Among Franz Liszt’s symphonic poems, Hunnenschlacht (“The Battle of the Huns,” 1857) and Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (“From the Cradle to the Grave,” 1883) were inspired by the visual arts. With these works, Liszt attempted to translate painterly figurations into music; this intention is particularly embodied in his symphonic transformation of Wilhelm Kaulbach’s monumental fresco, Hunnenschlacht. Liszt was attracted by the idea of religious devotion and at the same time identified himself with the Huns. This paper considers the ways in which Liszt expressed the narrative plot and imitated the visual qualities of the Hunnenschlacht fresco by deploying innovative instrumental techniques and a progressive formal structure. This work illustrates Liszt’s interest in combining different art forms, and the prominent use of an apotheosis is an expression of the Beethovenian symphonic model. Liszt shared with early-nineteenth-century Romantics such as E. T. A. Hoffmann an interest in synaesthesia, associating colors with sounds. In Hunnenschlacht, he used the graphic illustration of the fresco as his primary source, yet he also attempted to convey the various tone colors associated with the figures. This interpretative process is explained in his preface to the score, in which Liszt describes the lights and colors associated with the Huns, the Romans, and the Cross. The peculiar treatment of instrumentation, including the use of wooden and sponge drum sticks, organ, unusual combinations of instruments, and an audacious treatment of dynamics, vibrantly depict the distinct colors or lights that envelop the principal figures in the painting.
The question how visual art absorbs music has been the subject of much investigation. The reverse question, namely how music absorbs visual art, has until now received little attention. Franz Liszt was perhaps the first to be inspired by visual art in his compositions. The starting point was his encounter with the art of Italy (Sposalizio and Il penseroso in book II of Années de pèlerinage), later followed symphonic poems (Hunnenschlacht based on Kaulbach and Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe probably based on Zichy); his Totentanz for piano and orchestra was inspired by Orcagna and Holbein. In Liszt it is a matter of the poetic content of music and the unification of the arts, where in principle music can be connected not just to literature, but to all branches of the arts. Linked with literature, it reflects the forms and structures of literature. The question is, therefore, whether all this is valid for visual art as well. Does Liszt just compose a ”story,“ or does he also take over the structures of art? And what influence did these works have on later composers?
’histoire. Paris 1916.
A precursor is W. Kaulbach’s fresco depicting the 453/454 battle of the Field of Katalaunum (Campus Catalaunicus), which also served as inspiration for F. Liszt in composing his orchestral piece “Hunnenschlacht