Magazine article Gramophone

Liszt and the Symphonic Poem

Magazine article Gramophone

Liszt and the Symphonic Poem

Article excerpt

Liszt and the Symphonic Poem By Joanne Cormac Cambridge University Press, HB, 378pp, 90 [pounds sterling] ISBN 978-1-1071-8141-0

As he approached his 36th birthday, Liszt surprised musical Europe by declaring the end of his public career as a pianist following a recital in Ukraine. Few could have guessed the direction his career would take over the next dozen years. Accepting a longstanding invitation from the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Liszt settled in the little town, took up the baton in earnest and started to transform his new home into a hub of modern music. He presented premieres and important revivals, most notably works by Berlioz, Schumann and Wagner, both at court concerts and in the theatre. Along the way, Liszt himself emerged as one of the most influential orchestral composers of the 1850s, with works like the two symphonies, the Lenau Episodes, the first two Funeral Odes, a number of occasional pieces and transcriptions, and the first 12 symphonic poems. But if Liszt's achievements in Weimar are well documented, what Weimar provided him in terms of artistic stimuli and challenges is less understood.

Enter Joanne Cormac of the University of Nottingham. She contends that studies in recent decades have largely focused on demonstrating Liszt's continuity with the Beethovenian symphonic tradition. Meanwhile, his more radical innovations and reforms as both conductor and composer, often shaped by direct experience in the Weimar theatre, have been neglected. Cormac sets out to address this imbalance by mapping the symphonic poems against Liszt's own evolving artistic aims, his response to circumstances specific to Weimar, and the prevalent theatrical mores in mid-19th-century Germany. The result is a richly detailed interdisciplinary study that provides context for the symphonic poems' evolution, as well as a synthesis of Liszt's multifarious activities between February 1848 and August 1861.

At the Weimar court theatre Liszt encountered the first long-term professional theatrical milieu of his career. Despite his closeness to the Grand Ducal family, he was expected to function within the theatre's administrative structure. As 'Kapellmeister', Liszt was co-equal to the theatre's Artistic Director, who had responsibility for spoken drama and other non-musical activities. Both positions reported to the theatre Intendant, or General Director, who in turn was responsible to the court.

Opera, concerts and drama all used the same orchestra and most performances, save the occasional concert at the Grand Ducal palace or the Town Hall, were held in Weimar's only theatre. …

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