C10 | The symphonic poem and the story or musical tale

What is a symphonic poem?

  • A symphonic poem is quite a lengthy work for orchestra but it is NOT a symphony in the traditional sense.
  • A symphonic poem has only ONE movement, compared to four in the traditional symphony, but can include many sections merging into one another.
  • A composer may choose a poem, story or tale, historical character, a painting or a particular landscape as inspiration – anything really outside absolute music.
  • This genre of work became popular during the Romantic period. The composers who composed renowned symphonic poems were Liszt (Hungary), Smetana (Bohemia), Mussorgsky (Russia), Richard Strauss (Germany) and Saint-Saëns (France).
  • Because this type of work was based on an idea other than music, national interests such as traditions, landscapes and myths of their countries and nations were important to many composers.
  • In Germany, the term tondichtung (tone poem) was coined to describe this genre because many works were based on poems and poetry.


Search for works by composers that fall into this category. They can be one long piece or a series of shorter ones. Many have other names, such as the title itself, or they might be called concert overtures or fantasias. Create this kind of table:

Copmposer / Country Work
Mussorgsky (Russia) Pictures at an Exhibition (a collection of small sections or miniatures)
Rimsky-Korsakov (Russia) Scheherazade
(She was the storyteller in the Arabian Nights tales)
and so on ...

One composer described the Symphonic poem as a story for orchestra.

This type of work became popular during the Romantic period.


Exercise 1

Composition task

C10 Composition task