It was the first to be performed, and the only one to find a permanent place in the orchestral repertoire.
Liszt invented the symphonic poem, but audiences and orchestras alike found them difficult and forbidding.
Symphonic poems have two basic characteristics.
Musically, they contain all of the structural characteristics of a traditional four-movement symphony within a single movement.
They also attempt to unite music and literature by means of a preface, or program, that Liszt provided.
The program of Les Préludes
For Les Préludes, Liszt prepared a prose interpretation of a poem from Nouvelles méditations poétiques by Alphonse de Lamartine:
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 these tempests, does not endeavor to solace its memories in the calm serenity of rural life?
Nevertheless, man does not resign himself for 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.
For a long time, musicians supposed that Liszt had that poem in mind as he composed his piece. It is remarkably easy to fit the music to the program. I wrote a high school term paper about it. I suppose if I looked hard enough, I could find plenty of similar approaches in the older literature about Liszt.
As it turns out, Liszt wrote the music long before he ever read Lamartine’s poem.
Liszt met another poet, Joseph Autran, in 1844 Marseilles, where he was honored with a banquet. He set one of Autran’s poems for mixed chorus and piano and had it performed locally almost immediately. The next year he wrote three more choral pieces to Autran’s poetry.
Later, when he started learning orchestration, he decided to write an overture to these four pieces, which he called Symphonic meditations. Apparently he only intended this overture as an orchestration exercise, but then Autran sent Liszt some more poems. They reminded Liszt of his earlier pieces, and he determined to do something with them someday.
Someday came between 1852 and 1854. He recomposed the old overture, but instead of making reference to any of Autran’s poems, he found that Lamartine’s more nearly evoked the emotions he wanted to put across. Thus the new title,Les Préludes, and the program based on Lamartine.
The music of Les Préludes
Structually, Les Préludes sort of resembles a sonata form, but it isn’t. It has a slow introduction, just like so many of Haydn’s symphonies, but what follows includes all the tempo changes, meter changes, key changes, and harmonic relationships that would occur over the course of an entire four-movement symphony.
In a classical symphony, each movement would have its own thematic material. Occasional exceptions include Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which quotes from the third movement in the fourth movement.
Later composers built an entire structure, called cyclical, on the idea of using the same material in more than one movement.
Liszt also used cyclical procedures in his orchestral music, but he took them an important step farther.
The entire Les Préludes comes from a three-note motive heard at the very beginning. There is nothing very distinctive about it. Plenty of other composer’s used it. Caesar Franck’s (cyclical and multi-movement) D minor Symphony opens with the same motive.
Liszt developed a technique known as thematic transformation. He drew a longer theme from the motive and then transformed that theme into all of the other themes.
Sometimes listeners can hear the germ motive easily. Other times, Liszt disguises it. It’s still there, but requires several hearings to notice the relationship.
Liszt began his musical career as a popular piano virtuoso. The audience for classical music disdained that entire scene. Later, both Liszt and concert life in general came to an artistic crossroads.
The merger of the aristocracy with the upper middle class and the merger of the audiences for classical music and high-status popular music provided Liszt with the opportunity to take an interest in learning to orchestrate.
But as someone formerly associated with the rivals of classical music, Liszt saw no need to follow classical ideals. His cyclical structure and thematic transformation displaced the traditional classical sonata form. He also had a radically different approach to orchestration.
By Liszt’s time, everyone wrote for orchestra differently than Beethoven had, but there are important differences between Liszt’s procedures and those of traditionalists like Brahms. One innovation was introducing concepts of chamber music within orchestral parts.
Collectively, the innovations in form and orchestration made Liszt’s symphonic poems more difficult than Brahms’ symphonies for orchestras to play and mistakes harder to cover up.
For a single example, listen to the famous horn quartet.
Even small city professional orchestras today have strong players in every seat, but even the best nineteenth-century orchestras had weak musicians. They tried to bury them in places where they’d do the least harm.
Fourth horn was a convenient place to put the lesser musicians that the orchestra had to hire in order to provide full instrumentation. Fourth horn parts in Romantic orchestral music are frequently boring to play.
Why risk anything important since chances are the person playing the part isn’t very good?
Once you have heard the Les Préludes horn quartet a couple of times, listen specifically to the fourth horn part, the very bottom of the texture.
You’ll have no trouble hearing it. Liszt makes sure not much else is happening. The fourth horn part is rhythmically distinct from the rest of the section. It plays moving parts while the others hold chords. It may not require great technique, but it certainly requires solid musicianship and confidence.