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8.223670 - LAJTHA, L.: Symphony No. 1 / Suite pour Orchestre / In Memoriam (Pécs Symphony, Pasquet)

László Lajtha (1892–1963)
Suite pour orchestre, Op. 19 • In memoriam, Op. 35 • Symphony No. 1, Op. 24


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’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 later 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 composer since Liszt to be elected a corresponding member of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. Lajtha died in Budapest on 16 February 1963.

Although it is not so indicated by the title, the composer compiled his Suite pour orchestre, Opus 19, from the ballet Lysistrata. Lajtha wrote for works for the stage, three sparkling ballets and a brilliant comic opera. The first of these was the one-act ballet Lysistrata, composed in 1933, the only such work of Lajtha’s to be staged in his life-time. The ballets Le bosquet des quatre Dieux (“The Grove of Four Gods”) of 1943 and the Capriccio - Puppet Show of 1944 are only known from the suites derived from their music, while the opera Le chapeau bleu (“The Blue Hat”), with a libretto by Salvador de Madariaga, had its first performance on Hungarian Radio as late as 1990 and has still not been staged.

The libretto of Lysistrata was based by Lajtha and the Hungarian poet Lajos Äprily on the Lysistrata by Aristophanes. The women on both sides are tired of the war between Athens and Sparta. They want peace, but the elders who control matters keep the hostilities going. At the instigation of Lysistrata, the women offer a sacrifice to Aphrodite and seek her help. She also persuades the women to refuse their husbands their conjugal rights, as long as the combatants refuse to make peace. The army of women defend their citadel against the elders, who want to set it on fire. The warriors of Athens and Sparta make common cause and, joining forces with the women, defeat the old men. After this everyone goes home happily together and Lysistrata, still single, thanks Aphrodite.

Shortly after the first performance an interview with Lajtha was carried by the periodical Delibab: Reading the Lysistrata by Aristophanes in Janos Arany’s translation, I was captured by the theme being so danceable: everything can be expressed by movement, every confession of love or feeling. In Lysistrata the protagonist is the crowd, with the soloists merely episodic. The main events are the conspiracy of the women, the fratricidal strife, with individuals only providing additional colouring.

The ballet was produced at the Hungarian Opera House on 25 February 1937, when the conductor was János Ferencsik, the stage director Gusztav Olah, the choreographer Rezsö Brada and the stage designer Zoltan Fülöp. The famous mezzo-soprano Piroska Tutsek was cast in the title role, because Lysistrata does not have to dance. The piece had a run of four nights, but since 1937 it has never been staged again.

The ballet score consists of a series of closed numbers. This must also have facilitated the composition of a suite. The latter has four movements, Prelude et Hymne, Marche Burlesque, Valse Lente and Can-Can and was first performed in November 1936 in the Vigadó (Redout), six months before the staging of the ballet. As Lajtha’s most detailed biographer, Janos Breuer, notes, the suite was the only orchestral composition by Lajtha to be played in concert in Budapest unti11945. This fact shows the neglect that Lajtha suffered all through his life, while his music was better known abroad, in Western Europe. To Breuer’s knowledge the suite was performed in Rome and in Brussels in the 1936–37 season, and also, in the composer’s life-time, in Paris, London and Melbourne.

Lajtha wrote his In memoriam in 1941, describing it, in a sub-title, as Piece symphonique pour orchestre. His intention was to give a measure of eternity to the victims of the Second World War and the incompleteness of the title may suggest the anonymity of the dead as well as the incomplete nature of the list of the fallen, with millions still to be killed in the most terrible of all wars. As a young man, the composer had served as an artillery officer and had first experience of these horrors. The shocking single-movement dramatic composition lasts about twenty minutes and is an eloquent protest against war and against the helplessness and senselessness of human suffering. The basic dynamics of the work range from piano and pianissimo to fortissimo, as the cries of pain burst forth, always followed by the silence of shock. Having already written music for the cinema, Lajtha almost projects before the listener’s inner eye the procession of victims and the agony of those left mourning.

In memoriam was dedicated to the BBC and was conducted in London by Sir Adrian Boult. In May 1945, when concerts could be held once more, this work was the first premiere to be given in Budapest, where it was played again on 2 April 1963, six weeks after Lajtha’s death, together with the ballet suite Capriccio, conducted by one of the composer’s most talented pupils, János Ferencsik.

With nine symphonies and several other symphonic works, Lajtha is the first major symphonist in Hungarian music. While his contemporaries Bartók and Kodály made little use of the genre, Lajtha found it the most meaningful, together with the string quartet. This affinity with the symphony, inherited from classicism, was also relatively rare among contemporary composers abroad. Written when Lajtha was 44, the Symphony, unnumbered at this time, has three movements, like several of his later symphonies. These are fast (Allegro), slow (Andante) and fast (Allegro molto), are turn to the traditional three-movement form of the Italian opera overture or sinfonia, a forerunner of the classical symphony itself.

Lajtha’s symphonies can be divided into two groups. Chronologically close but sharply different in contents are the vigorous and optimistic First Symphony of 1936 and the dramatic and ominous Second Symphony of 1938, the latter suggesting the dread that came over the composer at the signs of coming war. After a break of ten years, he continued the series, with a new symphony every two or three years, until 1961.

Symphony No.1 has been particularly neglected and the composer’s affinity with the Latin or French spirit, mastery of Western musical idiom and reliance on Hungarian folk-music is here apparent. He had had earlier experience of writing for a large orchestra, with film music, ballet and orchestral suites before 1936. In the symphony his exceptional gift for instrumentation, the richness of his melodic invention and his humour are all present.

The First Symphony is dedicated to the famous Austrian film director Georg Höellering, in memory of their collaboration in Hortobligy, a film of the Hungarian puszta. The first performance of the symphony was in the Netherlands and in Hungary it was performed by the Radio Orchestra under the direction of János Ferencsik. This studio concert was broadcast also in London, Paris and Prague.

Emöke Solymosi Tari

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