by Franz Liszt
Les Préludes (Symphonic Poem No. 3)
By Franz Liszt
Born October 22, 1811, in Raiding, Hungary (now Austria);
died July 31, 1886, in Bayreuth, Bavaria
To Franz Liszt must go the credit for almost single-handedly inventing the symphonic poem—a type of musical composition in which formal structure is eschewed in favor of a dramatic impetus derived from some sort of literary or pictorial inspiration. Although there were several works by other composers that were headed in this direction—Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and several of the concert overtures of Mendelssohn are ones that immediately come to mind—it remained for Liszt to refine the form to the point that subject virtually overrode structure. Liszt composed no less than thirteen works in this form. Taken as a whole, they are a curiously uneven lot, most of which are not remarkable in and of themselves but rather for what came after them. Were it not for Liszt’s pioneering efforts in the symphonic poem, the more successful endeavors in this genre by Smetana, Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, and Sibelius, among others, may not have come about.
Composed in 1848, Les Préludes is probably the most popular and unquestionably one of the finest of Liszt’s thirteen symphonic poems. Unfortunately, it is not especially representative of this particular musical form because it is a classic example of the cart preceding the horse. The piece began life as the overture to a four-movement choral work based upon the French poet Joseph Autran’s Les quattre élémens (The Four Elements) that Liszt had abandoned in mid-stream when his interest in the project waned. Rather than let a perfectly good overture go to waste, Liszt next decided to find some literary work that could serve as a parallel or corollary for the music. He eventually discovered that one of the Méditations poétiques by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), France’s first Romantic poet, fit quite nicely. The first performance of the work as a symphonic poem after Lamartine took place on February 28, 1854, under Liszt’s direction, at the Grand Ducal Theater in Weimar.
Les Préludes consists of four broad sections, each corresponding to one of the four elements of Autran’s text and, conveniently, to one of the divisions of Lamartine’s poem. The first section suggests “moods of spring and love;” the second, “the storms of life;” the third, “a peaceful idyll;” and the fourth, “a militant celebration of victory over strife.” Using his much-favored concept of thematic development, Liszt uses two recurrent melodic ideas, each with a different expressive character and both of which appear in several different guises, to dominate the work and contribute to it a sense of cyclic unity.
Perhaps to tie things together even better, Liszt prefaced the published score of Les Préludes with these words of his own:
“What else is life but a series of preludes to that unknown hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death? Love is the enchanted dawn of all existence; but what fate is there whose first delights of happiness are not interrupted by some storm, whose fine illusions are not dissipated by some mortal blast, consuming its altar as though by a stroke of lightning? And what cruelly wounded soul, issuing from one of the tempests, does not endeavor to solace its memories in the calm serenity of rural life? Nevertheless, man does not resign himself long to the enjoyment of that beneficent warmth which he first enjoyed in Nature’s bosom, and when ‘the trumpet sounds the alarm’ he takes up his perilous post, no matter what struggle calls him to its ranks, that he may recover in combat the full consciousness of himself and the entire possession of his powers.”
© Kenneth C. Viant, Canton Symphony Orchestra