About this Recording
8.573644 - LAJTHA, L.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (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. 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 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 Liszt to be elected a corresponding member of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. Lajtha died in Budapest on 16 February, 1963.

László Lajtha’s symphonies constitute an outstanding chapter in the history of twentieth-century Hungarian music. The symphony (along with the string quartet) was the form best suited to Lajtha’s musical ideas, and his symphonic works are all the more fascinating since many of his contemporaries did not go beyond experimentation with the genre. The second of his nine symphonies was completed in 1938 but has remained unpublished.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 1938 Second Symphony is in marked contrast to that of the first, which was completed in 1936. The sombre and brooding tone recalls Lajtha’s experiences in the First World War, in which 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 in his symphony he protested against violence, inhumanity and the coming catastrophe. The work has three movements instead of the usual 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 instrument being scored for in Lajtha’s symphonies.

The full title of the 1948 variations is 11 Variations pour Orchestre, Op. 44, sur un thème 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 at the invitation of the film maker Georg Höllering. In the 1930s Georg Höllering (1900–1980) had made a documentary film of the Great Hungarian Plain know as the puszta and had asked Bartók to write the background music. The latter, who held Lajtha in great esteem, recommended the younger composer. (Bartók, in fact, had written in a letter in 1920 claiming that, apart from Kodály and Lajtha, Hungary had ‘no valuable composers’.) The collaboration between Lajtha and the Austrian director was so successful that it seemed inevitable that the latter should invite him to provide incidental music for his film of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, despite the fact that the film had no Hungarian connection. Höllering, Eliot and Lajtha had their first discussion in May 1947 and in a subsequent 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”. In the autumn of 1947 Lajtha moved to London with his family for a year and there, 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 the background score to a film should withstand performance as an individual entity, and not just be viewed as ‘film music’. The film soundtrack incorporates excerpts from each of the three works.

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 not 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 to the cinematography 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 the concept of ‘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 generally agreed that Lajtha’s music was flawless.

Emőke Solymosi Tari
Edited Naxos 2016

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