We have already explored the interest of early Romantic composers in program music and the application of programmatic principles to traditional genres like the symphony. In this page you’ll read about later Romantic composers’ pursuit of a new structure in which to use instrumental music as a means of depicting a story, picture, or landscape. As you’ll read, composers turned from the symphony to the overture. We have encountered overtures in previous eras. An overture is a prelude to a larger work, usually a staged work such as an opera or ballet, that often previews some of the important melodic themes that will be heard over the course of the work. Overtures from popular operas were often later performed as standalone concert pieces. Audiences enjoyed the musical reminder of the story and production they had previously seen. In time, composers began to write overtures that were not connected to a larger musical work, but rather referred to some other well-known story or scene. The linked article details how this practice evolved into the genre known as the symphonic poem.
A symphonic poem or tone poem is a piece of orchestral or concert band music, usually in a single continuous section (a movement) that illustrates or evokes the content of a poem, short story, novel, painting, landscape, or other (non-musical) source. Hungarian composer Franz Liszt first applied the term to his 13 works in this vein. In its aesthetic objectives, the symphonic poem is in some ways related to opera. Whilst it does not use a sung text, it seeks, like opera, a union of music and drama.
While many symphonic poems may compare in size and scale to symphonic movements (or even reach the length of an entire symphony), they are unlike traditional classical symphonic movements, in that their music is intended to inspire listeners to imagine or consider scenes, images, specific ideas or moods, and not to focus on following traditional patterns of musical form (e.g. sonata form). This intention to inspire listeners was a direct consequence of Romanticism, which encouraged literary, pictorial and dramatic associations in music. Musical works that attempt to inspire listeners in this way are often referred to as program music, while music that has no such associations may be called absolute music.
Some piano and chamber works, such as Arnold Schoenberg’s string sextet Verklärte Nacht, have similarities with symphonic poems in their overall intent and effect. However, the term symphonic poem is generally accepted to refer to orchestral works. A symphonic poem may stand on its own, or it can be part of a series combined into a symphonic suite. For example, The Swan of Tuonela (1895) is a tone poem from Jean Sibelius’s Lemminkäinen Suite. A symphonic poem can also be part of a group of interrelated works, such as Vltava (The Moldau) as part of the six-work cycle Má vlast by Bedřich Smetana. Also, while the terms “symphonic poem” and “tone poem” have often been used interchangeably, some composers such as Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius have preferred the latter term for pieces that were less symphonic in design and in which there is no special emphasis on thematic or tonal contrast.
According to Macdonald, the symphonic poem met three 19th century aesthetic goals: it related music to outside sources; it often combined or compressed multiple movements into a single principal section; and it elevated instrumental program music to an aesthetic level that could be regarded as equivalent to, or higher than opera. The symphonic poem remained popular from the 1840s until the 1920s, when the genre suffered a severe decline in popularity.
In the second quarter of the 19th century, the future of the symphonic genre came into doubt. While many composers continued to write symphonies during the 1820s and 30s, “there was a growing sense that these works were aesthetically far inferior to Beethoven’s. . . . The real question was not so much whether symphonies could still be written, but whether the genre could continue to flourish and grow.” Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Niels Gade achieved successes with their symphonies, putting at least a temporary stop to the debate as to whether the genre was dead. Nevertheless, composers increasingly turned to the “more compact form” of the concert overture “as a vehicle within which to blend musical, narrative and pictorial ideas.” Examples included Mendelssohn’s overtures A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826) and The Hebrides (1830).
Between 1845 and 1847, Franco-Belgian composer César Franck wrote an orchestral piece based on Victor Hugo’s poem Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne. The work exhibits characteristics of a symphonic poem, and some musicologists, such as Norman Demuth and Julien Tiersot, consider it the first of its genre, preceding Liszt’s compositions. However, Franck did not publish or perform his piece; neither did he set about defining the genre. Liszt’s determination to explore and promote the symphonic poem gained him recognition as the genre’s inventor.
The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt desired to expand single-movement works beyond the concert overture form. The music of overtures is to inspire listeners to imagine scenes, images, or moods; Liszt intended to combine those programmatic qualities with a scale and musical complexity normally reserved for the opening movement of classical symphonies. The opening movement, with its interplay of contrasting themes under sonata form, was normally considered the most important part of the symphony. To achieve his objectives, Liszt needed a more flexible method of developing musical themes than sonata form would allow, but one that would preserve the overall unity of a musical composition.