Liszt’s Les Préludes
Notes by TŌN violist Leonardo Vásquez Chacón
A New Expression
“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?” These are the words that prefaced the 1856 musical score of Franz Liszt’s Les Préludes (“Preludes” or “The Beginnings”). Such poetic words would have captivated the romantic minds of the time, worshippers of unbound emotion and the supernatural. Liszt knew that these new times and aesthetics required different modes of expression; he even said once that “New wine demands new bottles.” There is no better example for this than him coining the term “Symphonic Poem” when describing Les Préludes. As opposed to the “Symphonies” of years before where no extra-musical ideas or programs influence the music you hear, the 13 symphonic poems by Franz Liszt illustrate moods and scenes from various poems, paintings, plays, or works of nature in an explicit manner.
This work consists of five sections: Question, Love, Storm, Bucolic calm, and Battle and victory. These contrasting themes and ideas push Liszt into using full sections of strings, woodwinds, and brass, plus other more unusual instruments such as tuba, harp, and cymbals, among others. He manages to create incredibly heroic moments that Richard Strauss would champion a few years later, as well as more delicate playful ones that perhaps remind one of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. If you ever heard the opening of his Piano Sonata in B minor from 1853 you will notice the same opening bars. In fact, it’s hard not to hear other composers and pieces in Les Préludes; the mastery of orchestration shown by Liszt would be emulated by all those after him.
An End of Season Treat
Performing Les Préludes will be a throwback moment for me because the last time I played it was all the way back in 2010 at the Interlochen Summer Camp. It is a tradition to play this work during the closing ceremony of every summer session when everyone has to say goodbye to all the new friends they made over the previous months. I’m sure that you will enjoy it as much as we do!