The German Tondichtung has several names in English. There’s the literal translation of ‘tone-poem’; there’s the slightly more musical ‘symphonic poem’ and finally there’s ‘programme music’.

It’s music that tells a story; and, while composers have from time immemorial been attracted to ventures into the mundane by imitating the sounds of the natural world (birds, for obvious reasons, in particular – there are hordes of nightingales and cuckoos, one or two doves, the occasional quail and even a chicken), it wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that storytelling in the shape of the Tondichtung really got going.

It’s Liszt’s fault; he tried, initially – with, understandably, some difficulty – to marry symphonic first movement form (i.e. the sonata) to narrative poems by the likes of Lamartine, Hugo and Byron. Despite the difficulties of expressing concrete ideas in the abstraction of music (and because (I suspect) many composers, living in the gigantic shadow of Beethoven, were looking for an alternative to the symphony), this new genre took off, and very soon there were scores based on, for example, Dante (Francesca da Rimini), the Kalevala (lots of Sibelius) and Shakespeare (Richard III, Othello, Hamlet, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear…) and that’s just the tip of the tone-poem iceberg!

This is Liszt’s first essay in the genre, Ce Qu’on Entend Sur La Montagne based on a poem by Victor Hugo (plus a free Caspar David Friedrich).


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