The Symphonic Poem (Tone Poem)

General Lifespan
1848-1950

Definition/History
The Symponic Poem, or Tone Poem is a piece of music in one movement (see symphony) played by an orchestra (see symphony).

It is different from a symphony.

Here is most of what you'll need to know:

  • It was probably started by Liszt around 1850.

  • It is made up based on a non-musical thing*.

  • It is called a poem. Why did they use the word "poem" when "poem" was already taken by the literary people? Beats me.
    It seems that the Greeks had a word "póema" which means "Thing made up. Fiction. To compose"** So the music people used poem to mean "something that was made up based on a thing"***

  • It is usually very easy to tell what a given tone poem is about - because in an insane act of clarity, composers usually named the tone poem after the thing it was written about. For example, "The Battle of the Huns" is about a painting. Hmmm. Bad example. Well, I'm sure the painting was of a Hun, or Hun-like battle. So, applying the assosiative property, the symphonic poem is about Huns.

  • It is programmatic. Programmatic music is music that has its roots in the real world. Program music is written to sound like something, or give the impression of something. Like, there may be a light flute passage to signify birds, or a drum interlude meant to sound like clockwork, or droning trombones to sound like B-17s. You can also get across concepts programmatically, like dying, throwing objects, or fighting.

    Most music is not program music. Most music is known as "absolute" music. Absolute music is sort of music for the sake of music - not correlating directly to anything tangible. What does absolute music have to do with a tone poem? Nothing. Absolute music is that a tone poem is not.


Composers of Symponic Poems
Liszt, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Wagner

Remember
The Symponic Poem, or Tone Poem is a piece of music in one movement played by an orchestra. It is programmatic, and usually is about a single thing.

* The use of the word "thing" may look broad, and unwieldy - but it most closely defines what these poems were about. They could be written on a nature scene, an event, a location, a story, a country, a feeling, a character, a poem, a piece of art... pretty much any "thing" that was not a musical theme.

** There I go with my word origins again. I find these endlessly fascinating.

*** It is phrases like this where you can really tell the music people from the literary people. Hamlet it is not (although Liszt did write a symphonic poem on "Hamlet").