As much as Franz Liszt is one of the most prominent figures in classical music, his popularity is largely due to his skills as a pianist and to the extent to which he took the piano technique in his compositions.
And yet, like all geniuses, he had a fervent imagination who took him in different directions throughout his life.
One of his goals was to redefine symphonic music: in short, the creation of a programmatic piece that would incorporate a story, or a mood, and combine the form of the Ouverture and of the first movement of a classic symphony.
The result of this research is his 13 symphonic poems, a new symphonic genre in one movement, and tied to a specific subject, like Tasso, or Prometheus, or Orpheus.
Franz Liszt in 1858
The Dante Symphony, as well as the Faust Symphony, shares the same aesthetics. Even though they are in multiple movements the compositional approach and their aim is the same. By the way, the idea of telling a story in music, describing a situation, an emotion, or a character is a concept that was very dear to another composer, Richard Wagner.
Incidentally, Wagner and Liszt knew each other very well, having Wagner married Liszt’s daughter Cosima. If you travel to Bayreuth, Wagner’s temple, you’ll be able to visit both Liszt and Wagner’s houses, which are facing one another and have now been turned into museums.
The Dante Symphony
Despite the title, this work is not really a symphony, at least not in the classic sense of it.
Liszt had started sketching themes for this work since the early 1840s:
“I will undertake a composition based on Dante’s Comedy.”
In 1847 he played some fragments on the piano for the Polish princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, his lover; Liszt cultivated the idea of projecting scenes taken from the Dante’s Comedy and painted by Bonaventura Genelli during the concerts, as well as the use of a “wind machine” to recreate the whirlwinds of Hell at the end of the first movement. The princess was willing to bear the costs of this effective staging, but things eventually did not work out.
Liszt took up the work again in June 1855 and completed most of it by the end of the following year, roughly the same period of composition of the Faust-Symphonie.
In October 1857 Liszt played both the Faust Symphonie and the Dante Symphonie on the piano in Zurich, at Wagner’s home, who was very skeptical about the fortissimo at the end of the second work, which he considered unsuitable for the idea of Paradise. Liszt had to agree since his original intention was to conclude with the movement dedicated to Purgatory, but Princess Carolyne had persuaded him to add a hint to the glory of Heaven. On the autograph, however, Liszt rewrote the last bars but left to the performer the choice of whether to add the fortissimo ending at the end of the pianissimo.
The premiere of the symphonic poem at the Dresden Hoftheater, on November 7, 1857, shortly after the conclusion of the composition, was a disaster because of the absolutely inadequate rehearsals; Liszt, who had conducted the orchestra himself, was publicly humiliated. This did not prevent him from preparing better the next time, March 11, 1858 in Prague, with the distribution of a program that prepared the audience for the unusual form of this two-part composition.
The Dante-Symphonie is in fact a work that presents important innovations with respect to the performance practice of the time: just think of the fact that it begins in D minor and ends in B major.
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