We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 8 Midcentury
Richard Taruskin

So it may come as a disquieting (or perhaps an amusing) surprise to learn that the music was mostly conceived in an altogether different poetic context, and thus preexisted the content that supposedly created it. The American Liszt scholar Andrew Bonner has found documentation to confirm the suspicion of earlier writers that what we now know as the symphonic poem Les préludes was originally conceived as the overture to Les quatre élémens (“The four elements”), a group of four choruses that Liszt wrote in 1844 to words by a minor French poet named Joseph Autran (1813–77), and was largely based on themes drawn from the choruses. It is possible that some retouching—adding a harp part, strengthening a bit of the thematic transformation and making it more obvious—followed the decision to ascribe the content to Lamartine, but the music only follows that content in the most general way, and the program's all-important motivating Question nowhere occurs in Lamartine's poem.

Given the exalted claims that were being made on his behalf, and the contentious critical climate surrounding his work, Liszt was understandably embarrassed, as Bonner notes, “that the program had not in this case determined the music,”18 and took steps (including the destruction of the overture's original title page) to suppress the composition's early history. These circumstances have magnified the glee with which the record has been set straight, and inspired the claim (by Emil Haraszti, the first to suspect the truth) that the corrected record invalidated the claims of the Zukunftists.

But does it really? The claim was never made, after all, that the music explicitly paraphrased the poetic content, only that it paralleled the content and conveyed its emotional impact to the listener. The means of embodiment and conveyance was and remains symbolic, hence conventional, no matter what the content. The content, therefore, can be viewed as a particular interpretation of the music, just as any symbolic representation has to be interpreted (even one consisting of words, such as an allegory or a parable). The association of the music with the choruses of Les quatre élémens was one such interpretation; the ex post facto association with Lamartine was another, just as plausible or appropriate, but no more demonstrably “true.” In either case—that is, in both cases equally—the representational tasks that the music had to accomplish conditioned not only its thematic content but its form as well. Take away the symbolic dimension, in either case, and the form loses a significant part of its motivation. This or that program may be attached or discarded; but a program is self-evidently required to account for the sui generis form of the music, its highly characterized and contrasted thematic content (drawing on such recognizable generic types or topoi as the stormy, the pastoral, and the military), and its multitude of carefully worked-out motivic relations that subsumes contrast within an overarching narrative unity. The music of Les préludes all by itself would likely impress a naive listener (that is, a listener without any preconceptions) the way an obviously allegorical painting might strike a naive viewer. Both might be greatly pleased and moved by the sheer sonorous or visual display; yet both might also be aware that there is a dimension of meaning to which they at the moment lack access.

It comes down, then, to a choice of allegories. Liszt proposed the later one, via Lamartine, as part of a broad agenda to which he and Brendel and the rest of the New German School attached enormous esthetic, historical, and political importance; hence his urgent insistence on only the second associative reading of the music and his deliberate suppression of the first. Yet neither his insistence on the one program, nor Haraszti's insistence on the other as the true meaning of the music, can be supported simply by reading the music. A third program, if advanced authoritatively in the absence of other alternatives, might be just as convincing, hence just as “true.” This relativism need trouble us only if we resist the notion that associative meanings of all kinds, however compelling and however necessary, are virtually by definition conventional, hence artificial. And we will be troubled in this way only if we have never given thought to the way in which even the sounds of spoken language acquire their meaning.

These interpretive matters become urgent in proportion to the urgency of the attendant political stakes. In the 1850s and 1860s, the interpretation and evaluation of Liszt's symphonic allegories were tied to the issue of music's continuing need to evolve in the direction that a self-selected vanguard of German composers had pointed out for it, and became furiously contentious. At the same time, as we shall see a couple of chapters hence, Italian operas were being subjected to similar interpretive contests between those who read them as revolutionary allegories and those who preferred to take their plots at face value. In the twentieth century, similar controversies have swirled around the artworks created in the great European totalitarian states, some reading them as allegories of political dissidence, others as allegories of political submission, still others as abstract or transcendent artistic utterances without political association, and their creators maintaining a studied silence.

In all cases these clashing interpretations were (and are often still) advanced in a categorical fashion that can be only supported ideologically (that is, on the basis of belief), never tested empirically (that is, on the basis of observation). But in no case can the necessity for interpretation be seriously questioned. The basic esthetic “fact” that the music embodied and represented a “poetic” content, and did so both in its thematic matter and in its form, is accepted by all of the contending parties, although in all cases some felt that the music was thereby enhanced, others that it was thereby diminished.

These are among the issues first raised by the New German School that have never gone away, and never will. Another cursed question is the matter of who gets to decide which reading is correct, a question that abides whether or not the composer is among the interpreters. It would be an excellent exercise to imagine historical conditions other than the one affecting the interpretation of Les préludes (namely the discovery of suppressed documents) under which a composer's own interpretation, if offered at all, might be doubted or impugned or even rejected; and another excellent exercise would be to imagine under just what circumstances the allegorical interpretation of a work of instrumental music becomes desirable and even necessary, so that even without the authority of a program the listener will impose one.

Yet even at their freest and most poetically determined, the symphonic poems of Liszt and his many imitators were still governed by a general approach to coherent form inherited directly from the earlier symphonic (or sonata) literature that the New German School sought, or claimed, to have supplanted. At the global level, the level of overall shape rather than the moment-by-moment unfolding, traces of the standard inherited form—that of the lyricalized or Schubertian sonata—can be most clearly observed.

In Les préludes, for example, the standard “there and back” construction that had controlled musical discourse at least since the time of the old dance suite continues to impress its general shape on the sequence of programmatically derived events. The expanded reprise of the introductory climax (andante maestoso at m. 35) to form the coda (mm. 405–419) imposes a traditional thematic and tonal symmetry on the whole structure. Furthermore, the relationship between the introductory section (the “invocation of the Question,” mm. 1–66) and the first episode (Love, mm. 67–108) is cast very much in the manner of a Schubertian sonata exposition, with a dynamic first theme and a languidly lyrical and dilatory second theme in the key of the mediant.

Then again, it cannot be a mere coincidence that the main Love theme reappears unexpectedly (and, for that matter, without specific programmatic motivation) in the pastoral episode, or that the transition to the martial episode should feature the same theme in C major, the original tonic. That is the effective recapitulation, and it begins, just as Chopin's recapitulations so often did, with the lyrical theme, saving the more commanding main theme for coda-duty. In between, the stormy episode, with its extremes of tonal indeterminacy, bears unmistakable earmarks of the traditional development.

So Liszt's Symphonic Poems, like Chopin's Ballades, represented not a break with previous practice but rather the adaptation of earlier practices to new technical means and new expressive aims. If Chopin's Ballades were sonatas later on, then Liszt's Symphonic Poems were symphonies later on. As the music theorist Richard Kaplan put it in accounting for this phenomenon, so long as “three fundamental aspects of sonata organization” are observed, historical continuity is maintained. These fundamental aspects, in his pithy description, are “a tonal dichotomy which eventually is resolved, a concurrent thematic duality, and a return or recapitulation.”19 We shall see very little large-scale instrumental music from the nineteenth century, no matter how progressive the composer, that does not meet these basic, inherited criteria of coherence.


(18) Andrew Bonner, “Liszt's Les Préludes and Les Quatre Élémens: A Reinvestigation,” 19th-Century Music X (1986–87): 107.

(19) Richard Kaplan, “Sonata Form in the Orchestral Works of Liszt: The Revolutionary Reconsidered,” 19th-Century Music VIII (1984–85): 145.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Midcentury. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008004.xml