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8.223669 - LAJTHA, L.: Symphony No. 2 / Variations, Op. 44 (Pécs Symphony, Pasquet)

László Lajtha (1892–1963)
Symphony No. 2, Op. 27 • Variations, Op. 44


László Lajtha, one of the greatest Hungarian composers of the first half of the twentieth century, was born in Budapest on 30 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’lndy, 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 16 February 1963.

László Lajtha’s symphonies constitute an outstanding and at the same time astonishing chapter in the history of twentieth century Hungarian music. The symphony and the string quartet were forms best suited to Lajtha’s musical ideas. His contemporaries did not go beyond experimenting with the symphony. The second of his nine symphonies was completed in 1938 but has remained unpublished. The composer deposited the work with his editor in Paris without indicating the tempo or length of the movements, which may account for the lack of publication. It was first performed by the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra under Antal Jancsovics at the Budapest Music Academy fifty years after its composition, on 5 December 1988.

The character of the Second Symphony is in marked contrast with that of the first, completed in 1936. The sombre and brooding tone recalls Lajtha’s experiences in the First World War, when he served as an artillery officer for four years, and foreshadows the horrors of the coming war. A man of cultured sensibility, Lajtha could infer from the events of 1938 the likely future and he protested against violence, inhumanity and the coming catastrophe in his symphony. Typically the work has three movements instead of four. The two outer movements are slow, framing a dream-like fast central movement. A funnel-shaped motif runs through all three movements. An unusual feature of the scoring is the inclusion of a piano, the only example of this in Lajtha’s symphonies.

The full title of the 1948 variations is 11 variations pour orchestra, Op. 44, sur un theme simple Les tentations (“11 Variations for orchestra, Op. 44, on a simple theme, ‘Temptations’”). The score also reveals that the composer began the piece in Budapest in 1947 and completed it in London the following year. Variations is one of the three works Lajtha wrote during his stay in London for the film by Georg Höllering.

In the 1930s Georg Höllering (1900–1980) had made a documentary film of the Hungarian puszta and had asked Bartók to write music for this. The latter, who held Lajtha in great esteem, recommended the younger composer. Bartók, indeed, had written in a letter in 1920 that apart from Kodály and Lajtha, Hungary had no valuable composers. The collaboration between Lajtha and the Austrian director was so successful that it was inevitable that the latter should invite him to provide incidental music for his film of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, on the murder of St Thomas à Becket, although the film had no connection with Hungary. In the autumn of 1947 Lajtha moved to London for a year, together with his family, and there, now living in relative comfort for the first time in his life, he composed three works, Variations, the Third Symphony and the Second Harp Quintet. He intended the works to be self-contained concert pieces, since he believed that film music should stand on its own apart from the film itself. For the film he used excerpts from the three works.

Höllering, Eliot and Lajtha had their first discussion in May 1947. In a letter Lajtha quotes Eliot as saying that the film would not be complete without his music, which would help a great deal and elevate the words and thoughts of the drama.

Writing from London on 17 January 1948 to Bence Szabolcsi, the noted Hungarian musicologist, Lajtha gave a detailed account of how he composed the music: “The background music you have been asking about is actually no background music. Certainly not in the sense that term is used today. It will contain a symphonic theme with variations. It lasts about 25–30 minutes. The piano score of ten variations is ready but I am still to write the eleventh, closing variation. The theme is my own invention. It is simple, with a great deal of innovation in its structure. The mood and character of the variations are sharply contrasted, so I hope they will not be boring. I composed it first on the piano because I did not know what the orchestra would be like. Now I know that a 67-strong symphony orchestra is available, I am directly writing the score… The circumstances I am working under have hardly ever at all been paralleled. Not only do they ask me to compose the music first, but they also record it and the pictures and text are adjusted to it. I do not paint the background or explain anything with the music—Höllering understood that was impossible and unnecessary. The only restriction I have is time. That, music being a temporal phenomenon, is not an alien principle of form creation”.

Lajtha stressed that he did not paint the background or explain anything with the music, an essential point in the collaboration. Höllering and Lajtha were looking for unity of sound and picture on an equal, mutually supportive footing, both discarding illustration by music as undesirable. Accordingly Variations can be enjoyed as an autonomous composition, independent of Höllering’s film. The music was to last some thirty minutes, as Lajtha indicated. It was first recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, with the participation of the Renaissance singers under Michael Howard.

The film of Murder in the Cathedral won two prizes at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, including the Grand Prix. It was shown in Western Europe and in America from 1952, but was not screened in Hungary. There were criticisms of various aspects of the film itself, which some found dragged, but it was genera1ly agreed that Lajtha’s music was flawless.

Emöke Solymosi Tari

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