Symphonic Poem In Germany

Wagner’s Influence.—The genius of Wagner produced and applied to Opera a far richer and more complicated orchestration than had existed before his day. Since then, in many periods and in many countries, composers have tried to adopt his style, and apply it to the symphonic as well as to the operatic stage. In the field of purely orchestral music, Liszt and Berlioz had already formulated a free style, and their symphonic poems, departing from the set form of the symphony, have also served as models for later composers. Almost the only recent exponent of the strict form was Johannes Brahms, for Anton Bruckner, working on similar lines, did not achieve great success with the public.

Richard Strauss.—For many years it was thought that Wagner’s orchestration would remain unrivalled in the field of music. But Richard Strauss (born at Munich, Germany, 1864) has made a further advance in this respect, and handles the full modern orchestra with the utmost skill. Son of a court horn-player, his musical genius showed itself in his earliest years, and his studies with the court capellmeister, F. W. Meyer, resulted in the publication of several works. At first he followed Brahms and the stricter school, and his F-minor symphony is a worthy production in that form. A meeting with von Bülow led to his appointment as assistant-conductor at Meiningen. To show his ability, Strauss had to conduct, without rehearsal, his Serenade, Op. 7, for thirteen wind instruments ; and the excellence of this work brought him the desired position. It was at this time that he met Alexander Ritter, a man of broad intellect and radical ideas. Under the new influence, Stra rounced his classical style, and began to compose t pictures and symphonic poems that have made hi so important. As he is the chief modern represent. the new school, his works merit detailed examination.

His Early Symphonic Poems.—After an Italian trip in 1886, Strauss gave his impressions of that country in the form of the symphonic fantasie “Aus Italien,” is first work in the free style of subjective emotion-paintin It is in four movements, each a complete tone-picture. T e first, “On the Campagna,” gives a vivid impression of sacious solitude, with a hint of the pageants and battles o ce witnessed by this great Roman field. The second mo ement, “Amid Rome’s Ruins,” aims also to give “fantastic pictures of vanished splendor, feelings of sadness in the mids of the sunlit present.” The third movement, “On the Shares of Sorrento,” resembles the symphonic schcrzo, w Ile the finale gives an anirnated picture of “Neapolitan Fol -Life,” introducing the air of “Funiculi” and other popular Italian tunes.

After four years of conducting at the Munic ~ court theatre, Strauss settled in Weimar, where he produc:d three more important works. The first of these, “M. cbeth,” showed that he had abandoned the old form in favor of the symphonic poem, in which the different movements are fused into one large whole, free in form. The pi.ture of Macbeth, ambitious and cruel in spite of his timi.ity, is ably developed, but the portrayal of Lady Macbeth Brings a still stronger climax of magnificent orchestral power.

“Don Juan,” the second of the three, is form ed on Lenau’s poem. The hero is not a ruffian adventure , as in Da Ponte’s libretto, but is depicted as an arch pssimist, hunting through the world for perfection in pleasure, but never finding it. There are restless and uncertain elodies at the opening, to illustrate the hero’s unsatisfied longing. A knightly theme follows, typical of Don Juan ~ imself. Then come various episodes, full of attractive enth siasm, but always ending with the same vague unrest. A wild carnival, followed by sudden silence and the cutting theme of a trumpet, announce the hero’s end.

“Tod and Verklarung” (Death and Transfiguration) is a work of great power and beauty. It depicts an exhausted sufferer, asleep in the quiet sick-room, dreaming of the beauty of his lost youth. Then follows a more discordant episode, which may well picture a fierce contest with the powers of disease, ending in defeated exhaustion. A third portion brings renewed memories of the morning of life; passages of joyous enthusiasm and noble aspiration suggest the high hope of youth and the glorious achievement of manhood ; but again comes the struggle with the powers of Fate, ending in despair and death. The fourth part is an apotheosis, representing the triumph of man’s upward striving over death. This section contains some of the most impressive orchestral beauties in the range of Strauss’ works.

Program Music.—In the older symphonic form, it was not necessary for the composer to suggest a title for his work. Many have done so—Beethoven in his “Pastoral Symphony,” Mendelssohn in the “Scotch,” for example; but the exquisite beauty of Schubert, or the romantic charm of Schumann will impress the hearer without the use of extraneous suggestions. In the modern school of program music, founded by Liszt, the composer gives the audience a more or less detailed account of the subject that inspired him, and tries to paint in tones the events or moods suggested by the title. Much, therefore, depends on the choice of the subject. If it is well-known, and gives definite suggestions of certain moods which can find expression in the orchestra, then it may receive legitimate treatment by being set to music. But if the subject is not one that lends itself to broad emotional treatment, or if the composer aims to picture definite events or objects, he is departing from the true function of his art. Music deals with expression of emotion, and should not attempt something that belongs rather to other arts, such as Literature or Painting. Many persons think that Strauss has gone too far in this direction, especially in his later works.

His Later Symphonic Poems.—In “Till Eulenspiegel,” the hero is a medival rogue, whose adventures are found in an old German tale. He is a wandering mechanic, who does anything but tend to business. He is always indulging in madcap pranks, in which he manages to escape from his well-merited punishment. In the composition, Strauss has given free rein to his fancy, and portrayed, with rare orchestral skill, the fantastic jokes, the sly humor, and the rollicking disposition of the graceless rogue. The work is in rondo form, with definite themes to typify the hero. These themes form the basis of the music, and are varied and developed with infinite skill and remarkable orchestral irony.

“Also Sprach Zarathustra” (Thus Spake Zarathustra) is based on Nietzsche’s mystic philosophy. Zarathustra, or Zoroaster, aims to teach the doctrine of the “Over-Man,” by which man is to become a sort of demigod who rises above good and evil into realms of joy. A picture of the “Hinterweltlern,” or dwellers in the Rear-World c f common humanity, portrays their yearnings, their joys, and passions, while their sorrows find voice in a tender “Grave-Song.” Science and its futility are represented by a fugue replete with chromatics. A passage entitled, “The Convalescent,” shows the defeat of the spirit of sorrow and evil, and the triumph of joy. Then follows the wild, chaotic, but strangely-effective “Dance-Song,” the exultation of the “Over-Man.” Yet his triumph is not lasting, for at the close, after a sudden stroke of the bell, comes the weird “Song of the Night-Wanderer,” and the piece ends mystically in two different keys, as if representing eterna: doubt. Strange as this work may seem, its effect is one if vast sublimity, and Nietzsche’s wild philosophy is translated into orchestral effects of remarkable grandeur.

With “Don Quixote” Strauss enters the more definite field of program music, and aims to picture events It is cast in the variation form, but is much more free in style than that title would imply. There is a theme for the Don, clear at first, but becoming obscure and illogical, to show that he loses his sanity. He is represented by a solo ‘cello, while his faithful squire Sancho, strange to say, appears mostly in viola passages. Each variation treats of one ad-venture. The windmills are attacked, with disastrous results. The flock of sheep are heard, bleating in full chorus until put to flight. The bands of pilgrims are dispersed as robbers. The blindfold ride through the air on the wooden horse is made realistic by the use of the theatrical wind-machine. Other adventures follow, and at the end the knightly theme recurs in a clarified form, to show Don Quixote’s return to reason and death. It will readily be seen that this work is more experimental than the earlier ones.

“Ein Heldenleben” represents the fight of Strauss with his adverse critics. There are six well-marked sections. First comes the hero himself, portrayed by definite themes that are woven into a strong climax. Then his enemies are depicted, with remarkable irony, by a medley of crack-ling, snarling figures for woodwind. The hero’s helpmate is represented by a solo violin, and in this section an instrumental love-duet is introduced. Then follows a picture of the hero’s battlefield, ending in a song of victory. The. hero’s works of peace are then described, and the meaning of the composition is made clear by the introduction of themes from the .earlier works of Strauss. The final section shows the hero’s departure from an ungrateful world. This piece is grandly planned, but like other orchestral works of Strauss, its themes are not melodic and lack musical charm.

The “Sinfonia Domestica” pictures a day in the composer’s family life. Here, again, the subject is one that the hearer cannot understand without an arbitrary explanation. Strauss has given no complete analysis, but has deigned to explain that the three themes in the early part represent father, mother and child, that the picture begins in the afternoon and lasts until the next morning, and that the final fugue represents the education of the child. The un-melodic style of Strauss is little suited to such a subject, and the effect is such as to make the work seem puzzling, at first, if not actually ridiculous.

His Other Works.—Of the two early operas by Strauss, “Guntram” and “Feuersnoth,” neither has had real success; nor does his third production, “Salomé,” seem important. Guntram is a fighter for love, a member of a mystic fraternity. He rescues Freihild from the tyranny of Duke Robert, who loves her, and in the struggle he kills Robert. Freihild falls in love with him, but he ust renounce her, as he knows that he killed Robert out of rivalry in love, an unworthy motive. “Feuersnoth,” lig ter in style, is based on the old legend of a scornful maiden whose pride meets punishment. All fire in the town goes ut, and no light can be rekindled, save’ by a touch of her body ; so that she finds herself exposed to the multitude. In this work, as in “Heldenleben,” Strauss has introduced veiled attacks on his critics. The music to both operas shows the usual richness of coloring and orchestral intricacy, but their themes lack the direct power of the guiding motives in Wagner’s works.

The Songs of Strauss are many in number, and include some with orchestral accompaniment. They show a modulatory style, combined with a rare melodic beauty that seems strange in a composer who indulges in so much orchestral ugliness. Some of these songs, such as ` Traum durch die Dammerung” or “Allerseelen,” are gems of purest water. The songs are often involved in style, but always possess unity and directness of effect. Their beauty shows that the discords in the composer’s orchestral works are intentional, and not due to lack of melodic invention. Yet it would seem as if his great mastery of instrumental coloring could have been employed as effectively in scoring beautiful themes, instead of the commonplace passages so often found in his larger works.

Hausegger.—Siegmund von Hausegger (Graz, Austria, 1872) is another master of the modern orchestra. His father was a musician of broad experience and sound learning, so that it is not strange that his son’s gifts developed quickly. After his regular studies at the gymnasium and the university, Siegmund took up music in earnest, under his father and Legener. His youthful works were now augmented by a piano quartet, a fantasia, the orchestral ballad “Odinsmeeresritt,” the one-act drama “Helfried,” and the opera “Zinnober,” based on a tale of Hofmann. These were followed by a number of songs and choruses, but Hausegger’s real greatness was first revealed by the “Dyonisiac Fantasie,” a symphonic poem for full orchestra. This was followed by a still greater work, “Barbarossa,” while in 1904, at the Frankfort festival, came “Wieland der Schmied.” “Barbarossa” is in three movements. The first shows the happiness of the people gradually fading into sorrow and pain, until the Barbarossa theme at last is heard; for tradition says that the great emperor is not dead, but sleeps in the mountain Kyffhauser, waiting to arise when the need of his people is too great to be borne. The second movement is a weird, ghostly picture of the enchanted mountain and the sleeping emperor; while the last depicts his awakening, his coming forth at the head of his knights, their victory, and the rejoicing of the people. Wieland is the wonderful smith whose swords cut off a head so cleanly that it remains in place. The first movement shows his vision of the beautiful maid Schwanhilde, appearing from celestial regions ; but when he would claim her, she re-treats, terrified. A second part shows his sorrow and despair. In the third movement hope again triumphs, and he forges for himself a pair of wings. In the last movement the united lovers leave the dull world behind, and take their flight to regions of eternal sunlight.

Other Orchestral Composers. — Gustav Mahler (Kalisht, Bohemia, 1860) gained his musical experience as a director in some of the lesser theatres, and is largely self-taught. Besides two operas and a number of beautiful songs, he has composed five symphonies. He has tried to enlarge the symphonic form without departing from it. His symphonies all aim to express some definite thought, such as pessimism finding its cure in simple faith. love of nature leading to a high idea of Pantheism, or doubt clearing in the joys of immortality. The movements are arranged in contrasting groups, and voices are introduced, at first solo, and then often in a final chorus of triumph. Mahler’s works are planned on a grand scale, but his music is often unclear and restless in effect. Paul Felix Weingartner (Zara, Dalmatia, 1863) is another musician who served his apprentice-ship in the smaller theatres, and became one of the world’s great conductors. He is known by his two symphonic poems, “King Lear” and “The Elysian Fields,” as well as by two symphonies in strict form, and by several chamber works. His opera “Genesius” and his classical trilogy “Orestes” are other successful works. Jean Louis Nicodé (Jerczik, Posen, 1853) is somewhat older than the modern tone-poets, and if less important is still noteworthy as an exponent of the program tendency. His two greatest works are the “Symphonic Variations,” Op. 27, and “Das Meer,” for male chorus, soloists, orchestra, and organ. T ze latter is not a cantata, but rather a great suite, in whi :h vocal movements are balanced against orchestral numbers. Among younger men, Hugo Kaun is familiar to Americans because of his long sojourn in Milwaukee. His symphonic poems based on Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” show much fluency and taste. Switzerland now has its set of young composers, with Hans Huber as their leader in the orchestral field.

The Present Situation. — The rich harmonies and free modulations of Wagner, combined with the setting aside of symphonic form by Liszt, have caused the more recent composers of Germany to give up almost wholly the writing of symphonies. The free style of tone-picturing has been widely adopted, in consequence of the example of Strauss. He has gone so far that some of his works seem merely colossal experiments in this direction, and it is not improbable that a revulsion from such extreme musica: impressionism will take place some time in the future.


Baker.—Biographical Dictionary of Musicians.

Elson.—Modern Composers of Europe.

Hale, Philip, Editor.—Famous Composers and Their Works, new series.

Huneker, James.—Mezzotints in Modern Music.

Weingartner, Paul Felix.—The Symphony Since Beethoven.