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Length: 11 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 2, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting
Franz Liszt (1811-1886) coined the term symphonische Dichtung (Symphonic Poem) as a catch-all for his orchestral compositions, usually in a single movement, freely structured (unlike the symphony or concerto) and suggested by a story, an idea, or an actual text. The symphonic poem became one of the major musical forms - or non-forms - from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th, as witness the programmatic scores of Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, Dvorák, Dukas, and Richard Strauss (the last-named, however, called his works Tondichtungen (Tone Poems).
Thus, Liszt could suggest the most intense suffering in his Prometheus; or simply a mood of elation, in his Festklänge (Festive Tones); or events from the biography of a literary figure, as in his Tasso.
Orpheus had its genesis in a performance of Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), which Liszt produced in 1854 as part of his duties as music director of the Weimar Court. Liszt found the brief, jubilant overture to Gluck's opera lacking in the dignity required to set the stage for music "of such touching and natural simplicity" (Liszt's words). Thus, Liszt composed a longer, pensive - and entirely Lisztian, that is, in the musical language of the 1850s - score. This, with the addition of the dozen concluding measures heard at these concerts, became the symphonic poem.
Respect for the traditions of an earlier time is a relatively recent concept. Examples of "improving" the musical past can be found as far back as Mozart and his "revision" of Handel's Messiah, Schumann's supplying of the "appropriate" piano accompaniments to Bach's solo violin sonatas, Mahler's reorchestrations of Beethoven, etc. The composer's score as sacrosanct is a latter-day concept.
Orpheus is the shortest and most understated of Liszt's symphonic poems, and while it does not suggest a specific story line, it is preceded in the published edition by a long, philosophical introduction by the composer. From it we can determine that the composer is less concerned with the specifics of the Classical legend of Orpheus and his attempt to rescue his beloved, Euridice, from the underworld than with the notion of civilization prevailing over barbarism. But let the composer do the talking.
First, he describes an Etruscan vase in the Louvre, depicting Orpheus, "the first poet-musician, clad in a starry robe… his open lips exhaling divine melodies and words, his… fingers plucking the strings of his lyre [the harp, obviously, in the symphonic poem]. It was as if he had stood before us alone, encircled by the ferocious beasts of the forest listening enchanted… as if the very stones were softened and hearts harder than stone were bathed in burning tears; as if fluting birds and murmuring cascades had suspended their songs while laughter and pleasure deferred respectfully to his accents, which revealed to humanity the benevolent power of art, its glorious illumination, its civilizing harmony."
The writer continues in a vein of period profundity that sounds charmingly naive at this remove: "Despite teachings of the purest morality, the most sublime dogmas… despite the utmost refinement of civilization, Humanity preserves in its bosom those instincts of ferocity, brutality, and sensuality which it is the mission of art to soften, to calm. Today, as ever, Orpheus, that is to say Art itself, must spread its flow of melody, the subtle vibration of its harmony, like a beneficent light upon the conflicting elements which claw at each other and bleed within the soul of every individual… If it had been given to us completely to embody our thought in tone, we would have wished to portray the serenely civilizing character of the song radiated by every work of art: its energy, its august power… its caress as gentle as the breezes of Elysium, its gradual ascent like a cloud of incense, a diaphanous azure ether, enveloping the entire universe in a transparent garment of ineffable and mysterious harmony."
Orpheus is based on a single theme played by the solo horn, after a brief prelude centered on the harp. The horn theme is transformed in successive paraphrases by English horn, oboe, clarinet and, prominently, the solo violin. Conflict is fleeting here (Orpheus's song is invincible), and in the final bars Liszt's harmonic wizardry is at its most impressive, an ever-softening (dynamically) progression of chords ascending in pitch to suggest the "diaphanous azure ether."
Camille Saint-Saëns, himself a gifted creator of symphonic poems (among them, Danse macabre and Omphale's Spinning-Wheel), ended his own appraisal of a score which he admired above all Liszt's orchestral works with evocative simplicity: "It is woven of sunbeams and starlight."
-- Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to music periodicals in the U.S. and Europe.