Les préludes, “after A. de Lamartine,” LW G3, S. 97

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            “What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown song, the first and solemn note of which is sounded by death?”  So goes the putative source of the title of the first of Liszt’s thirteen tone poems.   It is from Alphonse de Lamartine’s “Nouvelles méditations poétiques,” and alludes to life as but a prelude to death.  Scholars have fought over the truth of the inspiration for Liszt, but it fits, and the evidence has some weight. Liszt was in the forefront of composers who were committed to striking out in completely new directions during the nineteenth century, and who largely abandoned traditional forms, such as the symphony.  Liszt’s solution was his origination of what he called a “symphonic poem,” a single-movement composition of symphonic proportions, which focused on the exploration of a single idea, poetic content, or even a narrative depiction.  Liszt, in fact, drew upon a variety of sources for his muse in the composition of his tone poems: literature, myth, visual arts--whatever stimulated his creativity.

            To engender formal integrity and more or less “pull” his new genre together, Liszt used a technique that  takes a very simple little melodic fragment or motive, and employs it as the single source for the whole piece.   The motive is usually a sharply chiseled, distinctive affair that, on the one hand is capable of being “transformed” into a remarkable variety of unique figures and melodies, and yet, on the other, maintains its identity throughout these transformations.  And so it is with Les préludes.

            The initial three notes serve throughout as the origin of the themes of each section, which differ greatly in mood, tempo, and key.  As Liszt explores his take on the meaning of the text, the theme serves his various purposes, tying it all together, whether the subject is love, war, death, nature, and more.   It is not necessary to track each guise of the theme as it evolves, but it may be easier than you think.  With this idea Liszt wrought a major innovation in Romantic musical style, and provided a model for a legion of composers who took up the technique and the genre.  While of his thirteen symphonic poems only Les préludes remained in the standard repertoire, he led the way for generations of composers.  Subsequent audiences have come to enjoy symphonic (or tone) poems as an integral and essential element of concert life.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan