Symphonic Poem No. 3, Les Préludes S.97 (1854)
Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
“What is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown song whose first solemn note is tolled by death?” wrote Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in the introduction to this, the best-known of his 13 symphonic poems, a form that he invented. Later brought to its zenith by Richard Strauss in works such as his Alpine Symphony, a symphonic poem is a one-movement symphonic work that relates to some extramusical stimulation, such as a poem or mountain. They were not initially popular with contemporary audiences and orchestras as they were “more difficult to play than a Brahms symphony” and exposed the limitations of less skilled players.
Les Préludes was derived from an overture to four settings of poems by Altran for mixed chorus and piano from ten years earlier. Inspired by a poem of Lamartine from which it gets its title, Liszt rewrote the overture and attached his prose precis of Lamartine’s poem to the score.
Les Préludes is based entirely on the three note motif in the opening theme, which is transformed into all the work’s subsequent themes. A number of these will be familiar as cartoon themes from the fifties! The powerful orchestration makes full use of the brass and horns, used to great affect in the climactic coda.
Performed: September 2017