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8.573646 - LAJTHA, L.: Orchestral Works, Vol. 4 (Pécs Symphony, Pasquet)
László Lajtha (1892–1963)
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’lndy, who introduced him to the Paris musical scene, and this period 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 1974, 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.
Lajtha wrote his score for the ballet Lysistrata, based on the comedy by Aristophanes, in 1933, with a scenario written jointly by the composer and the poet Lajos áprily. The story of the play involves the action of women, tired of the war between Athens and Sparta. They want peace but the old war-mongers continue to keep the conflict going. Lysistrata calls on the women to offer a sacrifice to Aphrodite, whose help she seeks, and advises the women to refuse their husbands their conjugal rights as long as they insist on making war. While the wives of the contestants plot to end the war, the elders plan to set the citadel on fire, a stronghold defended by the women. Eventually the soldiers of Athens and Sparta come to terms, realising that it was the elder statesmen who sent them to war. Together with their womenfolk, they defeat the old schemers and the couples go home, while Lysistrata, who is unmarried, gives thanks to Aphrodite.
Of Lajtha’s four stage works, an opera buffa and three ballets, Lysistrata was the only one to be performed in his lifetime. Performances were given on four evenings between 25th February and 8th April 1937, with a fine cast. Choreography was by Rezsö Brada, with the director Gustáv Oláh and conductor János Ferencsik. The brilliant overture demonstrates Lajtha’s outstanding skill as an orchestrator and his sense of humour, making it difficult to understand the general neglect of the ballet since 1937.
One of the documents preserved in the Lajtha bequest in Budapest says of the Fifth Symphony that the work is ‘very tragic, epic, like a ballad’. It is not clear whether this description is from the composer himself or from his widow, but it is known that Lajtha tended to classify his works by mood, as is evident also with his Sixth Symphony. In a letter to his family, dated 27th May 1954, he clearly divided the symphonic works up to that point as either tragic or cheerful. Thus, the Third and Fifth of the symphonies are tragic, the Fourth cheerful.
The Fifth Symphony is dedicated to a musician friend, Henri Barraud, and was completed in 1952. It has two thematically related movements, with the end of the first repeated, note for note, after the second. The first movement, marked Très modéré, starts characteristically with a rubato played with full force in the woodwind and strings, crying out like some ancient folk-lament. This plaintive tone is further enhanced by brief chordal comments in the brass and percussion. Although later there are some comforting almost chorale-like motifs, the final mood of the movement suggests unrelenting harshness and torment. The second movement, marked Vite et agité, brings no relaxation. On the contrary, the music suggests persecution and strong feeling. Although there are occasional glimpses of hope, the lament that closed the first movement returns, bringing to mind a famous line from the Hungarian poet Endre Ady: “All that was whole has been shattered.”
The Fifth Symphony was first performed on 20th October 1952 by the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra, then the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra, under János Ferencsik. On 23rd October 1954 it was performed in Paris by the Orchestre National de la Radio et Télévision Française under the direction of Manuel Rosenthal. There were further performances abroad during the composer’s lifetime, notably in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, London and Cologne. In the United States of America it was first performed in 1960 by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under George Széll.
Like the symphonies of Beethoven, Lajtha’s seem to fall into groups of odd and even numbers, the odd numbers generally with a tense, dramatic atmosphere, a revolutionary, at times tragic character, while the even-numbered symphonies are usually lighter and more relaxed. The Fourth, the ‘Spring’ Symphony, falls between the weightier Third and Fifth, while the Sixth Symphony brings a mood of relaxation and diversion, sandwiched between the weighty Fifth and Seventh, which evokes the revolution of 1956. The work is dedicated to Albert Marinus and is in the classical four-movement form. This is unusual for Lajtha, who generally used a triple form of fast, slow and fast movements. A conspicuous feature of this work is the use of eleven different percussion instruments, which contributes to the playfulness and variety of the sound. Unusually Lajtha added in the score a warning note to conductors: “The prominent part given to the percussion should not give the impression that the composer wished the symphony to be noisy or brutal in character. The role of the percussion is to enrich the colour of the orchestral ensemble, to sustain and not stifle it.”
Although the whole work has uniquely colourful orchestration, the second movement, Très calme, is particularly notable in this respect. Lajtha divides the strings into sixteen parts: the first and second violins are divided into four groups each, the violas into two, the cellos into four and the double-basses into two. This enchanting filigree sound, in a triple piano dynamic, is further enriched by the use of percussion and harps, providing the background to solo material in the flute. Later on other instruments, the French horn, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, cello and finally the ethereal soaring of the first violin emerge in solo róles. The music finely evokes the woods at night, related in this way to Bartók’s famous nocturnal music. These two subtle inner movements are framed by sparkling outer movements, the first, Très vif, in free sonata-form and the fourth, Vif et bien rythmé, of a rondo character. In both the percussion plays a large part, virtuosic, humorous and bursting with the joy of life.
The Sixth Symphony was composed in 1955 and first performed on 5th November in the same year by the Hungarian State Orchestra under the direction of Lajtha’s famous pupil, János Ferencsik.
Emőke Solymosi Tari
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