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Unveiling the epic tale of Liszt’s “Die Hunnenschlacht”

Read about what makes Liszt's Die Hunnenschlacht so exciting and why we are so excited to perform it in July!

Article No. 4

Franz Liszt is a household name, with his influence ranging in anything from virtuosic 7 year olds in viral videos, to lacklustre themed gifts and to his intimate and soul-searching piano nocturnes. However, his orchestral works are much less well known. His orchestral works are something of a dark horse; his piano repertoire sustains immense popularity among classical and non-classical listeners alike, transcending boundaries of genre and demographics, which in turn leads to the unfortunate neglect of some truly epic orchestral works. Liszt’s tone poems in particular tell fantastic stories in mythological proportion, lending themselves to the freedom of our imagination with a myriad of different interpretations when it comes to performing.

Die Hunnenschlacht, as painted by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Die Hunnenschlacht (The Battle of the Huns) is originally the work of a little known artist Wilhelm Von Kaulbach in 1850. It vibrantly depicts the historical battle fought between the Huns and the Romans in 451 AD. While there is not much historical evidence that asserts the “finer details” of the battle, it has gone down in history as a pivotal moment in the preservation of Western civilisation from the threat of the Huns. Designed as part of a set of frescoes being commissioned for Berlin around the time it was produced, the scale of the artwork is impressive, and imparts the sheer enormity of the battle onto viewers.

Over his career Liszt wrote 13 tone poems using vivid imagery, lush instrumentation and ambitious harmonic progressions to bridge the gap between other areas of art and culture with music, including Die Hunnenschlacht which is one of these tone poems (no. 11). The piece is comprised of two main themes: the theme of the Huns and that of the Romans. The Hun’s theme is characterised by a jarring melodic and rhythmic motive, which begins in the bass line and is carried out through the orchestra. This is accompanied by aggressive interjections in the brass later on. A defining feature of the Roman’s theme is closely linked to the idea of spirituality at the time, particularly Christianity, through Liszt’s use of a church organ. The organ is an incredibly important instrument within this context, ranging from contemplative and hymn like to powerful and moving. The use of the organ is significant as it points to the universal association with faith and the uprising of Christianity against the Huns in the context of the battle, as well as informing the way the orchestral parts have been written. Compared to the edgy and aggressive theme used for the Huns, the theme of the Romans is imbued with a far greater sense of space and arrival, signaling the eventual victory of the Romans.

In choosing our program for Canvas, Die Hunnenschlacht was an obvious choice for us as we were instantly captivated by its obscurity and its enormous scale. A piece such as this presents endless possibilities for creative expression, playing around with texture and colour, and just having fun!

You can see this monumental work being performed live at Canvas! Book tickets here

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