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Classical Breakdown

8. What is a Symphonic Poem?

November 19, 2019

It’s more than an overture, it breaks the rules of a symphony, and can have musical depictions to the extreme. The Symphonic Poem was popular in the mid-1800s to the 1930s and brought to life in grand romantic gestures, the world around us. In this episode, we talk about its humble origins to the master of the genre, Richard Strauss, and it’s eventual decline in popularity. 

Show Notes

Musical examples (and their inspiration!)

Franz Liszt – Les Preludes. Composed in 1854 

Franz Liszt's preface in the published score:

"What else is life but a series of preludes to that unknown hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death? Love is the enchanted dawn of all existence; but what fate is there whose first delights of happiness are not interrupted by some storm, whose fine illusions are not dissipated by some mortal blast, consuming its altar as though by a stroke of lightning? And what cruelly wounded soul, issuing from one of these tempests, does not endeavor to solace its memories in the calm serenity of rural life? Nevertheless, man does not resign himself for long to the enjoyment of that beneficent warmth which he first enjoyed in Nature's bosom, and when the 'trumpet sounds the alarm' he takes up his perilous post, no matter what struggle calls him to its ranks, that he may recover in combat the full consciousness of himself and the entire possession of his powers." 

Bedrich Smetana – The Moldau. Composed in 1874 

Vltava River in Prague

The Vltava River in Prague

Alexander Borodin – In the Steppes of Central Asia. Composed in 1880 

Steppes of Ukraine

Steppes in Kazakhstan 

Richard Strauss – Don Quixote. Composed in 1897 

the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes

Sergei Rachmaninoff – Isle of The Dead. Composed in 1908 (paintings below) 

Bocklin - Isle of The Dead_Black and White reproductionBocklin - Isle of the dead

Rachmaninoff was inspired by the black and white reproduction (left). When seeing the original (right) he said "If I had seen first the original, I, probably, would have not written my Isle of the Dead. I like it in black and white."

George Gershwin – An American in Paris. Premiered in 1924 

Gershwin with taxi horns used in An American in Paris

Gershwin (left) with taxi horns used in his An American in Paris. 

Also, a secret symphonic poem you’ll find out about later in this episode.