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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.

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