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Views And Reviews: Liszt's Symphonic Poem “Les Préludes”

Paul Serotsky introduces us to the symphonic poem Les Préludes” by Liszt, “the originator, for better or worse, of modern pianism’’.

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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 at Weimar. His work-rate ruptured the roof, the flood of compositions including a dozen “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, becoming 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 really 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".

© Paul Serotsky

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