Literature stands in intimate relationship with each of the arts, but its closest relationship is with music. The purest form of this relationship involves a composer’s timeless desire to take a poem, wrestle with it, and turn it into a song.
Yet what about the novel? Can a complex narrative be transformed into music? The answer, happily, is an enthusiastic “Yes!” Consider the spectacular legacy of operas based on novels that graces our Western canon. This legacy attests to a methodical process that allows scriptwriters (librettists) to recast the content of novels into blocks of poetic and prosaic texts suitable for singing. The world’s theaters are filled with masterful operatic renditions of novels as complex and diverse as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Voltaire’s Candide, or Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Still, what happens if the words drop away—if sets, costumes, and action disappear? Can a novel be expressed solely through instrumental sound as a viable narrative? This question fascinated a group of European composers in the mid-nineteenth century. Their decision to take up the challenge brought forth a new genre of instrumental music called the “symphonic poem” or, more popularly, the “tone poem.”
Today, audiences find it hard to imagine that launching this type of music could unleash a controversy, but it did. Indeed, the novel itself had initially evoked controversies. Evolving from a stilted epistolary form into a continuous narrative, the novel was originally viewed as an inferior genre when compared to classical poetry and drama.
By the nineteenth century, though, the gravitas of the novel was well established. At that same moment, the tone poem was raising a different concern. Did classical forms (as used by Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven) still have viability? Should these structures be abandoned for freer forms, whose effect relied on layers of thematic interconnections, instrumental color, and a bold play on the audience’s emotions?
The debate escalated and gained the name “The War of the Romantics.” Composers like Franz Liszt and the rising star Richard Strauss found themselves pitted against those advocating what textbooks would call “Absolute Music”—music utilizing the structural principles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as epitomized in the new symphonies of Johannes Brahms. This battle raged for nearly thirty years, particularly as promulgated by the brilliant critic and friend of Brahms, Eduard Hanslick, who minced no words in his famous assessment of Strauss’ first tone poem Don Juan (1888):
He who desires no more from an orchestral piece than that it transport him to dissolute ecstasy … may well find pleasure in this music….
Today’s audiences feel none of this conflict. They happily take the structured voyage through a Brahms symphony and then, after intermission, settle into the emotional roller coaster of a tone poem by Liszt or Strauss.
Of course, not every masterful novel can be paired with a tone poem (although there may be a matching opera). Still, studying nineteenth-century tone poems allows the possibility of experiencing plot, characterization, and atmosphere through the excitement of musical sound and its effect on the imagination.
As a fine example, consider Miguel Cervantes’ novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605/1615) which pairs wonderfully with Strauss’ tone poem Don Quixote (1897). Cervantes’ innovative novel with its unconventional heroes, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, overflows with scenes of charm, adventure, and tragedy that beg for musical expression. Because of the episodic nature of that novel, Strauss (who, in fact, loved classical structures) framed his tone poem using the flexible form of theme and variations, even subtitling the piece “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character.”
The introductory section parallels the novel’s opening: “Don Quixote Loses His Sanity After Reading Novels About Knights, and Decides to Become a Knight- Errant.” In the next section, “Don Quixote, Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance,” Strauss unveils the principal theme for Quixote, played by the solo cello. This noble melody soars in an upward flash that frequently characterizes Strauss’ style. In the next section, Strauss introduces the listener to Sancho Panza and his braying donkey, offering a more rugged theme played by the colorful sounds of tenor tuba, viola, and bass clarinet. Thereafter, ten intense variations paint the novel’s most beloved scenes:
Variation 1: “Adventure at the Windmills”
Variation 2: “The Victorious Struggle Against the Army of the Great Emperor Alifanfaron”
Variation 3: “Dialogue Between Knight and Squire”
Variation 4: “Unhappy Adventure with a Procession of Pilgrims”
Variation 5: “The Knight’s Vigil”
Variation 6: “The Meeting with Dulcinea”
Variation 7: “The Ride Through the Air”
Variation 8: “The Unhappy Voyage in the Enchanted Boat”
Variation 9: “Battle with the Magicians”
Variation 10: “Duel with the Knight of the Bright Moon”
In the Finale, “Coming to His Senses Again,” Quixote accepts his fate and gives himself up to a gentle death.
Excellent comparisons between the novel and the tone poem include the second variation, where Strauss portrays the bleating sheep that flee the advance of the delusional Quixote. Quite wonderful is the moment Quixote falls off his horse, rendered by a harp glissando. The Don’s first encounter with the common maid Aldonza (his idealized “Dulcinea”) gaily dances in an alternating 2 + 3 meter with the sound of tambourine and pizzicato strings. The sixth variation and the seventh are both short, and thus make excellent sections to present to younger students.
Thought-provoking and stunningly beautiful, the Finale expresses the last murmurs of Quixote’s passion. The solo cello flutters with hope, and then, dropping low in the register, falls powerless as the Don’s head lies motionless on the pillow. The full orchestra stands back in silence, evoking the words of the notary in Cervantes’ novel: “Never has a mind died so mildly, so peacefully, so Christianly.”
In all seven of his tone poems, Strauss made unprecedented demands on his orchestral players. Previously unexplored acoustical effects, pungent harmonies, unconventional doublings of instruments, melodic lines stretched to extreme registers, fast tremolos, intense pluckings and flutter-tonguing—these devices and many more stretched the abilities of players who were, unquestionably, some of Europe’s best. Yet today, these same devices are considered standard techniques in orchestral music.
Whether narrating exact detail or suggesting a philosophical atmosphere, tone poems abound in instrumental color, memorable themes, and dynamic motion, enhancing the power of literary expression for both listener and reader.