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Franz Liszt (1811 - 1886)


Les Preludes

Les Preludes was first conceived as the introduction to a choral cantata Liszt wrote in 1844. He added the introduction later, in 1848, containing music from all four movements. The present title, however, does not refer to it having been the prelude to this work, but refers to a poem Les Preludes, one of a collection called Meditations Poetiques by the French romantic poet Lamartine. However, Liszt then prefaced the score with a paragraph of his own, which has almost nothing to do with Lamartine's poem. "What is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown song of which the fast solemn note is sounded by death? Love is the enchanted dawn of all existence; but who is lucky enough not to have his first delights of happiness interrupted by some storm, the mortal blast of which dissipates love's illusions, ... " and so on, in this rather opaque and difficult to read style.

What this tells us is that the music is an expression of various states of emotion, of a passionate and extreme nature - a fact fully in accord with Liszt's own flamboyant personality! The music is in one movement of about 15 minutes, and begins with a slow introduction to the first and principal theme of the work. This is followed by a contrasting "love" theme, after which the "storms of life" set in with a vengeance. A calmer section follows, before the energy is whipped up again to a martial and triumphant conclusion.

Piano Concerto No. 1 in Eb
I. Allegro maestoso. Tempo giusto
II. Quasi adagio
III. Allegretto vivace
IV. Allegro marziale animato

Franz Liszt, the first great virtuoso performer in the modern style, was born of humble but musical parents in central Europe, in the area where Austria and Hungary meet. He was first taught piano by his father, a cellist who had played in Haydn's orchestra at Esterhazy. But young Franz soon outgrew his father's abilities, and at age 10 he studied with Carl Czerny in Vienna, who was so impressed by Liszt's potential ("I never had such a diligent, gifted and ardent pupil") that he never charged the young boy for his lessons.

Soon the young Liszt, guided by his father, was giving concerts in towns and cities all over Europe. Tragedy struck early when his father died when young Liszt was only 15, during a tour of England and Northern France. Over the next 20 years Liszt was constantly on tour, envied by fellow pianists, admired by critics and public, and frankly adored by women. He had stunning good looks and reciprocated their attentions ... over the course of his life Liszt had serious long term relationships with several women (the number is disputed to this day). He had a son and two daughters by the first of them, and one of the daughters later married Wagner. He met every great composer of the age, many of whom wrote music for him, though some of them later came to scorn him as trivialising "serious" music. This criticism was harsh, since he was a tireless advocate of those same composers, gaining performances of their music, as well as being the only pianist of his age to play the late piano sonatas of Beethoven, which at that time were still regarded as the works of a madman.

Among his many tours he visited England several times, and on one tour in the late summer of 1840, amid a punishing timetable of 50 concerts in 70 days, he gave concerts in Leicester, Derby, Nottingham, Mansfield, Newark and Grantham - to an average audience of only 140 people!

In 1845 Liszt gave up touring, settled more permanently in Weimar and concentrated on composition. Up to this time he had made many arrangements to show off his skills, usually of popular opera tunes of the day. But now he turned to more serious composition, and all his most important works date from the next few years: both piano concertos, several tone poems, and two substantial symphonies (both on literary themes - Dante and Faust).

This first piano concerto was first performed in 1855 as part of a Berlioz Festival Liszt had organised in Weimar. Liszt himself played the solo part, and Berlioz conducted the orchestra. It was revised a few times in the next two years before being published in 1857.
The concerto includes the traditional four movement layout within a single span. The first section is based on the opening motto theme, which is only played twice before the soloist bursts in with a cadenza. The writing for orchestra is original and unusual - often the soloist is accompanied by only a few players, such as the clarinet solo in this first section. After a short pause the second section is a slow movement of considerable grace and charm, again with delicate accompaniment. This slips straight into a scherzo, whose most notable feature is a notorious part for a solo triangle ! The finale is the longest section, and is partly based on material from the first section, but includes several delightful new themes of its own.

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