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Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886) – Symphonic Poem: Les Préludes

Liszt - “creative virtuoso” and originator, for better or worse, of modern pianism - was a “star”, with all the attendant adulation and excessive income. In 1848 he suddenly “dropped out”, taking a steady job as Kapellmeister of Weimar. His work-rate ruptured the roof, the flood of compositions including 12 “symphonic poems”. Although “programme music” was hardly new, Liszt’s idea - and button-neat terminology - encapsulated something particular: a one movement orchestral work, prompted by and expressive of non-musical images. 

Whilst preparing choral settings of Autan’s poems extolling Mediterranean countries Liszt, decidedly disenchanted, disengaged. He re-fashioned his music. Then, in a manner of speaking, he exclaimed, ““By gum! You know, this reminds me of yon ode in Lamartine’s Nouvelles Méditations Poétiques!” His preface, having nothing to do with “yon” ode, started: “What is life but a series of preludes to that unknown song, of which the first solemn note is sounded by death? . . .” Hence, Les Préludes is not a symphonic poem, I needn’t feel guilty because it reminds me of the old Flash Gordon “cliff-hangers”, and we can all concentrate on the music! 

Liszt uses his favourite technique of “thematic transformation”: a 3-note cell forms a common skeleton, supporting the flesh of the themes. A Grand Militaristic Gesture grows from virtually nothing, yielding to multiple musing motifs which twice coalesce: generating firstly “GMG 2" and secondly, in a real rush of blood, the culminating reprise of “GMG 1". 

Note originally commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony for a concert given on 23 October 2004

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© Paul Serotsky
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