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8.223473 - LAJTHA: Piano Works

Laszl6 Lajtha (1892 -1963) Piano Works

László Lajtha (1892-1963)

Piano Works


László Lajtha, one of the greatest Hungarian composers of the first half of the twentieth century, was born in Budapest on 30th June 1892. He took his composer's diploma as a pupil of Viktor Herzfeld at the Budapest Academy of Music and continued his studies in Leipzig and in Geneva, until 1914 spending six months of each year in Paris. There Lajtha was a pupil of Vincent d'Indy, who introduced him to the musical world of Paris and the periods he spent there brought friendship with a number of people who exercised a decisive influence on his musical language. He began to collect folk-music in the second decade of the century, then spending the four years of the war at the front as an artillery officer. In 1919 he was appointed to the teaching staff of the Budapest National Conservatory. From 1928 Lajtha was a member of the International Commission of Popular Arts and Traditions of the League of Nations and then a member of the Commission of Arts and Letters until the outbreak of the second World War. He was also a member of the committee of the International Folk Music Council, based in London. It was in 1930 that he signed his first contract with the Paris publisher Leduc, his exclusive publisher from 1948. His international career as a composer began in 1929 with the award of the Coolidge Prize for his Third String Quartet.


After the second World War László Lajtha became director of music for Hungarian Radio, director of the Museum of Ethnography and of the National Conservatory. In 1947, commissioned to provide film music, he spent a year in London, but on his return lost all his official positions, for political reasons. In 1951 he received the Kossuth Prize for his activities in the field of folk-music. He was the only Hungarian composer since Franz Liszt to be elected corresponding member of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. Lajtha died in Budapest on 16th February 1963.


Although Lajtha was a very gifted pianist, a pupil of disciples of Liszt, Arpád Szendy in Budapest and Stavenhagen in Geneva, well able to enjoy a successful career as a concert-pianist, his compositions for piano constitute only a minor part of his work as a composer, characteristic particularly of the early part of his career. Four of his few compositions for piano were written between 1913 and 1918, Des écrits d'un musicien, Opus 1, Contes, Opus 2, Sonate, Opus 3 and Prélude. The first three were published shortly after their completion. In old age he recalled that it was Schoenberg who had the first pieces for piano performed in Vienna in a concert of the Privataufführungen für neue Musik. In 1922 Béla Bartók w rote an appreciation of the young composer for The Chesterian, in which he praised the surprising boldness of Des écrits d'un musicien, going on to describe the Contes and Piano Sonata as evidence of the influence on the composer of the atonal school and Arnold Schoenberg and, at the same time, of modern Hungarian music. He found it too soon to make a definitive judgement, but expressed the opinion that Lajtha was a talented and innovative composer worthy of attention.


In an earlier letter, dated 24th November 1920, Bartók wrote in fuller terms to the English critic and composer Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock), explaining that Lajtha, with whom he was on the most friendly terms, was not his pupil, since he only taught the piano at the Budapest Academy: only three works had been published, all for the piano, and these would be sent to Heseltine, while other compositions, chamber and orchestral music, had been neither published nor performed, because, in Hungarian parlance, they were "too difficult", furthermore the composer had done nothing to promote his work: apart from Kodály and Lajtha, Hungary had, in his opinion, no composer of importance.


If we seek to discover the musical aspirations of Lajtha at the time of composition of these piano works, we need to turn to his own reminiscences. Recalling his earlier years, he said in 1962 that he had sought in revolutionary changes the freeing of emotions and the kind of language that would enable him to express his sensibility: for this reason he had never liked Wagner and found the world of German music after Schubert, with its sinister heroic giants, quite alien: Bartók, who distanced himself from Tristan and who even at the end of his life was nearer to final period Beethoven, was fond of teasing and always called him the Latin: Lajtha claimed he had struggled in all revolutions for the freedom of musical language and would continue to do so in old age.


Lajtha rejected the serial system of Schoenberg, describing it as a musical system depending on restrictive and pedantic rules. On the other hand, in an interview when he was seventy, he was able to describe Debussy as the greatest master of our time, who had opened windows, alluding also to the anti-Wagnerian opera Pelléas et Mélisande.


Des écrits d'un musicien, Opus 1, was published in 1913 under the aegis of Editions Rózsavölgyi in Budapest. In this year Lajtha completed his studies at the Budapest Academy of Music, was awarded his doctorate in Political Sciences and became curator of the musical instrumental collections of the National Museum. The work is in nine movements (only four of these are included in this recording), to each of which the composer gave either a title or a quotation suggesting a programme. The series of pieces represents, in some measure, the knowledge of musical expression, in particular that of Debussy, of the atonal school associated with Schoenberg and Webern and above all the effect of Bartók, taken as a model. Even as a young man of 21 Lajtha shows himself here an independent artist. Several characteristic traits of his later style are apparent in the cycle, including the importance of long melodic lines in the structure, demanding forms, diversity of rhythm and instrumental virtuosity. The titles are II¡K like a letter about myself..., III Motherhood, IV Elegy (in the form of a triptych) and V Carnival Serenade.


Les Contes pour piano, Opus 2, was written in 1914 and dedicated to Béla Bartók, the composer's very dear friend. Bartók himself corrected the proofs of the work, which was published by Harmónia in Budapest. Each of the "stories" of the expressionist series describes a picture or a mood in music. The programme is as follows:


1.    ...Once upon a time...a lamp placed on a wicker table formed a circle of gold on a hammock hanging between two trees...sang... "tell me a favourite story"

2.    ...the Rascal's moving little story...

3.    ...little story of calm, darkness, waiting and a big arm-chair

4.    ...and then the princess with golden hair on the plain strewn with violets...

5.    ...little story of sadness...

6.    Waltz

7.    ...little story of an avenue of flowering chestnuts, of a lace scarf left on the terrace and of happiness ...

8.    ...song of a children's game...

9.    ...little story of distant solitude and a large open window...

10.  ...of autumn and the countryside...

11.      Folk-tale


Prélude (Andante con moto) was written in 1918, probably on the battle-field. It was not numbered and appeared for the first time in manuscript facsimile in Numbers 8 and 9 of the avantgarde literary and artistic review Ma (Today), directed by Lajos Kassák, which had begun publication in 1918. The score was published for the first time in 1970 by the French Centre d'Art National. The harmonies of the piece recall those of Debussy. Two calmer and more contemplative sections frame a central passage that is more agitated, evoking perhaps for a moment the terrible vision of the war. These sections are interrelated not only in mood but also thematically. The music expresses a yearning, perhaps for love, for peace, for the composer's country. At the end there is a reminiscence of the central section, appearing like a faint memory of what has passed. An unanswerable question vibrates in the air.


The Six morceaux pour piano, Opus 14, were written in 1930. Two of the movements, Scherzo and Toccata, were published by Leduc. As has already been remarked, Lajtha wrote his other works for piano in the second decade of the century. The six pieces for piano form, therefore, the only piano composition to be published in later decades. Nearly all the movements belong to a certain style. The first, Ostinato, recalls already in its title the work of Bartók, particularly pieces in the Mikrokosmos. The two-part Invention, and the three-part, suggest the Inventions of Bach in their rhythmic treatment and the strict manner of composition; the tonality, however, is of the twentieth century and the Baroque ornaments create a particular effect in this context. The instrumental technique of the Scherzo and Toccata alludes in the first place to Domenico Scarlatti and the French clavecinistes. Lajtha introduces the Fugue between these two virtuoso movements, its title self-explanatory, an indication of the composer's admiration for the great masters of counterpoint, particularly Bach, but also of his understanding of the importance of basic compositional technique.


Trois berceuses (Very slow movement; Mouvement d'une berceuse lente; Very slow - très doux) are three pieces that mark a particular story of peculiar sadness. Lajtha wrote them in the years from 1955 to 1957 not for the general public but for his own family, his grandchildren. Naturally these compositions were given no opus number and were published for the first time in 1970 by the Centre d'Art National Français. The Berceuses were based on Hungarian children's songs or on motifs from children's songs. Lajtha dedicated the first Lullaby to Terry, his granddaughter, born in New York in 1955. The piece was written on the news of the birth of the little girl that Lajtha would never see, for from 1948, the beginning of the Communist dictatorship in Hungary, until 1962, a period of fourteen years, one of the greatest Hungarian composers was denied a passport. His sons, who lived in England and in America, were unable to return to Hungary, stigmatized as dissidents, or, in other words, antisocial elements, in the terminology of the time. The second Lullaby was dedicated to Christopher, the third shared between Kathryn, called by her American mother Tinkle Bell and hence giving rise to a suggestion of the sound of bells in the piano, and Adrian. Lajtha was only able to see his grandsons in 1962 but never saw his granddaughters. The three little compositions are a touching expression of a grandfather's love. Some words were written for each lullaby, so that these pieces exist also as songs.


Emöke Solymosi Tari

(English version by Keith Anderson)


Klára Körmendi


The Hungarian pianist Klára Körmendi was born in Budapest and studied under Kornél Zempléni at the Bartók Conservatory, later becoming a student of Péter Solymos at the Liszt Academy, where she received her diploma with distinction in 1967. She enjoyed early success in a number of international competitions, before embarking on a career that has taken her to the major musical centres of Europe, with broadcasts in Vienna, Paris and London, as well as Basle, Cologne, Lausanne and Ljubljana. Klára Körmendi has a wide repertoire, and has always shown particular interest in contemporary repertoire, both Hungarian and foreign. Her recordings for Hungaroton include music by Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen, Luciano Berio and Heinz Holliger. For Naxos she has recorded works by Debussy and Ravel and will also record the complete piano music of Satie.

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