The Greeks had a word for it: ΜΟΥΣΙΚΗ (mousike), which not only meant the discipline of music, but also encompassed poetry, dance, and elementary education. The ancients believed that reaching the center of human emotion through language was similar to the methods employed in music. Just as poetry has distinctly musical devices -- such as alliteration, assonance, meter, and onomatopoeia -- music has its evocative techniques, including harmony, modulation, repetition, rhythm, and the manipulation of tone color. Music has long been used as a descriptive medium, but it was only during the 19th century that forms were devised to showcase the story-telling qualities of what had been largely an abstract discipline in the Baroque and Classical eras.
The idea of program music, i.e., music that describes a particular story, event, or scene, came to fruition in the Symphony No. 6 in F major, "Pastorale" by Ludwig van Beethoven. Here the composer provides a descriptive title for each movement, allowing the listener to visualize what he had in mind. Titles like "Jolly gathering of country folk" or "Thunderstorm" leave no doubt as to the subjects of the music. Beethoven also composed Wellington's Victory, a musical battle depicting armies from both sides of the conflict by using their national anthems and military music. Beethoven paints a scene of cavalry and cannon that is unmistakably described in programmatic terms.
Hector Berlioz (right) expanded the programmatic concept in his Symphonie fantastique, providing titles for each movement, which guide the listener on the musical journey, and a detailed narrative that audiences could read before hearing the work. Berlioz takes his hero, an Artist, and describes him in love, moving from the raptures of infatuation to a ball, an idyllic scene in the country, a march to the scaffold and a witches' Sabbath. The beloved's theme, the so-called idée fixe (fixed idea) appears in each movement and is transformed, in the hero's opium induced vision, from a theme of beauty and love into a mocking and derisive rebuke. Throughout, Berlioz is engaged in story-telling and uses the poetic device of thematic transformation to show the opium dream progresses from purity and goodness into the depths of hallucination, murder, execution, and damnation.
Berlioz' friend Franz Liszt (left) was enamored with program music. He began to develop an aesthetic that would lead to the invention of a new musical form. Liszt wanted to combine Berlioz' musical insights into the human psyche with his own ideas of poetic phrasing. Liszt invented the symphonic poem or tone poem, an orchestral piece that explores a state of mind of a character or describes an episode in that character's life. He created 12 of these poems for the Weimar Orchestra and premiered them in the 1840s and '50s. A number of these tone poems are character sketches, including Mazeppa, Prometheus, Tasso, Orpheus and Hamlet. Some are overtly descriptive, like Mazeppa and Hunnenschlacht (Battle of the Huns), and some are purposefully vague, such as Orpheus or Les Préludes. Some are in recognizable forms, such as the funeral march of Héroïde Funèbre, and some are mood pictures like Hamlet. Some are based on literary works and some on paintings. What they all have in common is an effort to describe musically a particular mood or event in a manner that uses the orchestra as a giant paint box. Liszt experimented with tone color as a way of describing particular emotions and it is this technique which most closely resembles the art of the poet. He also used the tone painting technique in two of his larger works, the Faust Symphony and the Dante Symphony.
César Franck (right) created several masterworks of orchestral color and vivid descriptiveness. Les Éolides tells the story of a race of fairies and introduces a new world of gossamer sounds that anticipates Nuages by Claude Debussy. In Le Chausser maudit, Franck creates the rollicking world of the hunt by the use of hunting horn calls and galops. In Les Djinns, he takes us to the world of dead souls, shrieking from their final resting places. This work has a contrasting piano obbligato which calms the otherwise diabolic orchestral sections. Also important among French composers of tone poems was Camille Saint-Saëns, whose eerie Danse macabre is one of the most popular works played at Halloween concerts, and Le Rouet d'Omphale, a voluptuous tone poem inspired by a myth about Hercules.
Antonin Dvorák was another great 19th century composer of tone poems. During 1896 he wrote four pieces in the genre, The Water Goblin, The Noon Witch, The Golden Spinning Wheel, and The Wild Dove. Dvorák's countryman, Bedrich Smetana, also was a master of the tone poem. He created Má Vlast (My Homeland, with its most famous section, The Moldau), Wallenstein's Camp, and Richard III.
Russian tone poems are extremely nationalistic in character and are best represented by such popular works as Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Moussorgsky, an exciting portrayal of a gathering of spirits on St. John's Eve, or Baba Yaga by Anatoly Liadov, a series of tone pictures of a famous Russian witch. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov wrote his great symphonic suite Scheherazade in 1888. In it, he tells four stories from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights with the most imaginative orchestration since Berlioz.
If ever a man was born to create tone poetry it was Jean Sibelius (left). He wrote many orchestral poems with ancient Northern European legends as their inspiration. Inspired by the Finnish national movement, Sibelius delved into the epic of The Kalevala for much of his source material. His first tone poem Kullervo tells the tale of the great ancient Finnish hero. Sibelius' next tone poem was En Saga, a description of a land of ancient pagan gods, trolls and mermaids. In 1896, Sibelius premiered his Four Legends from the Kalevala, a set of pieces describing the exploits of the hero Lemminkaïnen and his voyage to the land of the dead (Tuonela). The piece includes one of Sibelius' most famous orchestral works, The Swan of Tuonela. Often excerpted as a concert piece, the Swan features the English horn which sings the plaintive cry of the bird that swims forever on the river of death. Sibelius' most famous piece is Finlandia, a stirring description of patriotic feeling for the homeland. Other tone poems include Pohjola's Daughter, Pan and Echo, Nightride and Sunrise, Rakastava, and The Oceanides. He wrote works based on Shakespeare, The Bard and The Tempest, as well as works of Finnish antiquity. His last important tone poem was Tapiola. A description of "the Northland's dusky forests," Tapiola is the domain of the forest god of Finnish mythology, Tapio.
Richard Strauss (right) was a prolific creator of tone poems. He was an innovator in several styles. In Don Quixote he had different instruments represent the characters. The solo cello is the daydreaming Don while the viola is his squire, Sancho Panza. In Sinfonia Domestica, Strauss describes the individual events of daily life (one critic remarked that he could hear the clatter of the knife and fork). In Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, he attempts a rarity in classical music: the art of comedy. In Also Sprach Zarathustra he opens in a mood of high drama in a section which has developed its own musical life since its inclusion as the theme of Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Death and Transfiguration he employs the Lisztian model to fashion a tale of struggle and eventual acceptance of the inevitable. One of his greatest tone poem is Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life). After a memorable opening theme the work progresses to tell of the hero's adversaries, companion, deeds of war, works of peace and final retirement from the world and fulfillment of his life. The adversaries are the critics, whom Strauss grew up hating. They are portrayed as petty and their music is puny and purposefully unattractive. The solo violin represents the hero's wife and her music is followed by a passionate section culminating in a beautiful love theme. The battle scene follows, filled with grotesquerie. The works of peace are Strauss' own and this section quotes from many of his prior compositions. The finale quietly depicts the hero's well earned repose. At the end of his life, Strauss looked back on the death of 19th century Romanticism and the rise of brutality in the Germany of the 20th century and wrote his valedictory work, Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings. It is a melancholy piece, filled with regret and nostalgia, that bemoans the demise of a great culture, and, as a corollary, the end of his era.
Ralph Vaughan Williams once remarked that he envied the ability of his friend, Arnold Bax (left), to create such colorful and daring chordal combinations, while his own music was so sparse and barren. Bax was indeed an accomplished tone painter and developed the tone poem early in his career. His most famous works in the genre are The Garden of Fand and Tintagel. Bax loved the sea and in his tone poems (as well as in his later symphonies) he revels in its majesty and beauty. In fact, The Garden of Fand tells of a ship's being lost and tossed by a storm onto the shores of Fand's island of miracles. Here is timeless revelry and, in Bax's own words, "the voyagers are caught away, unresisting, into the maze of the dance." In Tintagel, the ancient Celtic world is evoked as a portrait of the sea as glimpsed from the cliffs of Cornwall. There is no program, but medieval images abound as Bax quotes from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Bax expressed that he was hoping that the listener would think not only of King Mark but also of Arthur when listening to the piece.
Many other 20th century composers wrote in the programmatic style. Gustav Holst composed The Planets, a suite of orchestral pieces representing salient characteristics of the signs of the zodiac. Béla Bartók wrote the patriotic Kossuth, while Zoltán Kodály composed the idyllic character piece, Summer Evening. Sergey Prokofiev wrote The Volga Meets the Don, while Sergey Rachmaninov composed a symphonic poem inspired by Arnold Boecklin's painting, The Isle of the Dead. Leos Janácek had his Taras Bulba and Dmitry Shostakovich his October. William Schuman wrote of the George Washington Bridge. The unjustly neglected American composer Edward MacDowell was a fine tone poet with several works to his credit. His Hamlet and Ophelia, Lancelot and Elaine, and Lamia are deserving of study and should find a more prominent place in American musical history. Two of the most popular symphonic poems in the modern repertoire are The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. Each depicts several sites around the eternal city, and the pines of the Appian Way section is particularly powerful in its depiction of the advancing Roman legions. The Pines of Rome also has one of the most unusual orchestral effects, a recording of bird sounds which must be coordinated with the music.
Liszt and the composers who followed his example looked for new ways to express human emotion and to tell stories through music. The desire to treat music poetically is in keeping with Romantic concepts, while literary and artistic sources of inspiration enabled them to approach the Greek ideal of an integration among all of the gifts of the Muses.