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. Mazeppa (1851) is the sixth 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.
The story upon which the work is based is that of Ivan Mazeppa, a Polish nobleman of the seventeenth century who was a page in the court of the King of Poland. Mazeppa became entangled in a love affair with the young wife of a count; when the count discovered this, he tied Mazeppa to the back of a wild horse and chased the horse into the desert. The horse eventually collapsed, and the half-dead Mazeppa was rescued by the Cossacks. He stayed with them and in due time fought with them against the Russian czar Peter the Great, eventually becoming the Cossack leader.
In his student days in Paris, Liszt became familiar with the works of Byron and Hugo, both of whom wrote poems on Mazeppa. The story contained many attractions for the young composer, including a spectrum of characteristically Romantic literary elements: human suffering, catastrophe, and triumph. Mazeppa is a much altered and richly orchestrated version of Liszt's same-titled "Transcendental" piano etude. Aside from purely orchestrational concerns, Liszt's changes to his pre-existing music served primarily to fit the work more closely to the narrative of the Mazeppa story. The music starts with the onomatopoetic sounds of the horse being whipped into flight. The well-known "Mazeppa theme" appears in the trombones and strings, continuing unabated in numerous variations until the fall of Mazeppa's horse, which is represented by a tutti chord punctuated by triplet timpani strokes. The concluding section, which concerns itself with Mazeppa's rescue, culminates in a heroic march on a theme the composer borrowed from his earlier Arbeiterchor for bass voice, male chorus, and piano (1848). The march theme combines victoriously with the "Mazeppa theme" for an exciting, if somewhat bombastic, finale.