Franz Liszt was best known during his lifetime as the lean, black-haired virtuoso whose skill and daring at the piano caused audiences to faint, exclaim, and otherwise lust over the music and the man. In 1844, journalist Heinrich Heine called the phenomenon “Lisztomania.” Yet just four years after Heine’s coinage, Liszt gave up his touring life to accept the position of Kapellmesiter Extraordinaire in Weimar. Among the luxuries afforded by his position were leadership of Weimar’s court orchestra and ample time to compose. Honing his skills as a conductor, orchestrator and composer, Liszt built a new legacy – one founded largely on the innovations of his 13 symphonic poems.
Les préludes would eventually become the most famous of these works, and its genesis reveals much about Liszt’s preoccupation with legacy. While the published piece was dedicated to and titled after the poetry of Alphonse de Lamertine, early versions were actually inspired by a younger and lesser-known author named Joseph Autran. These early drafts were intended as an overture to Les quatre elements, a choral setting of Autran’s nature poetry. Yet Autran did not have the artistic largess with which Liszt sought to associate himself. So, as Beethoven did with Goethe and Schiller, Liszt built his legacy next to a contemporary poet of more heroic stature – Lamertine. At the 1854 premier of Les préludes, Liszt provided his audience with copies of an ode by Lamertine and thereafter hid any association with Autran. The maneuver worked. To this day, music students and orchestral audiences are most often presented with the words of Lamertine, with little mention of Joseph Autran.
Apparently Liszt found even the adornment of Lamertine’s imagery insufficient. For in the published score of Les préludes he included his own verse: “What else is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown Hymn, the first and solemn note of which is intoned by Death?—Love is the glowing dawn of all existence; but what is the fate where the first delights of happiness are not interrupted by some storm, the mortal blast of which dissipates its fine illusions, the fatal lightning of which consumes its altar; and where is the cruelly wounded soul which, on issuing from one of these tempests, does not endeavor to rest his recollection in the calm serenity of life in the fields? Nevertheless man hardly gives himself up for long to the enjoyment of the beneficent stillness which at first he has shared in Nature’s bosom, and when ‘the trumpet sounds the alarm’, he hastens to the dangerous post, whatever the war may be, which calls him to its ranks, in order at last to recover in the combat full consciousness of himself and entire possession of his energy.”
Only “the trumpet sounds the alarm” is quoted from Lamertine. The music has its own story to tell. The dusky strings and choral winds of its opening set the stage mysteriously – and in precisely the manner of 19th-century operas dealing with magic and tragedy. A slow but determined crescendo leads from darkness to the bombastic fanfares of trombones, cellos, basses and bassoons. These contrasting sections are themselves an overture to the ensuing drama. The primary melody of this drama sings lyrically in cellos and violins, followed by a solo horn. Soon all four horns join in a pastoral chorale thereafter taken up by the entire orchestra. (To this point, listeners familiar with Der Freischutz can hardly help but hear echoes of Weber’s 1821 opera of magic, love and near tragedy.) Darkness does return in the central scene of the drama, again beginning in the strings. This central section is dominated by military music and relentless rhythmic activity, until the heavy breaths of chromatic strings fall to rest upon a pastoral oboe solo. The oboe welcomes us back to the idyllic world of nature, where we rest for a time. Hereafter Liszt’s signature technique of “thematic transformation” offers numerous variations of melodies already heard, all leading us back to the triumphal fanfares of the work’s introduction. Here we end, with triumph and apotheosis.
Despite the duplicitous genesis of Les préludes, the tones of its drama captivate our ears and our imaginations. Its solemn intonations, glowing sonorities, brassy thunderstorms, percussive blasts and quieter moments of pastoral serenity tell their own story of struggle, solace, victory and final transcendence. This is the legacy of Liszt – not the association with Autran or Lamertine, but the symphonic poetry of a man whose pianistic virtuosity was matched only by his sublime compositional vision.