How a Romantic Composer got Hijacked by the Nazis

Luxembourg under German occupation: Liszt's tune had become the prelude to lies and propoganda. © Marcel Schroeder/Photothèque de la Ville de Luxembourg
Luxembourg under German occupation. © Marcel Schroeder/Photothèque de la Ville de Luxembourg

Oh Franz, what did they do to you? The Austrian composer and pianist Franz Liszt wrote between 1848 and 1854 a wonderful symphonic poem called “Les Préludes” in the best romantic tradition. The “Préludes” reflect the different phases of a human life before death: torments, battles, love, pain, consolation, enjoying nature. But in 1941, the Nazis stole the triumphant tune at the beginning of the first movement and used it until their fall in 1945 as a jingle announcing the weekly army broadcasts with all their propaganda about Germany winning the war!

Ambiguous feelings

I love the piece, but each time I am listening to it, I get an awkward feeling.  My grandma has told me many times about her life as a young woman under German occupation of Luxembourg and how difficult it was to predict what behavior would lead to being whisked away by the Gestapo. She and her husband kept an inn appreciated by  locals and Germans alike. Listening to the BBC in there would have invited trouble. So, if anyone wanted to listen to the news, it had to be the German broadcasts and the “Wochenschau”.

My grandma certainly knew that jingle and must have come to hate it as it invariably preceded lies about the war, the glorification of the “Führer” and defamation of the Allied powers. I cannot listen to “Les Préludes” without thinking about how the Nazis have perverted the melody to glorify the disastrous war against the Soviet Union that has cost so many lives.

Hommage to Lamartine

Unfortunately, the German propaganda has a lasting effect as even today many associate the melody with the Nazi regime. It had been composed a century earlier, before anyone thought of National-Socialism. Franz Liszt wrote the first bars in 1848, five years after he had been nominated Kapellmeister in the German town of Weimar by Grand Duke Carl Friedrich.

Initially he had meant to write a symphonic poem, and the piece was merely meant as an introduction to a larger work for piano and choir: “Les Quatre Elémens”[sic]. As such it didn’t need a name. But Liszt did not make much progress on the choral work, so he rearranged the piece and published it with the title of poem taken out of the “Méditations Poétiques” written by the French writer Alphonse de Lamartine. Liszt thought that the spirit of the poem would well fit the music he had just composed.

The recording by the Polish National Symphony Orchestra that I have features four symphonic poems of Liszt: Tasso, Les Préludes, Mazeppa and Prometheus. Though “Les Préludes” is certainly my favourite, “Mazeppa” is equally nice. There is also a recording by the Wiener Philharmoniker which includes Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and another symphonic poem called “Orpheus”.

© Charles Thibo

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