Mazeppa, S. 100

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            Liszt was in the forefront of composers who were committed to striking out in completely new directions during the nineteenth century, and who largely abandoned traditional forms, such as the symphony.  Liszt’s solution was his origination of what he called a “symphonic poem,” a single-movement composition of symphonic proportions, which focused on the exploration of a single idea, poetic content, or even a narrative depiction.  More or less the antithesis of a symphony—as in Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms—the symphonic poem takes as its subject matter, not abstract musical themes, but something in the real world and develops a depiction of it, and perhaps a narrative.  It is the darling of those who prefer music to be “about” something, and went on to become an important part of romantic musical style in the orchestra.  Some choice subjects of Liszt’s symphony poems included:  a painting, a Shakespeare play, a philosophical idea, poems, or a Victor Hugo story--whatever stimulated his creativity.

            To engender formal integrity and more or less pull his new genre together, Liszt used a technique that takes a very simple little melodic fragment or motive, and employs it as the single source for the whole piece.   The motive is usually a sharply chiseled, distinctive affair that, on the one hand is capable of being “transformed” into a remarkable variety of unique figures and melodies, and yet, on the other, maintains its identity throughout these transformations.

            Mazeppa exemplifies all of this.  Based upon a bizarre story about a naked man tied to a horse, the inspiration for Liszt’s work is most likely unfamiliar to today’s audiences—except for literary critics and historians.  Nevertheless, this tale was a mainstay of nineteenth-century popular narratives—even Delacroix and Géricault executed important paintings of the subject, not mention an opera by Tchaikovsky.  It’s the story of a seventeenth-century Lithuanian warrior who had the poor judgment to engage in a dalliance at court with the young wife of an older nobleman.  Found out, he was sentenced by the King of Poland to be tied naked to a wild horse to careen about the barren steppes, apparently for some time, undergoing countless pain.  Ultimately, he was redeemed and awoke in kindly hands, ending up as a leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks.

            Lord Byron wrote a narrative poem on the tale, and later Victor Hugo set it as a ballad.  It subsequently travelled to America, and it hard to believe today that no other theatrical dramatization was more popular in the towns of the Old West.  A popular young actress in a nude body suit presented a scandalous show in New York City, and the story even surfaced in a blackface minstrel show.  It simply was all the rage in this country after the Civil War.  But now, this quintessential romantic legend languishes in the dustbin of literature.

            But, it was right up Franz Liszt’s alley—drawn by its popularity, unique drama, and its elements of redemption and triumph at the end.  It began life as the fourth of his formidable Transcendental Études for piano solo, and was transformed into the sixth of his tone poems for orchestra in 1851.  It’s a veritable musical dynamo of terror, frenzy, and ultimate victory.  Cast in three basic sections—all unified by Liszt’s short, descending motive—the tone poem begins in a rhythmic fury, depicting the wild ride on the horse’s back, careening here and there with pounding hooves constantly driving the whole thing.  Interspersed, there are some more lyrical moments—but not many in this tense affair. After much horrific riding, his fall from the horse and apparent lapse into unconsciousness is announced by the timpani.  Calm ensues, and a meditative passage begun by unison low strings takes us through his redemption, ending with an awaking in the hands of the Cossacks.  They make him their leader, and trumpets announce the triumphal march that ends the tale and which heralds his ascension.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan