Music Theory

What Is A Tone Poem? A Complete Guide

Written by Dan Farrant

Last updated

During the 18th and 19th Centuries debate intensified within the classical music world upon the question of whether music should be about something. Some critics and musicians felt that music should simply be appreciated as abstract sound, with no external reference points. Many composers, however, began to write pieces that had an extra-musical narrative. One example of this was the tone poem, or symphonic poem, as it is sometimes called. This is usually a single-movement orchestral piece, which intends to evoke the contents of a story, poem, painting, place or other extra-musical source. The title of a tone poem usually tells us exactly what is about, and the audience may be provided with a written program to provide further context or explanation.

In this article we’ll take a closer look at  exactly what constitutes a tone poem. We’ll also learn about the composers who pioneered the format and investigate its background and history. Whilst tone poems are generally associated with composers of the Romantic period, such as Franz Lizt, Richard Strauss and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the idea of music that has an external narrative is much older than the 19th Century, and there have also been more recent examples of the genre.

Background to Tone Poems

Until the Romantic Period, most instrumental music was not about anything.

For example, the titles of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G Major simply tells us what type of piece it is and the key signature, with no clue as to whether it might have been inspired by anything specific.

The same is true of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major, as well as countless other pieces from across the canon of Western classical music.

Music that has no extra-musical meaning is called absolute, or abstract music.

However, even before the Romantic period there were some notable examples of classical music that is about something.

For instance, Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons depicts the four seasons of the year.

Music that has an extra-musical meaning or narrative like this is called program music.

During the Romantic period of the 19th Century, the idea of program music became much more popular, with composers writing increasingly expressive music that often sought to evoke external imagery.

The symphony was the dominant type of orchestral music at start of the Romantic era, but there was a feeling that Ludwig van Beethoven had done all that there was to be done with the symphonic form, and that grand masterworks like his Symphony No. 9 could not be bettered.

Concert Overtures and Birth of the Tone Poem

As a contrast to the symphony, which typically has four movements and can be over an hour in length, composers began to experiment with a new, more compact orchestral form called the concert overture.

The overture was traditionally a standalone instrumental piece that set the scene as an introduction to a ballet, opera or oratorio.

In the early Romantic era, composers took this idea but removed the connection to a staged performance and placed the overture as a standalone piece in a concert setting, usually with a literary theme.

In 1826 Felix Mendelssohn wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, which is considered to be the first concert overture:

Felix Mendelssohn – ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Other notable concert overtures from around this time include Hector Berlioz’s Le corsaire and Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides.

In 1828 the composer Carl Loewe used the word Tondichtung, which means tone poem in German, for the first time.

It referred to his 1928 piece Mazeppa, which was based upon a poem by Lord Byron of the same name, but which was actually a solo piano piece.

Mazeppa‘ by Carl Loewe

Franz Liszt and the Invention of the Symphonic Poem

The key difference between a concert overture and a tone poem is that the former generally uses sonata form, while the latter is free form, which allows the composer to reflect the extra-musical source material (the story or poem or landscape that the piece is based upon) with more freedom.

Franz Liszt is generally considered the inventor of the symphonic poem as we know it.

He specifically wanted to build upon and go beyond the typical structure of the concert overture, famously saying that “New wine demands new bottles.”

Liszt wanted to combine the structural complexity of a symphony with the evocative programmatic content of the concert overture.

To achieve this he used cyclic form and thematic transformation, where themes are repeated and often radically transformed or presented in different ways.

Liszt wrote thirteen symphonic poems, including Hamlet, after the Shakespeare play, Prometheus, about the Greek myth, and Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, which is inspired by a Victor Hugo poem.

He provided written prefaces for nine of his symphonic poems, which allowed the audience to read about the inspiration for the music they were hearing.

However, it has been suggested that these were written long after the music, and that Liszt’s music is more vaguely evocative compared to some later composers, who wrote music that was more specifically and closely descriptive with regards to its extra-musical sources.

‘Prometheus’ by Franz Liszt

Other Composers of Tone Poems in the Romantic Period

A sense of national identity was something that generally arose in music and art during the Romantic period, and a number of composers began to write tone poems along these lines.

The Czech composer Bedřich Smetana wrote Má vlast, a patriotic series of six tone poems, with each one depicting places or legends from Bohemia, a region of what is now called the Czech Republic.

Vltava, for example, traces the course of a great river:

Bedřich Smetana – ‘Vltava

Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček and other Czech composers also wrote tone poems imbued with a sense of national pride.

Elsewhere, Russian composers took on a similar approach.

Modest Mussorgsky’s St. John’s Eve on Bald Mountain is described as a “musical picture,” while Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadka tells the story of a legendary hero from an East Slavic folk tale.

Tchaikovsky, another Russian, wrote programmatic works inspired by literature, although Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the most famous of these, is actually considered to be more of a concert overture than a tone poem as it makes use of sonata form.

Richard Strauss

The German composer Richard Strauss’s late Romantic/early modern work is where the tone poem peaked, according to many.

A virtuoso orchestrator, Strauss possessed an incredible ability to depict things through music, once famously boasting that he could describe a knife and fork via sound.

He wrote pieces on a range of subjects, going into stunning musical detail to describe his stimuli.

His Alpine Symphony describes the ascent of mountain, while Symphonia Domestica is about the composer’s day to day life.

He also wrote pieces based on the plays Don Juan, Macbeth and Don Quixote, in which we hear a herd of noisy sheep recreated by flutter-tonguing brass:

‘Don Quixote Op. 35’ by Richard Strauss

Tone Poems in the 20th Century

Jean Sibelius wrote a number of patriotic works in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, taking inspiration from the Kalevala, a book of epic poetry, folklore and mythology from his native Finland.

Tapiola (1926) is one such example:

Tapiola‘ by Jean Sibelius

The English composers Arnold Bax and Frederick Delius wrote tone poems during the early part of the 20th Century, while George Gershwin’s An American In Paris (1928) is an example of an American, jazz-influenced symphonic poem.

The format generally declined in popularity after the 1920s, but populist programmatic content was encouraged in the Soviet Union, even after tone poems had fallen out of fashion elsewhere.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote October in 1967, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution:

Dmitri Shostakovich – ‘October’

Ruth Gipps’s Knight in Armour, from 1942, is another example of a post-1920s tone poem:

Ruth Gipps – ‘Knight in Armour’

Summing Up Tone Poems

So, that concludes our look at tone poems.

We’ve learnt a little about the history of the program music versus absolute music, and about how the overture developed into the concert overture, which subsequently informed the rise of the symphonic poem.

We’ve covered pioneers like Liszt, Smetana and Strauss, whose tone poems are considered by many to be the pinnacle of the form, as well as more recent contributors to the genre.

It has been said that humans have an innate tendency to assign meaning to music, and that the tone poem recognises and embraces this need.

What do you think about this?

Why not listen to the pieces referenced in this article whilst imagining the extra-musical elements that inspired them – how does it affect your listening experience?

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.