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Tone Poems

In a literal case of art imitating life, symphonic music is freed from its traditional structures and takes a programmatic turn. Generally one movement, tone poems use music to evoke the essence of a poem, a painting or other non musical source. Bill invites us to sit with him as he describes and listens to this image evoking dramatic music.

Program 1

Opening the program is a play on orchestral music--without the use of instruments--illustrating that tone poems know no boundaries.  

Battle scenes dominate the beginning of the program, but the rough and majestic sharply transitions into light and airy as the harp emulates clockwork in Couperin's Tic-Toc-Choc.  

Bill also reveals his favorite Vivaldi "season" and the poem attached to it.


Janequin: Escoutez tous gentilz “La bataille de Marignan; La guerre”
King’s Singers
EMI 69837

Biber: Battaglia
Concentus Musicus Wien/Harnoncourt
DG Archiv 73262

Couperin: Tic-Toc-Choc
Hoffmann, hp.
Cappriccio 10165

Rameau: La Poule
Salánki, hps.
Panth 14074
Purchase Similar

Respighi: Gli Uccelli (excerpts)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
DG 437 533
10:57, 2:33

Telemann: Don Quixote Suite (excerpts)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Musicmasters 210

Vivaldi: Winter fr. The Four Seasons
English Concert/Pinnock; Standage, v.
Arch 400045

Program 2

Boccherini weaves a lyrical portrait of Madrid at night, which Bill describes as "raw, unedited tape," as if Boccherini had walked around the streets collecting sounds.  

Beethoven refines musical storytelling, painting both scenic and emotional portraits.  Berlioz chooses to express the mood behind a well-known Shakespeare play, while a teenage Mendelssohn "never got it more right" than when he wrote an overture on another Shakespearean classic.


Boccherini: Night Music of the Streets of Madrid

Moscow Concertino/Bushkov
Discover 920129
Purchase Similar

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6, Pastoral (excerpt)
Lon 421773

Beethoven: Egmont Overture, Op. 84
New York Phil/Masur
Teld 9031-77313

Berlioz: Le Roi Lear Overture, Op. 4
Dresden Staatskapelle/Davis
RCA 09026-68790
:30, 15:50

Mendelssohn: Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture in E major, Op. 21
Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Harnoncourt
Teld 74882

Program 3

Composers of the 19th century try to break from conservative constraints with their "music of the future."  Schumann thinly veils a Roman cathedral in his symphony and a rarely performed and dark Wagner overture capitalizes on an allegory.  Wagner's father-in-law, Liszt, is also the father of the tone poem, as he invented the term for his pieces, but Strauss wins the title of "the greatest master of tone poems."

Schumann: Symphony No. 3, Rhenish, IV
Phil 416126

Wagner: A Faust Overture
London Phil/Boult
EMI 63122
11:26, :22

Liszt: Hunnenschlacht
Berlin Phil/Mehta
Sony 66834

Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op. 28
Lon 440618

Liszt: Au lac de Wallenstadt fr. Années de pèlerinage
Watts, p.
EMI 64599

Program 4

The tone poem travels to the mountains of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia, in Smetana's "Má vlast," whose six pieces illustrate the history and landscapes of his native country.  

The consecutive pieces share a theme: tragic karma imposed on debauched characters.  Dvorák visits a funeral in "The Wild Dove" and Franck follows a sacrilegious hunter in "The Accursed Hunstman."


Smetana: Má vlast: No. 6, Blaník, T 121
Merc 434379

Dvorák: The Wild Dove, Op. 110
Royal Concertgebouw/Harnoncourt
Teldec 21278

Franck: The Accursed Huntsman
RCA 5750
1:52, 13:56

Program 5

Popularity of the tone poem continues into the 20th century.  Many choose to stay current with the exception of Satie's throwback to ancient Greece.

Holst's "Mars" coincides with the onset of World War I, and Ives focuses on a famous American park in his musical imagery.  Interesting to note is Arthur Fiedler's performance of Gershwin's famous tone poem, which incorporates antiquated French taxi horns.


Holst: Mars fr. The Planets
DG 429730
7:17, :18

Delius: A Song of Summer
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Groves
EMI 63171

Ives: Central Park in the Dark
St. Louis Symphony/Slatkin
RCA 61222

Gershwin: An American in Paris
Boston Pops/Fiedler
RCA 68792

Satie: Gymnopédie, No. 1
LSO/Previn; de Lancie, ob.
Boston 1045


The Exploring Music streaming website is supported by Mr. & Mrs. William Gardner Brown and the Richard P. and Susan Kiphart Family.  
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Steffen Demeter
This is simply one of the very best radio programmes in the medium!...The study of the people, the times, and the events that inform the music we otherwise enjoy and even, heaven forbid, take for granted, brings the entire world of the music and the composer to life.
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