Les Préludes

Les Préludes is one the most frequently performed of Liszt’s symphonic poems. We can trace the genesis of this work back to 1844. At first hearing, its title is distinctly odd: it bears no resembles to the preludes of Bach or Chopin. The explanation can be found in the work of the poet Alphone de Lamartine (1790-1869.) Liszt defined the programme of Les Préludes by referring to the following Lamartine lines: „What else is our life except a series of preludes to an unknown song, the first note of which is extinguished by death?” We now know however, that Liszt only appended this explanation at the very last moment, once the composition was complete, creating the misleading impression that it was the Larmartine text that inspired it. We know of a number of earlier versions for the frontispiece to the score, but the final printed version used words by Hans von Bülow. In 1854, the symphonic poem was premiered in Weimar, conducted by Franz Liszt himself, and although it was loosely linked to Lamartine’s meditative writing (in the sense that there are pastoral and military sections), this loose relationship was enough to fundamentally influence the interpretation of Liszt’s symphonic poem for many decades. Although the origin of the work offers a quite different interpretation, we should not lose sight of the fact that Liszt himself chose the Lamartine poem as the centre of interpretation.

The music of Les Préludes was originally inspired by the poems of Joseph Autran (1813-1877). Liszt first became acquainted with Autran in 1844 in Marseille. Autran enthusiastically praised Liszt’s work in the local newspaper and broke into verse for the occasion. The verse – Les Aquilons (the North Wind) – won Liszt’s approval and he composed a choral work to the text which was an expansive hymn to freedom. A year later, during a Spanish tour, Liszt set a further three Autran verses to music: Les Flots (The Waves), Les Astres (The Stars), La Terre (The Eearth). Liszt intended to create a choral cycle from these works which he called Les Quatre Éléments (The Four Elements.) A choruses were prefaced with an orchestral introduction (Prelúdium) which first Conradi orchestrated. Around 1850. Raff was asked to rework it and then Liszt himself altered the entire orchestration between 1852 and 1854. It was only in this final phase of creative work that Liszt came up with the work’s title and the allusion to Lamartine. The musical material however, continued to be mined from the Four Elements. The finished one movement work can be subdivided into four sections, each one being interpretable as an independent movement. The first part (Andante – Andante maestoso) presents the work’s two themes (its musical thought.) The first theme is introduced by the brass instruments above an undulating string accompaniment. The lyrical second theme (dolce, espressivo ma tranquillo) is heard on viola and the horns.

Typical of Liszt, both themes derive from an embryonic three note motif. In the subsequent „movements”, this embryo develops, taking on further guises. The second section (Allegro ma non troppo) is stormy music. In the third episode (Allegretto pastorale) we hear two distant variations of the themes. In the dramatic climax of the movement, these themes are brought back in their original form. The finale (Allegro marziale animato) is a triumphant military fanfare in which the originally soft second melody is transformed into a tune with a harsh march character. This metamorphosis unmistakably illuminates the mutual roots of the two prevailing themes.


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