The following information is practically all taken from Walker, Allen, ed. Franz Liszt: The Man and his Music. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1970. 279-317. (ML410.L7.W28)

  • Textural variety ranging from tutti passages to "chamber music for orchestra"
  • Avoidance of thick Romantic textures: few doublings, each instrument treated as a soloist
  • "Transformation of themes" technique (a.k.a. widespread use of variation and cyclic form)

Symphonies (2)

A Faust Symphony in three character sketches (after Goethe), LW G12
- mvt. 1 - Faust
- mvt. 2 - Gretchen
- mvt. 3 - Mephistopheles

  • Composed in two months in 1854 for chamber orchestra, revised in 1861 (added tenor soloist and male choir, along with trumpets, trombones, and percussion); published in 1861.
  • Dedicated to Hector Berlioz (and likely inspired by Berlioz's Damnation of Faust).
  • Liszt commented "The worst Jesuit is dearer to me than the whole of your Goethe," and "Anything to do with Goethe is dangerous for me to handle," but managed to make a wonderful piece regardless.
  • Movement one shows the multifaced aspects of Faust; Liszt identified himself to a large extent with the character.
  • Movement two demonstrates what Allen calls "all of Liszt's love and respect for women."
  • Movement three is Liszt's "portrayal of an evil power which falsifies and defiles everything great and noble." (Mephistopheles's music is an ugly parody of Faust's themes.)
  • For more on the Faust Symphony, go here.

A Symphony on Dante's Divine Comedy, LW G14
- mvt. 1 - Inferno
- mvt. 2 - Purgatorio
- mvt. 3 - Magnificat

  • Composed in 1855-6 (for orchestra and chorus); published 1859
  • Liszt enjoyed reading Dante with Marie d'Agoult in the 1830s.
  • Built off of a piano Fantasy subtitled "After a reading of Dante."
  • Liszt initially intended to have lanterns and wind machines used during the performance, but neither idea panned out.
  • After listening to Wagner's opinion, Liszt agreed that no man could represent the joys of Paradise (Dante's third book) in music, hence the substitution for a choral Magnificat.

Symphonic Poems (13)

  • Written between 1848-57
  • Published between 1856-8
  • The literary aspects of the symphonic poems take a back seat to the musical needs
  • Tend to express only a few aspects of the text (not a full and detailed reading)
  • In composing, Liszt often sent drafts to arrangers who knew instrumential part writing better than he (first it was Conradi, then later Raff)
  • All are dedicated to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein

1. Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (What one hears on the mountain), 1848

  • based on a poem by Victor Hugo (from Feuilles d'Automne)
  • Liszt played the themes for Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein in 1847/8.
  • The first version may have been scored by Conradi, but the first score known to be in existence was scored by Raff.
  • Premiered in Weimar in 1850.
  • "The poet hears two voices; one immense, splendid, and full of order, raising to the Lord its joyous hymn of praise - the other hollow, full of pain, swollen by weeping, blasphemies, and curses. One spoke of nature, the other of humanity! Both voices struggle near to each other, cross over, and melt into one another, till finally they die away in a state of holiness." (Liszt's synopsis, a preface in the 1st edition).

2. Tasso, 1849, revised 1854

  • Scored by Conradi, later scored by Raff, later revised by Liszt himself.
  • Premiered in Weimar on Goethe's centenary (1849).
  • Refers both to Goethe's play and Byron's poem on Tasso, one theme was inspired by a Venetian gondolier's musical setting of Tasso's Jerusalem Deliver'd.
  • "Tasso loved and suffered at Ferrara, he was avenged at Rome, and even today he lives in the popular songs of Venice. These three moments are inseperable from his immortal fame. To reproduce them in music, we first conjured up his great shade as he wanders through the lagoons of Venice even today; then his countenance appeared to us, lofty and melancholy, as he gazes at the festivities of Ferrara, where he created his masterworks; and finally we followed him to Rome, the Eternal City which crowned him with fame and thus paid him tribute both as martyr and as poet." (Liszt's preface to the work).

3. Les Préludes, 1852-4

  • Originally written in 1848 as an overture to the choral work The Four Elements to words by the poet Joseph Autran.
  • Later orchestrated by Raff (1850), referred to as Symphonic Meditations in a letter by Liszt (1851), and revised by Liszt and turned into a new score (1852-4).
  • The title comes from a meditation by Lamartine, but the two only share such general attributes as the melding of warlike and pastoral themes.
    • Haraszti, in his Gènese des Préludes de Liszt, suggests that the Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein influenced Liszt to change the mention of Autran to Lamartine
  • 4 prefaces were written (2 by the Princess, 2 by Hans von Bülow) - the last one begins "What is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown song of which death sounds the first and solemn note?"

4. Orpheus, 1853-4

  • premiered at Weimar in 1854 as an introduction to the performance of Gluck's Orpheus
  • Liszt wrote that he was inspired by an Etruscan vase in the Louvre showing Orpheus singing with his lyre; the piece is about the civilizing nature of art, rather than any mystical aspect of the myth.
  • There is a "civilizing character of music which illumines every work of art, rising gradually lke the vapour of incense and enfolding the world and the whole universe as it were in an atmosphere and a transparent cloak of ineffable and mysterious harmony." (Liszt's preface.)

5. Promethius, 1850, revised 1855

  • Originally an overture to Herder's Promethius Unbound, later revised and conducted by Liszt in Brunswick.
  • Symbolizes suffering for the sake of enlightenment for mankind.

6. Mazeppa, 1851

  • Based on the story of Ivan Mazeppa (retold by Byron, Hugo, and Pushkin). In brief, Mazeppa was a young Polish nobleman who had an affair with another man's wife. He was later tied naked to a horse and sent off into the Ukraine. He was found by Cossacks, rising to become their chief. Mazeppa fought with Charles XII of Sweden against Peter the Great of Russia in the battle of Pultowa, but later committed suicide.
  • Is an altered version of the 4th Transcendental Study for piano written out by Raff; the music came first, then was reshaped to fit the story.
  • Symbolizes the struggles of an artist.

7. Festklänge (Festive Sounds), 1853, revised 1854

  • Composed as a pre-celebration for the expected marriage of Liszt and the Princess von Sayn-Wittgenstein.
  • The Polonaise section of the piece is likely a tribute to the Polish princess.
  • Has a rather large optional cut in the middle; Liszt accepted having multiple versions of a piece.

8. Héroïde Funèbre (Herod's Funeral), 1830/50, revised 1854

  • Initially intended to be the first movement of a "Revolutionary" Symphony during the July Revolution (1830), and then the first movement of a "Revolutionary" Symphony in 1849-50.
  • Actually finished in 1850, revised by Liszt in 1854, premiered at Breslau in 1857 under Schön.
  • "In these successive wars and carnages, sinister sports, whatever be the colours of the flags which rise proudly and boldly against each other, on both sides they float soaked with heroic blood and inexhaustible tears. It is for Art to throw her ennobling veil over the tomb of the brave, to encircle with her golden halo the dead and dying, that they may be the envy of the living." (Liszt's preface.)
  • A vast funeral march which is rather Mahler-esque, relies on a Hungarian-flavored main theme and a secondary theme related to the Marseillaise.

9. Hungaria, 1854

  • Partly based on the Heroic March in the Hungarian Style for piano, is rather like a Hungarian rhapsody.
  • A reply to the poem of homage Mihály Vörösmarty had dedicated to Liszt in 1840.
  • The funeral march is based on Kossuth's revolt of 1848, and the piece has a yearning for when Hungary will finally be liberated from bondage.

10. Hamlet, 1858

  • Written as a prelude to Shakespeare's play, but not actually performed until 1876.
  • After viewing Bogumil Dawison play Hamlet in Weimar (1856), Liszt wrote: "He does not make him into an indecisive dreamer who collapses under the power of his mission, as he is regarded since Goethe's theory in Wilhelm Meister, but much more as a gifted, enterprising prince with important political views who is waiting for the right moment to complete his work of revenge and come to the aim of his ambition, that is, to be crowned king in place of his uncle. This goal can naturally not be reached in twenty-four hours and the clever anticipation which Shakespeare has put into the role of Hamlet and the negotiations with England which come clearly to the light of day at the end of the drama according to my view justify Dawson's interpretation, which Herr von Goethe and the aesthetes should not take too badly.
  • Regarding Ophelia, Liszt wrote: "She is loved by Hamlet, but Hamlet, like every exceptional person, imperiously demands the wine of life and will not content himself with the buttermilk. He wishes to be understood by her without the obligation of explaining himself to her. She collapses under her mission, because she is incapable of loving him in the way that he must be loved, and her madness is only the de-crescendo of her feeling, whose lack of sureness has not allowed her to remain on the level of Hamlet."
  • Liszt's Hamlet is meant as a psychological study of the title character; only two brief references are made to Ophelia, both marked as "to be played as quietly as possible and sound like a shadowy picture."
    • However, Kenneth Hamilton offers a different take on Ophelia in his Cambridge Companion to Liszt, suggesting that "the centerpiece of the symphonic poem is the exchange between the two characters," and that various elements of Shakespeare (particularly the quote "Get thee to a nunnery") can be found in this episode (215).

11. Die Hunnenschlacht (The Battle of the Huns), 1855, tweaked after the performance in 1857, and before publication in 1861.

  • Inspired by Wilhelm von Kaulbach's mural of the same name, a copy of which the Princess von Sayn-Wittgenstein sent to Liszt.
  • Based on the battle of the Catalunian Fields between Attila the Hun and Emperor Theodoric.
  • Half a battle, and half a meditation on the chorale theme (Crux Fidelis)of the Christian forces.

12. Die Ideale

  • First performed in 1857 at a ceremony honoring the Grand Duke Karl Agustus (Goethe's patron) and unveiling monuments to Goethe, Schiller, and Wieland.
  • Inspired by multiple passages of the poem of the same name by Schiller (but Liszt rearranged and tweaked these passages to his own liking).
  • Intended as a 3 movement symphony, later condensed into one form (like the Piano Sonata in b minor).

13. From the Cradle to the Grave, 1881-2

  • Substantially later than the other symphonic poems.
  • Inspired by a painting by Count Michael Zichy.
  • Divided into 3 parts: "The Cradle," "The Struggle for Existence," and "To the Grave, the Cradle of the Future Life."