Franz Liszt: Les Preludes

Some pieces of music I associate with a particular person. Take Franz Liszt’s “Les Preludes.”

It seems that I might have heard it on a request show once or twice before moving to the French House at Indiana University in 1975. There is an orchestral version of it which often appears on compilations of Mega, Blockbuster, Greatest Classical, Thundering Hits of All Times! (by Time Life). That of course is a fun piece, but it also exists as a work for solo piano, which I first heard played by an inmate of the French House.

I had written before about a guy who lived in our dorm, whose name was Kevin. He was a thin, fastidious, well dressed kid from a well-to-do family. Nothing wrong there. In fact he had superb manners and never seemed condescending to the likes of the little people like me who came from working class families. He did not get along with the people in the artsy campy clique with which I associated, and so kept to himself. I moved pretty freely among all groups in the house and he and I had a few nice conversations about music.

For his junior recital, he played an extraordinary program. It had Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which is no piece for a shrinking violet, AND “Les Preludes.” Now Liszt was a firebrand as a concert pianist. The Mick Jagger of his day, women would swoon at his concerts and throw articles of intimate apparel at him on stage. Liszt wrote many pieces for these audiences. Les Preludes dates from the time Liszt was in his late 30s, just about the time he was giving up performing to devote the next 40 years of his life to composition and teaching. It would have been a nice swan song to cap his career as a performer.

Listening to the orchestral version today, I realized that for many years I thought “Les Preludes” was actually written by Wagner.  It has bubbling string arpeggios, bright French horns, and trumpet fanfares that are quite uplifting.  Born two years apart, Liszt was part of the circle of composers known as, “Neudeutsche Schule” (“New German School”) to which the younger Wagner belonged.  Near the end of the work, I also hear strains that remind me of the ending of the much later work, “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” by Ricard Strauss.  Funnily enough, about half way through, I swear I hear the tune, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” which is based on a French folk theme that celebrates the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709.

After his concert, Kevin moved out of the dorm, and I have no idea of what happened to him. I do remember him walking onto the stage in his tuxedo, flipping his tails out as he sat down on the bench, and the intensity with which he threw himself into his performance. One of the bad things about being a dilettante and autodidact, is that you never ever master anything like that. I wonder what it would be like to perform at that level of intellectual and emotional intensity. Is everyone capable of doing that? And what if everyone had the training to reach that? Of course, there probably wouldn’t be anyone left to work at McDonalds, but I think that is a small price to pay.

Wikipedia on Les Preludes

Liszt Biography

Download MP3s or buy CD of Liszt: Les Préludes


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