Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam

Liszt Orpheus

The 19-year-old piano virtuoso and composer Franz Liszt visited Hector Berlioz in Paris on 4 December 1930, the day before the premiere of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. This meeting and Liszt’s presence at the concert led to a long friendship both on and off the concert stage: Liszt would as a result often perform as a soloist in concerts conducted by Berlioz. This meeting, however, had even greater consequences: Liszt actively promoted the music of many innovatory composers of the time and Berlioz now joined their ranks. Liszt himself arranged Berlioz’s works for piano and played them countless times. He made a piano transcription of the Symphonie fantastique that posed so many technical difficulties that many of his contemporaries considered it unplayable.

In 1841, after Liszt had given up his virtuoso career, he took up the position of Hofkapellmeister in Weimar and continued to promote the ‘music of the future’: the music of Schumann, Wagner and Berlioz amongst others. He soon developed into a type of high priest of the new music of his time and many composers were able to rely on his support.

Liszt himself composed Orpheus, one of twelve symphonic poems, during this time. A symphonic poem is an orchestral work whose form is determined by an extramusical idea. The word ‘poem’ is important in this context: the piece does not necessarily have to recount an actual story or event; like a poem, its subject can also be an idea or a philosophy. In this case, the legend of Orpheus is not the subject here, but rather the symbolic meaning of the figure of Orpheus. The musician with his lyre who could play so beautifully that even the rocks themselves were moved is the symbol for the salutary effect of music in general. The two harps naturally represent the sound of Orpheus’ lyre, but that is the only literal depiction. Liszt wrote in the original programme notes about harmonies that can have a civilising effect, music that can attenuate mankind’s baser instincts. Despite Wagner’s great admiration for Orpheus, various music lovers have had a poor opinion of the piece. A lack of knowledge of the philosophy that lies behind it has caused the piece’s continuous euphony to be regarded as kitsch.

This symphonic poem is, however, the odd man out of Liszt’s twelve symphonic poems. A clever musicologist will recognise the work’s use of sonata form; it was originally composed as a replacement overture for the production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice that Liszt mounted in Weimar in 1854. Liszt found Gluck’s existing overture too harsh for the sensitive opera that follows it; today such a replacement would be unthinkable, although large-scale adaptations and alterations of works that today are considered completely unacceptable were perfectly normal during the 19th century.

Translation: Peter Lockwood