1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Symphonic Poem

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SYMPHONIC POEM (Symphonische Dichtung, Tondichtung, Poeme symphonique, &c.). This term covers the experiments in a new style of instrumental music which first showed a coherent method in the twelve Symphonische Dichtungen of Liszt. The term at present implies a large orchestral composition which, whatever its length and changes of tempo, is not broken up into separate movements, and which, moreover, illustrates a definite poetic train of thought that can be expressed in literature, whether it is actually so expressed or not. Thus the form of the symphonic poem is the form dictated by its written programme or unwritten poetic idea; and so it is not every piece of “programme music” that can be called a symphonic poem. Beethoven's sonata Les Adieux, and his Pastoral Symphony, are, for instance, works in which the poetic idea does not interfere with the normal development of sonata style required by the musical nature of Beethoven's material.

Great disturbances in musical art have always been accompanied by constant appeals to external literary ideas; and there is nothing peculiarly modern in the present tendency to attack and defend the rising style of large indivisible schemes of instrumental music by unprofitable metaphysical discussions as to the claims of “absolute music” against “music embodying poetic ideas.” New art-forms are not born mature, and in their infancy their parent arts naturally invite other arts to stand godfather. If the rise of the sonata style was not accompanied by as much “programme music” as the new art of the present day (and as a matter of fact it was accompanied by a good deal), it at all events coincided with highly Wagnerian discussions of dramatic music on literary grounds. What is certain is, firstly, that no amount of theorizing can prevent a musician from developing his musical ideas; secondly, that musical ideas are just as likely to be inspired by literature and other arts as by any other kind of experience; and lastly, that, as musicians attain greater mastery in the handling of their ideas, their musical readiness soon outstrips their powers or inclination for literary analysis, at all events while they are working at the music. Hence the frequent ability of great composers to set inferior words to music which is not only great but evidently based upon those words. Hence the digust of great composers at even the cleverest unauthorized literary interpretations of their works. Hence, on the other hand, the absence of any general classical attitude of vigorous protest against the use of music to convey external ideas. Be this as it may, we believe the importance of the symphonic poem to lie not in its illustrative capacity, but in its evident tendency towards a new kind of instrumental art.

It is not mere convention and prejudice that has delayed the ripening of this art. Every classical art-form is made by the greatest artists to be a natural thing in every individual case, no matter how artificial the conditions of the form become in ordinary hands. In the highest classical art not even a thousand examples identical in form would really be examples of an art-form set up like a mould for the material to be shovelled into it. In each case, however much the artist may have been helped by custom, his material would have taken that shape by its own nature. A sufficient number of sufficiently similar cases of this kind may conveniently, though dangerously, be regarded as establishing an art-form; and most art-forms coincide to a striking degree with practical and local limitations, for in these a great artist can almost always find suggestions for the character of his material instead of mere hindrances to its development. Thus art-forms become the vehicle for perfectly natural works in the hands of great artists, even when in the abstract they are highly artificial and conventional. But there is probably no case of an important art-form (and still less of a whole style of art) remaining productive in so artificial a condition when the facts which made that condition natural are changed. The great works in such forms remain, and are thoroughly natural, for they express their environment so perfectly as to recall it. It makes singularly little difference to the value of a great work of art, in the long run, whether its vividness is in the light it throws on a remote and forgotten past, or on a living and actual present. When Alcinous welcomes Odysseus, on hearing that he is an honourable pirate and not one of those disreputable merchants, our pleasure at the realistic glimpse of Homeric social distinctions differs from the pleasure of the Homeric audience only in so far as our point of view is more romantic. But new art must, if it is to live, be produced, like the classics, on conditions which the artist himself understands; and it is improbable that these conditions (if they admit of healthy art at all) will be of a less common-sense character than those of older art.

In the absence of musical criteria for a future art, perhaps the analogy of drama may be useful here. The chorus of Greek tragedy can by no stretch of imagination be said to behave like a corresponding group of persons in real life. Yet the Greek chorus becomes natural enough when we realize the necessary material circumstances of Greek drama; indeed in the best examples it becomes the only natural (or even, in a certain religious aspect, realistic) treatment of a natural set of materials. In the same way we are taught that Shakespeare's dramatic technique becomes perfectly natural when we realize his equally natural type of stage, which was so constructed and situated in regard to the audience that scenery would obstruct the view just as it would in a circus. But with the modern conception of a stage as a kind of magnified peep-show, with the audience looking into a painted box, realistic scenery is inevitable; and with realistic scenery comes speech so realistic that the use of verse and other classical resources is attended with dangers hitherto unknown. At the same time the condition of the modern stage obviously approximates far more closely to such an idea of the art of imitating human life by human speech and action, as would most naturally occur to a common-sense mind at any period. And it is probable that the final condition of an art will always tend to approximate to such an idea. In the same way it cannot be doubted that the sonata form, with its subtle balance between independence of form and interdependence of contrast, is far too artificial to be such a final form of instrumental music as would commend itself in the,abstract to ordinary common sense. And we may look forward to a time, perhaps by the middle of the century, when the new and single continuous forms now adumbrated by the symphonic poems shall be the greatest forms of instrumental music, and shall need no literary crutches to make them intelligible. The pioneers of these forms at the present day frequently and sometimes justifiably claim that their music is intelligible apart from its “programme,” but this is far from being so constantly the case that the symphonic poem can as yet be regarded as a mature kind of art. But when the mature art it foreshadows shall appear, then critics will need to face the fact that its genuine achievements will outwardly resemble the immature efforts which led to them, while the spiritual resemblance to classical music will lie too deep for the recognition of any but those who have the courage to make the new art their own. The symphonies of Mozart are in texture and phraseology far more like those of Philipp Emanuel Bach than they are like the great works of John Sebastian Bach; and if we try the experiment of reading one of John Sebastian's motets after a long course of Palestrina, we may realize that a lover of the Palestrina style living during the monodic revolution would really have had no means of telling the difference between Bach's art and the squalid sensational impressionism of Gesualdo, the prince of Venosa. Yet the impassable gulf is In all cases that between the great art and the crude efforts that foreshadow it, while the universal spirit of mature art remains the same whether the age or style be called “classical,” “romantic,” or “secessionist.”

See also Programme Music and Sonata Forms (ad fin.).