About this Recording
9.70154 - LEVY, E.: Symphony No. 10, "France" (Polish National Radio Symphony, Maull)

Ernst Lévy (1895-1981)
Symphony No. 10 ‘France’


Ernst Lévy, born in Switzerland in 1895 and very much a musical Wunderkind, was appointed to the piano faculty of the Basel Conservatory of Music by the time he was 21. When he was 25, he moved to Paris and quickly established himself. In 1928 he founded the Choeur Philharmonique, with which he conducted performances of major choral works, and recorded some of them for Polydor records. While living in Paris he married Else Hammerschlag, a Viennese woman whose father had been Mahler’s personal physician, and fathered two sons, Frank and Matthys.

As Europe was about to lapse into chaos, in 1939 Lévy’s family sailed to the United States, where he joined them in 1941. City University of New York professor Robert H. Lilienfeld, who has chronicled the achievements of both Ernst and Frank Lévy, starkly noted: “…he was one of the refugees who arrived in America in flight from the crisis of European civilisation which culminated in World War II”.

Once in the United States Lévy began a distinguished teaching career. Among his faculty appointments were tenures at such prestigious schools as MIT, New England Conservatory and the University of Chicago. During this time he composed prolifically. His works include fifteen symphonies, music for solo piano, concertos, choral works and chamber music for various combinations of instruments.

Despite his teaching schedule and the many hours spent composing, Ernst Lévy continued to perform as a piano recitalist and recorded many works for Kapp, Unicorn and Columbia Records, among others. The 1954 Columbia performances were never released, but now have been made available on a Marston CD: ERNST LÉVY Forgotten Genius Plays Beethoven, Liszt and Lévy. Donald Manildi, in his notes accompanying the CD, states: “Lévy’s performances are not for the faint of heart”. Manildi is warm in his praise, but indicates that there are critics who strongly disagree. Lilienfeld, siding with Manildi, hails Lévy as “...one of the truly great pianists of his generation”.

Ernst Lévy possessed a powerful intellect that led him to probe many other disciplines including mathematics, architecture, physics, acoustics and philosophy. All of these influences made their way into the musical Gestalt of this remarkable artist who died in Switzerland in 1981.

Lévy’s son, composer Frank Ezra Lévy, had the following to say about his father’s Tenth Symphony: “I was there when he wrote it—really not long after he came to this country and went to Boston—and I loved it. The first material he composed was the Élégie française, which was to become the symphony’s third movement. It was written as a completely independent composition for the New England Conservatory Orchestra, which gave the première. The Élégie also received a second performance from the National Orchestral Association under conductor Leon Barzin, which pleased my father very much. He was actually quite depressed when he wrote the Élégie— mostly about having to leave France.”

“During the summer of 1944, we were invited to Skowhegan, Maine by my father’s friend Paul Boepple. Boepple, conductor of the Dessoff Choir in New York City, had arranged for my father to give master-classes in piano and harmony for students from the New England Conservatory at the Boepples’ large summer property which had a lake, multiple cottages and a lodge—kind of an ideal summer camp setting. The lodge in which we were staying had a desk at which my father wrote the closed score for the first and fourth movements of the Tenth Symphony. I was thirteen at the time and recall spilling a bottle of his ink—something he didn’t seem to get too upset about!

“One of the interesting things is that the first movement is so different in feeling from the Élégie. It’s much sunnier—probably due to the fact he was much happier in that beautiful setting. And of course every time he finished a section, he would get together with Paul, and they would play the section on the piano four-hands. When he got back to Boston in the fall, my father finished the remaining movements and orchestrated them—as well as those he had composed during the summer.”

A close friend and colleague of Ernst Lévy, Dr Siegmund Levarie, who now resides in Brooklyn, NY, has supplied the following notes on the Tenth Symphony written by the composer. Dr Levarie believes these are the composer’s only known written programmatic materials for any of his symphonies. The allusion at the end of Ernst Lévy’s notes is to a broadcast of the Tenth Symphony which may have taken place in the United States.

Ernst Lévy: Tenth Symphony (1944), ‘France’

Chaque homme a deux patries—
La sienne, et puis la France. (Benjamin Franklin)

The central piece of the symphony is the third, slow movement, Élégie française—a dirge on the end of something infinitely precious, of which the downfall of France in 1940 seemed to be a symbol. The piece is built on two different elements, the first being a melody In the Dorian mode, strophically developed in pure polyphony, and second being a sort of gracefully melancholy sarabande. The Élégie française was written before the rest of the work and had been originally conceived as an independent piece. As such it was performed several times, before and after completion [NE Conservatory (EL), Paris Radio (Horenstein), University of Chicago (Levarie), Chicago Symphony (Kubelík)].

The movement preceding the Élégie is a tragic one—a sort of inexorable march toward a catastrophe. There are two interlocking sets of strophes, one being a series of variations, the other, the exposition or a chorale.

The first movement—so much in C major that it is practically free from sharps or flats—is lyrical in the sense that it shows no dialectic development, but rather a hymnic one, its general character being joyful in a noble and graceful way. The movement is built symmetrically in respect to a middle part which is a fugue.

The fourth movement, a very short intermezzo where the horn appears as a soloist, represents a transition from the preceding desolation to a new reality, through a visionary dream of happiness. Incidentally this is the only piece of music that ever came to me in my sleep…I remember very well having had a vision of people dancing in a forest clearing by night, and I heard the horn call which is the theme of the intermezzo.

With the fifth and last movement, life begins anew. The movement has two distinct parts. The first consists of a double fugue, the second theme being the inversion of the first. The second part consists of a set of variations or metamorphoses of a monody which is a synthesis of the main elements of the symphony. It might be noted that in the process of metamorphisation the carlllon from Bizet’s Arlésienne appears—also a trumpet call evoking the Marseillaise.

Ernst Lévy

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