What is a... Tone Poem?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is a... Tone Poem?
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A woman once rushed up to Rachmaninov after a performance of his famous C sharp minor Prelude. Did he not think that the music portrayed a man who, discovering that he’s been buried alive, struggles to escape from his coffin, reaches a frenzy of despair, then falls back in resignation to await his end?

Rachmaninov thought for a moment, then replied, ‘No’. 

Hearing that story the first time I laughed dutifully. But surely there have been times when many of us have felt a similar perplexity? That Prelude not only evokes powerful feelings, it does so in a sequence that cries out for more than abstract formal explanation.

The tone poem, or symphonic poem, is a work that wholeheartedly acknowledges that need. It has a title that suggests a storyline, or at least a mood-sequence, with perhaps a helpful literary or pictorial parallel: Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Liszt’s Tasso: Lament and Triumph and Rachmaninov’s own Isle of the Dead are classic examples.

The tone poem as a form is an invention of the Romantic era. And when musicological thinking set its face against Romanticism after WWII, the medium was pronounced historically obsolete and aesthetically dubious.

Literary programmes – even those supplied by the composer – were a distraction from ‘the music itself’, whatever that might mean.

Even for the likes of Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Sibelius, the programme supplied with the tone poem was really no more than a compromise – a realisation that philistine bourgeois audiences couldn’t be expected to approach a new work as ‘absolute music’.

Once the music was approached on its own terms, the need for programmes would wither away. 

But the idea of music depicting narratives and painting pictures goes back long before the Romantics – think of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. And for that most analytical of Greek philosophers, Aristotle, one of music’s valid functions was mimesis: ‘imitation’, even to the point of detailed storytelling.

Despite the best efforts of modernists in the 1960s and ’70s, the programmatic tone poem survives today in all but name. Take James MacMillan’s Confession of Isobel Gowdie: impressive without the background story, deeply stirring with it.

Yes, there is something uniquely exalted about appreciating a Bach fugue as pure sound-structure; but does that mean that the alternative is wrong?

This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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