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|
Liszt opens the piece with the beginning of the battle, with Liszt giving the directions: "the entire tone color
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.