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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 8 Midcentury
Richard Taruskin

Except for the chauvinistic bombast, to be taken on faith or not at all, we can put all this heady rhetoric and theorizing to the test at last by examining one of Liszt's symphonic poems. Les préludes, eventually published in 1856 as Symphonic Poem No. 3 with a dedication to Princess Sayn-Wittgenstein, was not the first of the set to be performed. It was the first to have been conceived and sketched, however, possibly as early as 1841; and it is the only one of the thirteen to have survived in standard repertory. It is also one of the shortest and (partly in consequence) one of the most radical, and is for all of these reasons perhaps the most revealing of Liszt's innovative project.

The Symphony Later On

fig. 8-5 Alphonse de Lamartine, by Henri Decaisne.

The title is that of a famous poem, from Nouvelles méditations poétiques (New Poetic Meditations, 1823) by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790–1869), one of the loftiest, most philosophical romantic poets. On its first publication, the work was actually titled Les préludes (d'après Lamartine) (“The preludes, after Lamartine”), and carried a prefatory note that looked, and was evidently designed to look, like a précis of the poem:

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 in whose fate are the first delights of happiness 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 countryside? 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 combat the full consciousness of himself and the entire possession of his energy.

The program has been tailored for music, of course; following the sonorous invocation of the Question (mm. 1–46) it comprises four episodes—Love (mm. 47–108), Storm (mm. 109–181), Bucolic Calm (mm. 182–344), Battle-and-Victory (mm. 345–end, with a recapitulation of the Question at m. 405)—corresponding to the movements of a conventional symphony if not in the most conventional order (yet ending very conventionally with Kampf und Sieg!). It has been thoroughly Germanized as well, the main trophy of battle being full consciousness of Self, just what Dr. Hegel would have prescribed.

The Symphony Later OnThe Symphony Later On

ex. 8-1 Table of themes derived from the main motive in Liszt's Les préludes (Symphonic Poem no. 3)

The music, while heavily indebted in concept to Berlioz, self-consciously advertises its descent from Beethoven even as it flaunts its freedom from the formal constraints to which Beethoven had submitted. This, of course, is no mere contradiction; rather it is an “antithesis” that leads to the achievement of the next—higher—liberating synthesis. After a mysterious pair of pizzicato Cs that seemingly invoke the lyre of the muse whom Lamartine summons to his side at the outset of his poem, the Question is broached in the form of a three-note échappée figure, plus a continuation (see Ex. 8-1).

The most obvious reason for separating the first three notes from the continuation is that Liszt himself so separates and repeats them in mm. 6–9, thus marking them as an independent motive. A more esoteric reason, yet probably known to a large part of the audience to whom the work was originally addressed, is that Beethoven had already propounded a very similar échappée motive (albeit jestingly) as a great philosophical enigma in a note preceding the last movement of his last quartet (F major, op. 135). Under the heading “The Difficult Resolution,” the motive and its inversion are set out over the words “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?) and “Es muss sein!” (It must be!) (Ex. 8-2).

The Symphony Later On

ex. 8-2 Ludwig van Beethoven, Der schwer gefasste Entschluss, Op. 135

Liszt was not jesting. It was a measure, he (or at least Brendel) would have said, of the long way music had come since Beethoven's day that composers could now give serious treatment to philosophical questions that formerly could only be broached vaguely, or else ruefully mocked. And the treatment Liszt gave the question embodied in the three-note motif is the third and most important reason to consider the motif as an independent entity, since every major theme in the ensuing composition—every answer to the Question (or “prelude to that unknown Hymn”)—is fashioned out of the question's intervallic substance, set out in Ex. 8-1.

This was by all odds the most thoroughgoing demonstration Liszt ever gave of his technique of thematic transformation. In light of the preface invoking Lamartine, the conceptual source of the technique can be easily traced to Berlioz's operatically derived idée fixe, the device that had unified the Symphonie fantastique, the prototype of all later compositions with specific literary programs. And yet there is a genuinely Beethovenian element as well, in the whittling down of the decisive unit of recognition from a full-fledged theme to a tiny motive. This refinement—the weaving of the whole symphonic fabric out of a motivic thread that comes, in turn, directly out of the poem—seemed as if deliberately meant to justify Brendel's claim that Liszt's symphonic poems ushered in a new age of music in which “content creates its own form.”

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 Midcentury. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 Midcentury." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 13 Dec. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-008003.xml