Whether tone poems are enjoyed in a concert hall or played in a simplified arrangement in school or at home, they offer young music students a rich variety of musical experiences.
A tone poem is a musical composition designed for a full orchestra. It is designed to evoke, through the choice of instrumentation, tempo, and arrangement, concrete images and storylines in the minds and hearts of listeners. The titles of many tone poems further help the listener in that they acknowledge a composition’s roots in a famous legend, poem, picture, place, or historical event.
A tone poem can conjure up visions of majestic mountains, forests, and waterways; knights on horseback gliding over desert sands; the appearance of magical beings, or the tender feelings between two lovers. And a favorite tone poem can make audiences feel transported, mentally and emotionally, to long-past heroic ages, or into the pages of beloved works of literature.
Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is often credited with inventing the form of the tone poem, also known as the symphonic poem, in the mid-19th century. In this era of romanticism, revolution, and rising national consciousness, the form flourished.
By the early 20th century, composers such as Igor Stravinsky were still writing richly orchestrated tone poems. However, the form began to shift toward using this type of colorful music as a background for dance performances, rather than as single-unit orchestral pieces.
Here are brief summaries of what makes only a few of the best-known tone poems memorable:
1. The Moldau
Czech composer Bedřich Smetana completed “The Moldau” after only 19 days of work in 1874. Since then, its central melody has become an iconic national symbol. The piece is one part of a six-section suite titled My Country, in which the deeply patriotic composer depicted the natural beauty and the rich cycle of history and myth of his native land.
“Moldau” is the German name for the Vltava River, which flows from high forested mountains through the country lowlands and straight through the center of Prague. Smetana’s piece is by turns mystical, forceful, lively, and majestic, as it conjures up, first, the river’s quiet patter, then its sweep through a folksong-filled plain, to its destination near the capital, the royal seat of the Bohemian kings.
Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov debuted his orchestral suite Scheherazade in 1888, offering audiences a collection of musical trips to the stories of the Arabian Nights.
The deep, bold opening notes paint a powerful picture of Sultan Shahryar, and the sinuous lilt of the violin portrays his wife, the storyteller Scheherazade, with the later musical themes unfolding the stories she tells like the unrolling of a magic carpet.
The four movements of the suite tell the story of Sinbad and his ship on the ocean; the “Tale of the Kalendar Prince,” bringing out the full capacity of the woodwinds to evoke an air of mystery; the tender and richly soulful romance of the story of a young prince and princess; and a finale that brings in themes from each of the previous sections, culminating in vivid images of a festival and the destruction of a ship on a wild, tempestuous sea.
In 1899, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius composed and premiered his now world-famous tone poem “Finlandia” as part of a larger suite. Like Smetana, Sibelius was a patriot who used his music to challenge the rule of an empire over his small country. “Finlandia” was, in fact, originally written to be performed at an event protesting the Russian tsar’s censorship of the Finnish press.
The work begins with the boom of timpani and brass to establish a somber and foreboding setting. As woodwinds and strings enter the musical conversation, they help to weave the type of stately atmosphere found in a king’s great hall. After a burst of forceful sound bringing in the sense of the whirlwind of struggle animating the Finnish people, the mood lifts. The piece concludes on drawn-out notes evoking a deep sense of serenity and majesty, as if listeners were looking down on sweeping vistas of dark-green Finnish forests.
Soon after its composition, the central theme of “Finlandia” became popular worldwide, with many American communities using the melody for songs honoring cities, schools, and other organizations.
Walt Disney’s 1940 full-length orchestral cartoon movie masterpiece Fantasia is a contemporary tone poem in itself. The film incorporates Disney’s retellings and re-imaginings of the stories behind several of the best-known symphonic works, including French composer Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. In Disney’s version, Mickey Mouse is the hapless student of magic pursued by a pack of enchanted brooms.
Dukas’ original soundtrack debuted in 1897. He based it on a folkloric tale by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the towering figures in the European literature of the Enlightenment. Dukas’ composition closely follows the sequence and spirit of Goethe’s piece by offering an opening that paints a picture of quiet, but magic-filled domesticity in the sorcerer’s workshop.
But then the apprentice enters, represented by a leitmotif uniting oboe, flute, clarinet, and harp. A burst of timpani perhaps signals a stroke of enchantment. Then, through the composer’s use of a triple-time march, the sorcerer’s army of brooms comes lumbering, and then sprinting, to vivid life, carrying one bucket of water after another.
Dukas masterfully uses strings to conjure up the flooding cascade of water that ensues before the sorcerer, accompanied by the gloomy moans of the bassoon, returns to chase away all the mischief.