Symphonic poem (Ger. symphonische Dichtung; Fr. poème symphonique)
- Hugh Macdonald
An orchestral form in which a poem or programme provides a narrative or illustrative basis.
The form flourished in the second half of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th and was generally in one movement; ‘poematic symphony’ is a name sometimes given to the kindred form in more than one movement. Although some piano and chamber works are effectively symphonic poems, the form is almost exclusively orchestral. Though related to opera and sung music in its aesthetic outlook, it is distinct from them in its exclusion of a sung text. In many ways it represents the most sophisticated development of instrumental programme music in the history of music. Like a number of other ephemeral forms, such as the madrigal and the concerto grosso, it had a relatively short life, lasting from its origins in the late 1840s until its rapid decline in the 1920s: it enjoyed the extreme favour of fashion and suffered consequent severe eclipse. It is thus typical of its period in a way that opera and symphony, for example, cannot claim to be, and it satisfied three of the principal aspirations of the 19th century: to relate music to the world outside, to integrate multi-movement forms (often by welding them into a single movement) and to elevate instrumental programme music to a level higher than that of opera, the genre previously regarded as the highest mode of musical expression. By fulfilling such needs it played a major role in the advanced music of its time, and was a vehicle for some of the most important works of the period....