Liszt: Les Preludes

performed by the Radio Symphony Orchester Berlin under Ferenc Fricsay (but I also muchly enjoyed Antoni Wit’s reading with the Polish National Radio Symphony)

What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?… Nevertheless man hardly gives himself up for long to the enjoyment of the beneficent stillness which at first he has shared in Nature’s bosom, and when “the trumpet sounds the alarm”, he hastens, to the dangerous post, whatever the war may be, which calls him to its ranks, in order at last to recover in the combat full consciousness of himself and entire possession of his energy.[7]

This is the symphonic poem you’ve been looking for. Maybe.

(And there’s a link here to an article about this very piece from just last week on a blog that I enjoy reading. I’ll talk more about it below.)

Of Liszt’s output of thirteen symphonic poems, this third in the chronology is considered by most to be the most famous, or successful, or at least most often played (these days) of the whole bunch.

It, like the other two from this week, is also based on literature. The Wikipedia article on the piece (from which the above lengthy quote comes) says, “The full title of the piece, “Les préludes (d’après Lamartine)” refers to an Ode from Alphonse de Lamartine’s Nouvelles méditations poétiques of 1823.” But the work itself began earlier than that. In fact, in sharing my small score with a friend, he asked “That’s the title? Just ‘preludes’? To what?”

Well, it was originally to be the overture to a chorale cycle that Liszt had written a decade or so earlier called Le quatre élémens, and indeed much of its content is derived from that work. The quote at the top of this article was from a preface to an early version of the score, but it (and/or program notes) were considerably revised and shortened throughout the piece’s early history. With each revision, it seems Lamartine’s original words, Liszt’s original ‘source material’ were given less and less importance, even quoting Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (author of the above quote) as Lamartine. Ultimately, any association with the original work seemed almost entirely gone. Wikipedia also later says:

Liszt himself, in a letter to Eduard Liszt of March 26, 1857, gave another hint with regard to the title Les préludes. According to this, Les préludes represents the prelude to Liszt’s own path of composition.

So…. like we’ve already talked about, programs can be a hairy business, and while the music didn’t change (much, if at all) for these subsequent performances, the program notes or prefaces did considerably, logically leading one to question the significance of such verbal explanations or contexts of the work. It is as if the composer, the artist had created a thing, the existence and meaning of which he himself continues to ponder after its creation. Seems odd.

At least here we have some structure, sections, and themes that give this work a really tight construction. Wikipedia quotes Richard Taruskin’s Music in the Nineteenth Century with the below breakdown:

  • Question (Introduction and Andante maestoso) (bars 1–46)
  • Love (bars 47–108)
  • Storm (bars 109–181)
  • Bucolic calm (bars 182–344)
  • Battle and victory (bars 345–420) (including recapitulation of ‘Question’, bar 405 ff.)

That’s something I can get behind. In the same work, Taruskin mentions the likeness of the above sections to the movements of a symphony, just perhaps not in the same order, saying “The standard “there and back” construction that had controlled musical discourse since at least the time of the old dance suite continues to impress its general shape on the sequence of programatically derived events.”

Okay, whatever it means, wherever it came from, however it’s organized. What does it sound like?

Well, as dechareli mentioned, it’s a solidly romantic, exquisitely enjoyable piece, to me. It has its moments of “bucolic calm” and struggle, fanfare, roaring brass, horn calls, heavenly harp, all the sections representing the journey of life, “a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn.” It is an exciting, vibrant work of peace and storm and excitement expressing a universal idea, one of life.

However, thanks to the above article, I came to learn of its weaponization as a political icon, an anthem of evil. I spoke with the writer of the article (via email) and our musical experiences, approaches, backgrounds, are all extremely different, and this is a good example of how that affects how you listen. I never knew of the association the Nazis had with this work, but if I’d had those memories, that connection, it would surely change my feelings toward it, even though Liszt obviously knew as much about the connection as I did when he wrote it (that is, none). It is indeed a shame that such innocuous things can come to represent something so evil.

That aside, I think the work is an excellent representation of an extramusical yet universal idea that listeners can understand. In these three works by Liszt that we’ve looked at this week, his three earliest symphonic poems, it seems he did a lot of refining and polishing of this idea, of bringing programmes, extramusical ideas into the concert hall and representing them. The first two had some great music associated with them, but suffered from length (to say the least of the first) or perhaps a slightly complicated or unclear progression. Les Preludes, then, if for only this reason, is a clear, strong, straightforward example of how powerful the symphonic poem can be. It has structure, beauty, logic, contrast, and tells a wonderful story, one I’m pleased to hear time and again.

Next week, we’ll move on from Liszt to one of the other most famous of composers in the history of the symphonic poem, and will be jumping ahead a few decades. While I’d like for this chronological series to be more comprehensive, it obviously cannot be, so we’ll be jumping forward in time, but it is fortunately a time that has much to offer us. See you then.

 

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