character study of Orpheus. This depiction of the essence of a character is also utilized by Liszt in his undisputed orchestral masterwork, A Faust Symphony, in which each of its three movements present characterizations of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles.
But among the most fascinating of Liszt’s symphonic poems is Les Préludes, the one most commonly performed. It is after a poem by the poet Lamartine, although the origins of the program are murky and Liszt didn’t make the historian’s job any easier by intentionally obscuring the origin of the piece. Nevertheless, we get an inscription on the score, here abbreviated to its opening sentence, which was probably written by Liszt’s mistress Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein: “What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?”
How might one set such a metaphysical and soteriological saying to music? How does one create such an impression by musical means, and particularly in a coherent orchestral language? Liszt does so by fostering both the profound and forceful as well as the delicate, peaceful, and contemplative moods throughout the piece. One gets a sense of journey, as though we began at birth, with dark and simple pizzicato notes, and end up in heaven — as confirmed by the blazing plagal cadence that ends the piece (recalling the plagal cadence used in hymns for the final “Amen.”)
A crucial aspect of Liszt’s musico-poetic genius is his construction and utilization of complex and avant-garde harmony to evoke different atmospheres and drive the vision he is depicting further into focus. Harmonic progression no longer seems like an academic exercise, faithfully fulfilling certain inviolable “rules” of harmonic motion. Instead, we find harmony developing and changing as a means toward narrative ends. No longer shackled by the constraints of orthodox patterns and modes of modulation, harmony is given the capacity to depict abstract concepts and moods.
For example, in From the Cradle to the Grave, we find embodied in music the whole course of a human life, from birth through adulthood into old age and a peaceful death. Liszt’s imagination in this piece is unbounded. The sometimes sparse orchestration, almost chamber-like, was revolutionary and didn’t come to fruition until a generation or so afterwards in the work of Gustav Mahler. At other points, such as in the second section of the work entitled “The Struggle for Existence”, we find a particular violence and intensity of expression; we feel palpably how each one of us is caught up in the existential struggle. Finally, upon perishing, we have the seal and assurance of eternity. Seldom does music embody such visceral things.
As mentioned above, one special quality of Liszt’s music is its ability to tell a story; the sorts of stories that are not expressible in discursive, denotative language. Music is an altogether different medium compared to spoken and written language, but it is equally profound and similarly pregnant with the capability to express an infinite variety of things. A succession of tones is similar to a succession of words. Out of the murkiness of the sound-world, composers bring forth coherence and sublimity; narratives emerge from sound in a way that language can only imitate (although this is true in the reverse as well — tones can only express what language expresses through suggestion and imagery.)
The Romantic era encapsulated the essence of musical evocation. All music that does not strive for this sort of pathos and passion is not worthy of the name. The Romantic impulse is present in all music; one finds it just as pungently in Bach and Mozart as one finds it in Beethoven or Wagner. This tonal impulse, as testified to by Bernstein in his lectures on music, is found in atonal works as well. It cannot be escaped, for this Romantic urge and tonal inertia is constitutive of sound itself — it being based in the harmonic series and in mathematical ratios.
To sketch portraits in sound: this was Liszt’s goal, a goal shared at least implicitly by all great composers. Let there, then, be a reappraisal of Liszt — abandon the baseless judgments of his work as inconsistent, inchoate, or superficial. Dive deeper into his swelling pool of Romanticism, and one may see the import he bears for musical innovation as well as for paving the way forward into the late Romanticism of the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th — and even in his later years into atonality.