Symphonies and Their Meaning Part 3

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But the heavenly heights are not reached by a single leap. Once more we sink to sombre depths not of the old rejection, but of a chastened, wistful wonderment. The former plaintive chant returns, in slower, contained pace, broken by phrases of mourning recitative, with the old sigh. And a former brief strain of simple aspiration is supported by angelic harps. In gentle ascent we are wafted to the acclaim of heavenly (treble) voices in the _Magnificat_. A wonderful utterance, throughout the scene of Purgatory, there is of a chastened, almost spiritual grief for the sin that cannot be undone, though it is not past pardon.

The bold design of the final Praise of the Almighty was evidently conceived in the main as a service. An actual depiction, or a direct expression (such as is attempted in the prologue of Boito's Mefistofele) was thereby avoided. The Holy of Holies is screened from view by a priestly ceremony,--by the mask of conventional religion. Else we must take the composer's personal conception of such a climax as that of an orthodox Churchman. And then the whole work, with all its pathos and humanity, falls to the level of liturgy.

The words of invisible angel-chorus are those of the blessed maid trusting in G.o.d her savior, on a theme for which we are prepared by preluding choirs of harps, wood and strings. It is sung on an ancient Church tone that in its height approaches the mode of secular song. With all the power of broad rhythm, and fulness of harmony and volume, the feeling is of conventional worship. With all the purity of shimmering harmonies the form is ecclesiastical in its main lines and depends upon liturgic symbols for its effect and upon the faith of the listener for its appeal.

At the end of the hymn, on the entering _Hosanna!_ and _Hallelujah!_ we catch the sacred symbol (of seven tones) in the path of the two vocal parts, the lower descending, the higher ascending as on heavenly scale.

In the second, optional ending the figure is completed, as the ba.s.s descends through the seven whole tones and the treble (of voices and instruments) rises as before to end in overpowering _Hallelujah!_ The style is close knit with the earlier music. A pervading motive is the former brief phrase of aspiration; upon it the angelic groups seem to wing their flight between verses of praise. By a wonderful touch the sigh, that appeared inverted in the plaintive chant of the _Purgatorio_, is finally glorified as the motive of the ba.s.s to the words of exultation.



Liszt was clearly a follower of Berlioz in the abandon to a pictorial aim, in the revolt from pure musical form, and in the mastery of orchestral color. If we feel in almost all his works a charming translation of story in the tones, we also miss the higher empyraean of pure fancy, unlimited by halting labels. It is a descent into pleasant, rich pastures from the cosmic view of the lofty mountain. Yet it must be yielded that Liszt's program-music was of the higher kind that dwells in symbols rather than in concrete details. It was a graphic plan of symbolization that led Liszt to choose the subjects of his symphonic poems (such as the "Preludes" and the "Ideals") and to prefer the poetic scheme of Hugo's "Mazeppa" to the finer verse of a Byron. Though not without literal touches, Liszt perceived that his subjects must have a symbolic quality.

Nevertheless this pictorial style led to a revolution in the very nature of musical creation and to a new form which was seemingly intended to usurp the place of the symphony. It is clear that the symphonic poem is in very essence opposed to the symphony. The genius of the symphony lies in the overwhelming breadth and intensity of its expression without the aid of words. Vainly decried by a later age of shallower perception, it achieved this Promethean stroke by the very magic of the design. At one bound thus arose in the youngest art a form higher than any other of human device,--higher than the epic, the drama, or the cathedral.

Bowing to an impatient demand for verbal meaning, Liszt invented the Symphonic Poem, in which the cla.s.sic cogency yielded to the loose thread of a musical sketch in one movement, slavishly following the sequence of some literary subject. He abandoned sheer tonal fancy, surrendering the magic potency of pure music, fully expressive within its own design far beyond the literal scheme.[A]

[Footnote A: Mendelssohn with perfect insight once declared,--"Notes have as definite a meaning as words, perhaps even a more definite one."]

The symphonic poems of Liszt, in so far as his intent was in destructive reaction to the cla.s.sic process, were precisely in line with the drama of Wagner. The common revolt completely failed. The higher, the real music is ever of that pure tonal design where the fancy is not leashed to some external scheme. Liszt himself grew to perceive the inadequacy of the new device when he returned to the symphony for his greatest orchestral expression, though even here he never escaped from the thrall of a literal subject.

And strangely, in point of actual music, we cannot fail to find an emptier, a more grandiose manner in all these symphonic poems than in the two symphonies. It seems as if an unconscious sense of the greater n.o.bility of the cla.s.sic medium drove Liszt to a far higher inspiration in his melodic themes.

Yet we cannot deny the brilliant, dazzling strokes, and the luscious harmonies. It was all a new manner, and alone the novelty is welcome, not to speak of the broad sweep of facile melody, and the sparkling thrills.


This work has a preface by the composer, who refers in a footnote to the "_Meditations poetiques_" of Lamartine.

"What else is our life than a series of preludes to that unknown song of which the first solemn note is struck by death? Love is the morning glow of every heart; but in what human career have not the first ecstasies of bliss been broken by the storm, whose cruel breath destroys fond illusions, and blasts the sacred shrine with the bolt of lightning. And what soul, sorely wounded, does not, emerging from the tempest, seek to indulge its memories in the calm of country life? Nevertheless, man will not resign himself for long to the soothing charm of quiet nature, and when the trumpet sounds the signal of alarm, he runs to the perilous post, whatever be the cause that calls him to the ranks of war,--that he may find in combat the full consciousness of himself and the command of all his powers."

How far is the music literally graphic? We cannot look for the "unknown song" in definite sounds. That would defeat, not describe, its character. But the first solemn notes, are not these the solemn rising phrase that reappears in varying rhythm and pace all about the beginning and, indeed, the whole course

[Music: _Andante_ (Strings, doubled in two lower 8ves.)]

of the music. Just these three notes abound in the mystic first "prelude," and they are the core of the great swinging tune of the Andante maestoso, the beginning and main pulse of the unknown song.

[Music: _Andante maestoso_ (Ba.s.ses of strings, wood and bra.s.s, doubled below; arpeggic harmonies in upper strings; sustained higher wood)]

Now (_dolce cantando_) is a softer guise of the phrase. For death and birth, the two portals, are like

[Music: (Strings, with arpeggic violins) _dolce cantando_ (_Pizz._ ba.s.ses)]

elements. Even here the former separate motive sounds, and so in the further turn of the song (_espressivo dolente_) on new thread.

The melody that sings (_espressivo ma tranquillo_) may well stand for "love, the glow of dawn in every heart." Before the storm, both great motives (of love and death) sound together very beautifully, as in

[Music: _espress. ma tranquillo_ _dolce._ (Horns and lower strings, with arpeggic harp and violins)]

Tennyson's poem. The storm that blasts the romance begins with the same fateful phrase. It is all about, even inverted, and at the crisis it sings with the fervor of full-blown song. At the lull the soft guise reappears, faintly, like a sweet memory.

The Allegretto pastorale is clear from the preface. After we are lulled, soothed, caressed and all but entranced by these new impersonal sounds, then, as if the sovereign for whom all else were preparing, the song of love seeks its recapitulated verse. Indeed here is the real full song.

Is it that in the memory lies the reality, or at least the realization?

Out of the dream of love rouses the sudden alarm of bra.s.s (_Allegro marziale animato_), with a new war-tune fashioned of the former soft disguised motive. The air of fate still hangs heavy over all. In spirited retorts the martial madrigal proceeds, but it is not all mere war and courage. Through the clash of strife break in the former songs, the love-theme in triumph and the first expressive strain in tempestuous joy. Last of all the fateful original motto rings once more in serene, contained majesty.

On the whole, even with so well-defined a program, and with a full play of memory, we cannot be quite sure of a fixed a.s.sociation of the motive.

It is better to view the melodic episodes as subjective phases, arising from the tenor of the poem.


Liszt's "Ta.s.so" is probably the earliest celebration, in pure tonal form, of the plot of man's suffering and redemption, that has been so much followed that it may be called the type of the modern symphony.[A]

In this direct influence the "Ta.s.so" poem has been the most striking of all of Liszt's creations.

[Footnote A: We may mention such other works of Liszt as "Mazeppa" and the "Faust" Symphony; the third symphony of Saint-Saens; Strauss' tone poem "Death and Transfiguration"; Volbach's symphony, besides other symphonies such as a work by Carl Pohlig. We may count here, too, the Heldenlied by Dvorak, and Strauss' Heldenleben (see Vol. II).]

The following preface of the composer accompanies the score:

"In the year 1849 the one hundredth anniversary of Goethe's birth was celebrated throughout Germany; the theatre in Weimar, where we were at the time, marked the 28th of August by a performance of 'Ta.s.so.'

"The tragic fate of the unfortunate bard served as a text for the two greatest poets produced by Germany and England in the last century: Goethe and Byron. Upon Goethe was bestowed the most brilliant of mortal careers; while Byron's advantages of birth and of fortune were balanced by keenest suffering. We must confess that when bidden, in 1849, to write an overture for Goethe's drama, we were more immediately inspired by Byron's reverential pity for the shades of the great man, which he invoked, than by the work of the German poet. Nevertheless Byron, in his picture of Ta.s.so in prison, was unable to add to the remembrance of his poignant grief, so n.o.bly and eloquently uttered in his 'Lament,' the thought of the 'Triumph' that a tardy justice gave to the chivalrous author of 'Jerusalem Delivered.' We have sought to mark this dual idea in the very t.i.tle of our work, and we should be glad to have succeeded in pointing this great contrast,--the genius who was misjudged during his life, surrounded, after death, with a halo that destroyed his enemies. Ta.s.so loved and suffered at Ferrara; he was avenged at Rome; his glory still lives in the folk-songs of Venice. These three elements are inseparable from his immortal memory. To represent them in music, we first called up his august spirit as he still haunts the waters of Venice. Then we beheld his proud and melancholy figure as he pa.s.sed through the festivals of Ferrara where he had produced his master-works. Finally we followed him to Rome, the eternal city, that offered him the crown and glorified in him the martyr and the poet.

"_Lamento e Trionfo_: Such are the opposite poles of the destiny of poets, of whom it has been justly said that if their lives are sometimes burdened with a curse, a blessing is never wanting over their grave. For the sake not merely of authority, but the distinction of historical truth, we put our idea into realistic form in taking for the theme of our musical poem the motive with which we have heard the gondoliers of Venice sing over the waters the lines of Ta.s.so, and utter them three centuries after the poet:

"'Canto l'armi pietose e'l Capitano Che'l gran Sepolcro liber di Christo!'

"The motive is in itself plaintive; it has a sustained sigh, a monotone of grief. But the gondoliers give it a special quality by prolonging certain tones--as when distant rays of brilliant light are reflected on the waves. This song had deeply impressed us long ago. It was impossible to treat of Ta.s.so without taking, as it were, as text for our thoughts, this homage rendered by the nation to the genius whose love and loyalty were ill merited by the court of Ferrara. The Venetian melody breathes so sharp a melancholy, such hopeless sadness, that it suffices in itself to reveal the secret of Ta.s.so's grief. It lent itself, like the poet's imagination, to the world's brilliant illusions, to the smooth and false coquetry of those smiles that brought the dreadful catastrophe in their train, for which there seemed to be no compensation in this world. And yet upon the Capitol the poet was clothed with a mantle of purer and more brilliant purple than that of Alphonse."

With the help of the composer's plot, the intent of the music becomes clear, to the dot almost of the note. The whole poem is an exposition of the one sovereign melody, where we may feel a kindred trait of Hungarian song, above all in the cadences, that must have stirred Liszt's patriot heart. Nay,--beginning as it does with melancholy stress of the phrase of cadence and the straying into full rhythmitic exultation, it seems (in strange guise) another

[Music: _Adagio mesto_ (With rhythmic harp and horns)]

of Liszt's Hungarian rhapsodies,--that were, perhaps, the greatest of all he achieved, where his unpremeditated frenzy revelled in purest folk-rhythm and tune. The natural division of the Hungarian dance, with the sad _La.s.su_ and the glad _Friss_, is here clear in order and recurrence. The Magyar seems to the manner born in both parts of the melody.[A]

[Footnote A: A common Oriental element in Hungarian and Venetian music has been observed. See Kretschmar's note to Liszt's "Ta.s.so" (Breitkopf & Haertel).]

In the accents of the motive of cadence (_Lento_) we feel the secret grief of the hero, that turns _Allegro strepitoso_, in quicker pace to fierce revolt.

In full tragic majesty the n.o.ble theme enters, in panoply of woe. In the further flow, as in the beginning, is a brief chromatic strain and a sigh of descending tone that do not lie in the obvious song, that are drawn by the subjective poet from the latent fibre. Here is the modern Liszt, of rapture and anguish, in manner and in mood that proved so potent a model with a later generation.[A]

[Footnote A: See note in the final chapter of Volume II.]

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Symphonies and Their Meaning Part 3 summary

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