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Five Symphonic Storytellers You Need To Be Listening To

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Richard Strauss in the 1940s

This week, Carnegie Hall’s Debs Composer Chair David Lang is overseeing a series of concerts called Collected Stories. Over several evenings, he and his invited guests will explore subjects mined in music, including, love loss, travel, spirit and memoir.

This type of composition with such a clear plotline, often called program music, was rather controversial at the height of the Romantic period, as aesthetes debated whether music and art should be created purely for its own sake. The war has since cooled. While Lang is championing mostly contemporary composers in his series, we’ve looked father back in time for our five favorite symphonic storytellers:

1. Richard Strauss's Musical Autobiographies

Richard Strauss, the master of the tone poem, once boasted that he could describe a silver spoon with his music. He wove tales based on stories about Don Juan’s love conquests and Don Quixote tilting at windmills. He often looked to his own life for inspiration giving an aggrandized version of his musical triumphs in Ein Heidenleben (A Hero’s Life) to a happy vision of home life in Symphonia Domestica. As the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth is this year, these works will be performed frequently around the world.


2. Franz Liszt: Tone Poem Master

Composers such as Mendelssohn, Schubert, Frank and Beethoven attached literary and mythological references to their works, but it wasn’t until Franz Liszt invented the device of the tone poem that program music found a rubric in which it flourished. Liszt’s first such symphonic work written in this form was Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne, based on a Victor Hugo poem of the same name. He followed it with tone poems based on works by Lord Byron, Greek myth, national Hungarian identity, Shakespeare and Schiller. The Faust and Dante symphonies were both composed in a similar vein, as the music provides a literal translation of Goethe and The Divine Comedy.


3. Hector Berlioz's Tales of Love

Liszt's contemporary and good friend, Hector Berlioz, an accomplished composer and writer, could construct a narrative in both words and music. His musical masterpiece, Symphonie fantastique, benefits from his talent as a dramatist, telling the romanticized story of his unrequited love, at the time, for English actress Harriet Smithson. Major works that followed—overtures to King Lear and Rob Roy, as well as the symphonies Harold en Italie and Roméo et Juliette—can be considered precursors to the tone poem.


4. Sergei Prokofiev Sets Russian Epics to Music

Having written the one of the best known and most beloved musical fairytales, Peter and the Wolf, Sergei Prokofiev composed music that has reached multitudes of children through its meticulous and gripping accounts. The composer also set to music works by Mother Goose (The Ugly Duckling), Shakespeare, and Pushkin, among others. It's no wonder that Sergei Eisenstein tapped Prokofiev to compose a gripping score to his epic film, Alexander Nevsky. Unfortunately, Prokofiev's embrace of program music may have been a reaction to accusations that his works promoted anti-Soviet formalism.

5. Jean Sibelius Taps Finnish Lore

Drawing upon nationalistic trends sweeping Europe at the end of the 19th century, Jean Sibelius found source material in Finland’s great epic, the Kalevala. Several of the poem’s 50-parts inspired the eminent Finn’s works, including the Karelia suite, the Kullervo Symphony, Pohjola’s Daughter and three of the four sections of his Lemminkäinen suite—the fourth was the Swan of Tuonela, which drew inspiration from similar Finnish lore. As he grew older, Sibelius attempted to infuse the sounds of nature into his music, best seen in his late tone poem Tapiola, which imagines ominous forests full of ghoulish creatures and spirit in Pohjola in northern Finland.