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Les Préludes

Franz Liszt

What is our life but a succession of preludes to that unknown song whose first solemn note is sounded by death? Love is the enchanted dawn of every heart, but what mortal is there, over whose first joys and happiness does not break some storm, dispelling with its icy breath his fanciful illusions, and shattering his altar? What soul thus cruelly wounded does not at times try to dream away the recollection of such storms in the solitude of country life? And yet man, it seems, is not able to bear the languid rest on Nature's bosom, and when the trumpet sounds the signal of danger, he hastens to join his comrades, no matter what the cause that calls him to arms. He rushes into the thickest of the fight, and amid the uproar of the battle regains confidence in himself and his powers.

This quotation from Lamartine's "Méditations Poétiques" prefaces the score to the "Préludes," and serves as a guide to the meaning of the composition. As this work is heard, perhaps, more often than any of the other symphonic poems, and also displays Liszt's manner of thematic treatment in as clear and intelligible a way as any, we will undertake to point our to the reader the many-sided uses in which a simple motive can be employed, and will attempt it in such a way as to make it intelligible to the lay reader. The "Préludes" is based on two themes, and we present them with their variations in two groups, A and B:


Given a number of intervals at 1, by playing the eight lines through or humming them, the reader will at once see that although they appear in very different shapes they contain essentially the same notes. The line 2 opens the composition pizzicato pianissimo by the double basses with mysterious effect, hinting at the "unknown song." The theme is then enlarged and repeated on D, running finally into a dominant chord on G, and working up in a grand crenscendo to the fortissimo outbreak at 3, in which all the bass instruments carry the melody as given above, repeated with different harmonies and with ever-increasing force, until it appears after a rapid decrescendo in a l'istesso tempo in the violins, as at 4. The accompaniment of the phrase in this form is very beautiful.


The violins connect or lead into the different repeats with a soaring figure, while the basses have a figure somewhat like the one given at d, which appears in that form in the accompaniment of the pastorale. Then follows the stormy period breaking in on life's happy spring. It will not be difficult for the listener to trace the detached portions of the motive, which appear throughout in connection chiefly with chromatic runs and a superabundance of diminished seventh chords. The trumpet motive, in its form as at 5, is also brought in toward the end of that tempestuous passage.

When the skies brighten again, the motive appears in its most charming form as at 6 and 7, with an accompaniment in color and form exceedingly graceful, and flowing naturally into the Allegretto pastorale, which is built up on the motive at d, using the same at first with great ingenuity by the skilful use of oboes, clarinet, etc., while later on it is used in connection with the theme a, as an accompaniment at times below the melody, as indicated in c, d, and at times moving above it. The dreamy, swinging motion of the movement is finally interrupted by two abrupt chords, and the Allergo marziale opens with horns and trumpets, as at 8, connecting with the second theme in its martial garb at c, and leading in triumphant measures to a repetition of the main theme, as we heard it once at 3, only reinforced with all the resources known to the modern orchestra.

To point out the varied employment of the leading motive by using it only in part or dwelling on its more characteristic intervals, by inverting it, and otherwise, would lead too deeply into technicalities; but enough has been given to show how by change or rhythm and other means of expression an apparently simple succession of intervals can be developed into a tone poem.

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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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