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Les Préludes, Symphonic Poem No. 3

Liszt’s Les Préludes was the third, and probably most familiar, of his “symphonic poems,” a genre that sought parallels with the Romantic literature of the age.

Franz (Ferenc) Liszt was born in Raiding, Hungary, on October 22, 1811, and died in Bayreuth, Germany, on July 31, 1886. His symphonic poem Les Préludes began in 1844 as an overture for a planned choral cantata based on poetry of Joseph Autran, but having abandoned that work, he recast the overture as an independent symphonic poem and associated it, after having completed most of the piece, with Alphonse Lamartine’s poem “Les préludes.” Liszt led the first performance at Weimar, Germany, on February 23, 1854.

The score of Les Préludes calls for 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 tenor and 1 bass trombone, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Les Préludes is about 16 minutes long.

In the late 1840s, the phenomenally gifted pianist Franz Liszt settled in Weimar and gave up the vagabond life of the international concert star to devote himself to composition and conducting. What he published as the third of his twelve symphonic poems was probably the earliest of orchestral origins, if one considers that the thematic material was derived from his cantata Les Quatre Élémens (The Four Elements), produced at Marseilles in 1844. The words of the choral work, the movements of which depict “The Earth, The North Winds, The Floods, and The Stars,” were not satisfactory to the composer, who looked to Victor Hugo to write him a new text. Hugo, whose Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne furnished him with the subject for his first symphonic poem, did not take up any suggestions that may have been put forward. In 1849, while making a fair copy of Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne, he also brought out his earlier score and drafted a purely symphonic version. However, he laid it aside again.

In 1854, wishing a new piece for a pension fund concert of the court orchestra at Weimar, Liszt turned once more to the incomplete symphonic poem, which perhaps at this time may have had its first association with the poem of his friend Alphonse Lamartine (1790-1869), the fifteenth number of the Méditations poétiques. It is probable that this symphonic poem underwent considerable remodeling when it acquired its final title and form. At the Weimar concert, Schumann’s Fourth Symphony (published the previous year) was performed, the same composer’s Concertstück for four horns, and Liszt’s choral An die Künstler (“To the Artist”), as well as Les Préludes. A large success for each of Liszt’s new works was reported.

That Les Préludes acquired its subject and title when the musical materials used were far from new can be scarcely disturbing when the nature of the poem, a philosophical reflection rather than an explicit program, is considered. The following paraphrase, here translated from the French, was furnished by Liszt in his score:

What is life but a series of preludes to that unknown song whose initial solemn note is tolled by Death? The enchanted dawn of every life is love; but where is the destiny on whose first delicious joys some storm does not break?—a storm whose deadly blast disperses youth’s illusions, whose fatal bolt consumes its altar. And what soul thus cruelly bruised, when the tempest rolls away, seeks not to rest its memories in the pleasant calm of rural life? Yet man allows himself not long to taste the kindly quiet which first attracted him to Nature’s lap; but when the trumpet gives the signal he hastens to danger’s post, whatever be the fight which draws him to its lists, that in the strife he may once more regain full knowledge of himself and all his strength.

From the very beginning, Les Préludes established itself as the most popular of Liszt’s symphonic poems (that term having been chosen to suggest a literary inspiration), probably from its solid construction as much as from the specific expressive quality of its musical invention. It was familiar enough to audiences of the mid-20th century to have been used as background music for the Flash Gordon and Lone Ranger radio programs, but it is distinctly worth the effort to approach Liszt on his own terms as the music progresses with a gratifyingly tight construction, and the derivations of the principal theme develop no small degree of excitement.

John N. Burk/Steven Ledbetter

John N. Burk, whose writings on music include biographies of Beethoven and Clara Schumann, was the Boston Symphony’s program annotator from 1934 until 1966.

Steven Ledbetter, a freelance writer and lecturer on music, was program annotator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1998.

The first American orchestral performance of Les Préludes took place in New York in May 1858 with an unnamed orchestra under the direction of Carl Bergmann (a duo-piano performance had preceded it by a year).

The first Boston Symphony performance of Les Préludes was in the orchestra's first season, on December 10, 1881 (preceded by an open rehearsal the previous day) under George Henschel.