Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Liszt - Hunnenschlacht (Battle Of The Huns)

In 1847 Liszt gave up his life as a traveling piano virtuoso and devoted himself to musical composition. He had been made honorary music director at the court of Wiemar in 1842, and after his retirement he moved there.  He composed all but one of his symphonic poems in Wiemar from 1848-1858.

As music director, Liszt was also conductor of the court orchestra. He helped to expose the music of Berlioz, Wagner, and many other composers to a wider audience during his years in Wiemar.  He also played many of his own orchestral works there. Liszt came to orchestral composition relatively late in his life and having an orchestra at his disposal aided him greatly in fine-tuning his compositions. He admitted that he needed to hear his works before he could finalize them.

His symphonic poems are based on the orchestral overture, which in turn was a development of the operatic overture. While operatic overtures were usually a panache of tunes from the opera about to be heard, the symphonic overture was similar to symphonic movements, and were written in sonata form.  Liszt used a different form and was a pioneer of cyclic form where musical motifs are played, varied and repeated. These motifs don't always follow a pattern of repetition. They can enter and leave in no set fashion and can be varied in many ways throughout the composition. Some of the symphonic poems show the seams and sound episodic, some meld into a seamless 'poem', but it is well to remember that these compositions were experiments in sound and form. As such, they inspired many other composers such as Wagner, who used the idea to create his leitmotifs in his operas.

Hunnenschlacht by Wilhelm von Kaulbach
Some of the symphonic poems were inspired by works of art.  Hunnenschlacht was inspired by a painting of the same title by Wilhelm von Kaulbach. The painting depicts the battle of the Catalaunian Fields in 451 AD where Attila The Hun led his army in an invasion of Gaul against a coalition of Roman and Visigoth generals and their soldiers. Contemporary descriptions of the battle contributed to the legend of the ferocity of the battle.  The 6th century philosopher Damascius heard that the fighting was so severe "that no one survived except only the leaders on either side and a few followers: but the ghosts of those who fell continued the struggle for three whole days and nights as violently as if they had been alive; the clash of their arms was clearly audible" It was this description of the battle that is depicted in the painting by Kaulbach.

Liszt opens the piece with the beginning of the battle, with Liszt giving the directions: "the entire tone color
should be kept very dark, and all instruments must sound like ghosts". To help achieve the effect he wanted, Liszt also directs the strings to play with mutes, even in the loud sections.  The battle lasts for roughly the first half of the work. The second half is begun with the solo organ playing Crux Fidelis, (Faithful Cross) an ancient church chant. This represents the victory of the Christian forces and slowly leads to a triumphant ending, with the solo organ having the last word.

The quoting of the ancient church hymn and the added organ (the oldest keyboard instrument known and a fixture in the Catholic church) is used by Liszt to avow his life-long faith in the Catholic church. The triumphant ending can also be looked at in the broader sense as a representation of love conquering hate.

The complex personality and genius of Liszt make him a paradox. From womanizer (by reputation or fact) to taking minor orders in the Catholic church, from brazen virtuoso to thoughtful musician, from indulging in the writing of what would be the equivalent of banal 'pop' music today to composing some of the best pieces of music by any composer. There is no denying that his was a great musical mind capable of exploring and experimenting in music. As his former fiance and lover Countess Sayn-Wittgenstein said of him, "'Liszt has thrown his spear further into the future than Wagner."  The influence of Liszt in music history is only now being known.