Franz Liszt


S. 99 • “Symphonic Poem No.5”

About this work

Franz Liszt was the inventor of the symphonic poem (also known as the tone poem), a form in which a literary or other nonmusical source provides a narrative foundation for a single-movement orchestral work. Liszt's symphonic poems, however, were not exclusively dependent on their source material: the composer's goal was more to distill the essence of the poetic concept in music rather than to exactly recreate it. Prometheus (1850) is the fifth of the twelve symphonic poems Liszt wrote during his tenure as Grand Ducal Director of Music Extraordinary at Weimar. All twelve works are dedicated to Princess Carolyne Sayn-Wittgenstein.

In 1850, Liszt composed an overture to Herder's play Prometheus Unbound, which was performed at the ceremonial unveiling of a statue of Herder in Weimar. In 1855, after much revision and rescoring (including orchestrational contributions from composer Joachim Raff), Liszt conducted the premiere performance of an entirely retooled work, the symphonic poem Prometheus.

Liszt's inspiration for this short work was, naturally, the myth of Prometheus, a narrative that includes among its themes the endurance of pain and suffering for the sake of mankind's enlightenment. Liszt explores heroic themes that represent Prometheus and enlightenment, as well as tumultuous "feminine" themes, in a central fugal development. Though Liszt invests the work's stormier passages with excitement and great character, Prometheus is generally not regarded as one of the composer's better symphonic poems.