Preludes to that unknown hymn

During the first weekend in August, a summer of artistic exploration at Interlochen Arts Camp concluded in the traditional performance of Franz Liszt’s “Les Preludes.”

Written in 1854, “Les Preludes” is the most famous of Liszt’s 12 symphonic poems. The piece was inspired by and takes its name from a poem by French romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine. At its 1854 premiere in Weimar, the piece was accompanied by a lengthy reflection on the poem written by Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Today, only the one line of Princess Carolyne’s introduction remains in the piece’s score: “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?”

The piece was hand-selected by Joseph Maddy to conclude the Camp’s very first season in 1928. Maddy hoped, wrote Norma Lee Browning in “Joe Maddy of Interlochen,” that “Les Preludes” would “help his young campers, and probably himself, over the farewell hump.” The piece’s title, which translates to “the beginnings,” would remind the students that the end of Camp was the beginning of the next chapter of their musical experience.

The students who returned to Interlochen for the Camp’s second season were so moved by the experience of the first “Les Preludes” that they requested to perform the piece again at the conclusion of the 1929 session. Thus began the traditional performance that continues to this day.

The performances of “Les Preludes” at Interlochen have changed vastly over the years. While the first few “Les Preludes” were played only by the National High School Orchestra, subsequent performances incorporated larger groups of students. Beginning in the 1930s, faculty members were invited to join the orchestra for “Les Preludes.” The first combined-ensemble performance was in 1931, when four ensembles -- the National High School Band, the National High School Orchestra, the Alumni Camp Orchestra and the Alumni Camp Band -- united to perform the piece. Choral groups were added in 1937, and the new dance program joined the performance in 1944. As new age divisions were added to the Camp, outstanding junior and intermediate students were also invited to join “Les Preludes.”

Modern performances of “Les Preludes” incorporate fewer ensembles, and include only high school level ensembles and the Interlochen Summer Dance Company. This year’s ensemble included members of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra, Interlochen Philharmonic and World Youth Wind Symphony, accompanied by intermediate and high school dance students.

Although this was the 90th season of Interlochen Arts Camp, and the 90th performance of “Les Preludes,” the tradition of “Les Preludes” -- performed in the Interlochen Bowl on the last Sunday of Camp -- has been broken several times. In 1933, the National High School Orchestra was invited to perform at the Century of Progress in Chicago. As a result, “Les Preludes” was performed on a Tuesday, and was not the conclusion of Camp activities. In 1939, a tour again inhibited the traditional performance of “Les Preludes.” This time, “Les Preludes” was performed on the road, as the final number of the National High School Orchestra’s concert at the World’s Fair in New York City. The New York performance was broadcast on the radio, but Maddy requested that the performance of “Les Preludes” not be included in the on-air program. Instead, the Interlochen Theme was performed after the penultimate piece, resulting in the only time in Interlochen’s history that the Interlochen Theme has preceded “Les Preludes.” Additionally, there have been a few occasions when poor weather conditions forced the performance to take place in Kresge Auditorium rather than the Bowl, as traditional.

Until this summer, only four men in the institution's history had conducted “Les Preludes”: Joseph Maddy, George C. Wilson, Edward Downing and Jeffrey Kimpton. While all four of these men have served as president of Interlochen -- Wilson as interim president -- presidency is not a necessary prerequisite to conduct the performance, nor is the president of Interlochen required to conduct the piece. For example, both Wilson and Downing conducted “Les Preludes” prior to their terms as president of the institution, and four presidents -- Karl Haas, Roger Jacobi, Dean Boal and Rich Odell -- never conducted the performance. Jung-Ho Pak, who has conducted the World Youth Symphony ORchestra every summer since 1999, conducted this summer’s performance of “Les Preludes” and became the fifth "Les Preludes" conductor in Interlochen's history.

You can watch a recording of the 2017 "Les Preludes" here.