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Prometheus, Symphonic Poem No. 5

Franz Liszt based this symphonic poem on Johann Gottfried Herder’s Prometheus Unbound, conceived as a sequel to Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.

Franz (Ferenc) Liszt was born in Raiding, Hungary, on October 22, 1811, and died in Bayreuth, Germany, on July 31, 1886. Prometheus originated in 1850 as an overture for eight choruses to accompany a theatrical work, Der entfesselte Prometheus (“Prometheus Unbound”), for a festival in Weimar, Germany, honoring its author, the enlightenment philosopher Johan Gottfried Herder (1744-1803); Joachim Raff apparently orchestrated the piece based on Liszt’s requirements. The overture and choruses were premiered during the festival on August 24, 1850, with Liszt conducting. He revised the whole piece in 1855 and rewrote the overture as a standalone work, designating it his Symphonic Poem No. 5. Liszt led the premiere of this definitive version in Brunswick on October 18, 1855. The score is dedicated to his longtime partner, Carolyn zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.

The score of Prometheus calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The piece is about 13 minutes long.

In 1847, Franz Liszt was tired of the life of a traveling virtuoso pianist. He was only in his mid-30s, but during the preceding decade, he had toured Europe constantly, creating through his charismatic performances what some critics called “Lisztomania.” For a long time, he had wanted to concentrate on composing but the constant travel left little time for that. On the advice of his partner, Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, Liszt finally decided to accept the position of Kapellmeister of Weimar, which he had been offered five years earlier, and quit the concert stage. He gave his last performance as a paid solo pianist in September 1847 and moved to Weimar to take over as head of its musical establishment. This move not only allowed him time to compose, but also afforded him unfettered access to a first-rate orchestra, something he took full advantage of. For the next decade or so, Liszt focused on writing orchestral music.

Liszt had longed to answer the question that plagued many composers of the mid-to-late 19th century: how does one write meaningful and original orchestral music after Beethoven? Embracing the programmatic elements of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony as well as the multi-functional form of the Ninth, Liszt’s answer to this question was a series of symphonic poems, single-movement programmatic works inspired by literature, myth, philosophy, or nature. These symphonic poems often focused on poetic and romantic characters, such as Faust, Orpheus, or Hamlet, and their heroic stories. Liszt is often credited with inventing this genre. During the years he lived in Weimar, Liszt wrote twelve symphonic poems, all of which were dedicated to Carolyn zu Sayn-Wittgenstein and published between 1856 and 1861.

Each symphonic poem has a title that gives the listener a lens through which to interpret and experience the music. While Liszt occasionally wrote a prologue explaining the inspiration for the work, he never attempted to convey an exact narrative in the music as, for example, Berlioz did in his Symphonie fantastique. Instead, Liszt described the role of the program as an “acknowledgment for the possibility of precise definition of the psychological moment which prompts the composer to create his work and the thought he gives to outward form.” It was the emotional journey of the characters that he was particularly keen on illuminating through music. This emotional content, along with its length, distinguishes the symphonic poem from similar one-movement works, such as the concert overture.

The symphonic poem Prometheus has an unusual genesis. In 1850, Liszt was commissioned to write a piece for a festival marking the 106th anniversary of the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder’s birth. The festivities culminated in a concert and the unveiling of the Herder Monument by Ludwig Staller, which still stands before the Stadtkirche in Weimar today. Liszt based his work on Herder’s version of the story of Prometheus, Der entfesselte Prometheus (Prometheus Unbound), conceived as a sequel to Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. In the original myth, Prometheus is punished by Zeus for all eternity because he shared fire and other gifts with mankind. He is bound to a rock, where an eagle tears out his liver each day in an ongoing cycle. Herder’s version, however, emphasizes not only the traditional mythic theme of the hero’s suffering, but also includes a section in which Prometheus is finally freed by the goddess of justice, thus rewarding the hero’s sacrifice and recognizing the benefit he provided to humanity. Incorporating Herder’s allegorical scenes, Liszt wrote eight chorus movements accompanied by orchestra. He then composed an orchestral overture reusing some of the choral melodies. Liszt struggled with the relatively static nature of Herder’s text, and although the piece was well received by the audience, he was never fully satisfied with the result. He never attempted to have it published.

In 1855, he returned to the piece, creating a concert work in which prologues written by music critic Richard Pohl introduce each chorus movement. In these prologues, Pohl not only emphasized Prometheus’ suffering, but also his defiance in the face of his own tragic circumstances, writing, for example: “Prometheus stole and gave to mankind a godlike ornament, the creative fire. He received the god’s hate and punishment. … Prometheus does not bend. His hatred for the gods remains.” Liszt likely saw himself in this version of the myth: an artistic hero igniting godlike creative fire even in the face of adversity and suffering.

After completing the concert work, Liszt expanded its overture into a larger and more dramatic symphonic poem. Drawing on the considerable experience in orchestration he had developed in Weimar, he added more instruments and experimented with the colors of the orchestra. In the final version of the piece, Liszt creates a multi-sectional form closely aligned with the traditional sonata form.

In the opening introduction, Liszt vividly evokes the brutal landscape in which Prometheus finds himself. Labeled Allegro energico et agitato assai, it is filled with bleak, forceful gestures that abruptly subside into silence. Tremolos in the strings make the opening even more arresting. In the Maestoso section Liszt conveys Prometheus’ suffering through the use of diminished seventh chords. At the end of the introduction, he marks the score “Recitativo,” thereby changing texture and affect abruptly, allowing the listener the space to contemplate the emotional content of the previous section.

After this recitative, Liszt launches into his first principal section of the work with a fiery allegro. Here, he displays not only Prometheus’ torment, but also the hero’s defiance. He labels this first principal section Allegro molto appassionato and reuses the forceful gestures from the opening in new and innovative ways. As in the introduction, he ends with an abrupt transition into a recitative as a bridge to a more expressive and lyrical part, marked dolce. Here again, Liszt borrows music from one of the original choral movements in which Prometheus has been freed from his eternal suffering; the music is appropriately soothing and lyrical. Through these two contrasting sections, representing frenzied suffering and soothing release, Liszt conveys Prometheus’ emotional journey. He continues this pattern for the rest of the piece. Each major section of the work, including a lengthy fugue, ends similarly with a contrasting recitative. Finally, Liszt reintroduces the agitated material of the opening to end the work.

The form, therefore, is cyclical, beginning and ending with the bleak landscape of the rocks on which Prometheus is bound, representing the nature of his daily torture. However, just as important, the music also evinces Prometheus’ indomitable spirit. Liszt wrote in the preface: “Suffering and transfiguration! This tragic reality of the ancient fable would seem to lend itself only to stormy outbursts of thunder and lightning. Yet profound suffering which triumphs by virtue of defiant endurance constitutes the innermost musical character of the work.” By choosing a cyclical design for the form of his piece, Liszt manages to convey both suffering and defiance.

In his quest to continue Beethoven’s legacy, Liszt invented a new genre and demonstrated its potential. The twelve pieces he composed in Weimar are proof of that success. In these works, Liszt managed to wed purely instrumental music, with its inherent inability to describe definitive content, with ideas and philosophies informing the human condition. Liszt captured the suffering, defiance, and triumph of the creative artist and in so doing, one might argue, he also conjured the spirit of Beethoven.

Elizabeth Seitz

Elizabeth Seitz is a faculty member at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, a frequent guest speaker for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Lyric Opera, and a musicologist whose interests range from Mozart, Schubert, and Mahler to Falla and Tito Puente.

The American premiere of Liszt’s Prometheus was probably the New York Symphony’s performance of April 3, 1869, led by Theodore Thomas.

The first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of Liszt’s Prometheus were led by Karl Muck at Symphony Hall, October 12-13, 1917, and over the following month out of town in Providence, Philadelphia, New York’s Carnegie Hall, and Brooklyn’s Academy of Music.