About this work
Inspired by Hungarian Count Michael Zichy's neo-Gothic painting, this composition is the last of Liszt's symphonic poems. Like several works of the composer's final years, the writing here is elegantly spare yet emotionally poignant, with many daring harmonic innovations (e.g., Nuages gris also from 1881 with its impressionistic diminished 13th chords, the Bagatelle Without Tonality (1885) with its free-roaming modalities, the disturbing Sleepless, Question and Answer, Nocturne (1883), the angry Third Mephisto Waltz (1883) with chords in fourths, and the sweetly humorous portrait of an obese lady on a merry-go-round Carousel de Mme. Pelet-Narbonne (1881); many of the pieces were so advanced that Liszt's students hid them, wishing to keep evidence of his supposed senility from the public). Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, however, also embraces traditional tonality and modality in its wide expressive ranging.
Publishers Bote and G. Bock issued three versions of Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe in 1883 for solo piano, two pianos, and this full orchestral setting which was not premiered until 1927. The piano versions seemed to have vanished until after World War II an American army intelligence officer named Harry Cardello discovered a copy. It was then reprinted in Robert Lee's Ph.D. dissertation, and after Cardello's passing in 1972, the printed copy and many other obscure compositions from the Romantic period by Liszt and others were finally given to the Library of Congress in the mid-'80s. The original manuscript of the piano versions and the orchestration of the last two parts now reside in the Liszt-Museum in Weimar.
This work is presented in three movements representing three significant life periods. "The Cradle," a slightly more embellished version of Liszt's Wiegenlied scored for a small ensemble, opens with a simple minor third, gently played by muted violas (or with the "una corda" pedal in the piano versions). This musical interval is the first one sung by children throughout the world. The interval gradually develops into a smoothly rocking accompaniment to lovely muted violin melodies and flute arpeggios, a kind of soothing response to the baby's cry. The movement ends in an unresolved mood.
"The Struggle for Existence," scored for the full orchestra, opens with a struggling "agitato rapido" figure in the strings that is soon balanced against a confident "nobilmente cantando" (nobly singing) secondary theme in the brass and woodwinds. This movement also concludes in a hanging cadence: a diminished ninth chord(!) fully stated in the piano versions, and extended in an unusual manner in the orchestra version through a brass statement followed by a concluding timpani solo.
As its title promises, the third movement "To the Grave: The Cradle of the Future Life" is not entirely despairing but offers amused reflections (quotes from the first and second movements) and hope. It opens with a mysterious, "dolente" (sorrowful) whole-tone melody followed by advanced harmonies (e.g., augmented minor seventh), and concludes on angelic harmonies followed by a sweet unaccompanied melody in the cellos.