Liszt's original work was written for the celebration of the 100th birthday of the poet/philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. It consisted of an overture and eight choruses with orchestral accompaniment and used Herder's Prometheus Unbound, a work in 13 scenes. This work was written in 1850, a time when Liszt was yet able to orchestrate his works himself. With instructions on instrumentation from Liszt, it was left to Joachim Raff to complete the work, but the score was incomprehensible to many due to Liszt's use of dissonance, plus the choruses were not well integrated in the work. Liszt later orchestrated the work himself in 1855 and turned the overture into a tone poem and the choruses into a work for the concert stage.
Prometheus begins with harsh, dissonant chords from the orchestra that represent the harsh sentence given to Prometheus for his crimes. Sadness is contained within the ensuing music, a lament for the fallen Titan.
This almost key less introduction leads to the passionate first theme which represents Prometheus' struggle and suffering. The second theme arrives via the cellos and represents hope, in spite of Prometheus' suffering. Then a fugue begins that is strictly worked out and possibly represents a struggle against adversity. At the end of the fugue, the lament begins again and the two opening themes are heard again. After the recapitulation of the two opening themes there is a coda consisting of the fugue tune and the theme of hope that combine into an ending of triumph.
It is well to remember that Liszt's music was heralded as the 'new music' of its time and thus garnered its share of negativity, such as the review of Prometheus from a music periodical of 1860:
Liszt's artistic intentions seem to be disembodied and only infrequently do they condense melodic, rhythmic, and self-contained creations. Their main strength predominantly lies in orchestral color, while the melodic line is barely indicated, indeed, must often be guessed at. The manifold, rhapsodic nature of the form, the rhythmic freedom the composer has brought forth in many parts of this work, and the hasty modulatory change make understanding all the more difficult.
Many of Liszt's tone poems still meet with rather limited popularity. Some of them are quite experimental in nature considering the time they were written in, and Liszt can on occasion be rightfully accused with over-writing a composition. But he also stretched the limits of sonata form as with tone poems like Prometheus and wrote other compositions that may have seemed rhapsodic to detractors years ago, but are actually well-thought out and well structured compositions.