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ClassicsOnline Home » LAJTHA: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9
László Lajtha (1892-1963) Orchestral Works Vol. 7
Symphony No. 8, Op. 66
Symphony No. 9, Op. 67
"One of the most beautiful musical creations to have reached us from the East for many years," wrote the critic, Claude Rostand about Lajtha's Eighth Symphony, after its première in Paris on May sixteenth, 1961, by the Orchestre National in the Théâttre des Champs Elysées, conducted by Manuel Rosenthal. Maurice Fleuret also took part in that performance and wrote a letter to the Hungarian composer the very next day. "Dear Maestro! I cannot express in words the soul-wrenching feeling which, last night, constricted the throats of the audience. Why was it not possible for you to have been among us, to have accepted this enthusiastic celebration in person, which most happily would have broken through all national boundaries! Your Eighth Symphony entirely disturbed us. I do not know what I loved in it most, whether it was its captivatingly frank inspiration, or the techniques that you employed in it, of which the masterly delicate and expressive instrumentation was one of the most important."
A very interesting letter has, survived among Lajtha's estate, written by his wife to his Parisian publisher, Claude Leduc, shortly before the symphony's premiere. Lajtha, as he was inclined to do, had gone on an expedition to collect folk-music. In his absence, his wife informed the publisher about her husband's interpretation of the composition. Among other things, the letter points out that in contrast to the great majority of symphonies that conclude with a joyous, hymnic finale, this composition progresses from light towards darkness. "There is no happy end. In fact, quite the opposite. No sooner do we sense the light of joy than we plunge into a merciless tragedy of inhumanity." This is a very accurate summary of Lajtha's four movement symphony.
The symphony was composed in 1959, three whole years after Soviet troops had crushed the 1956 Hungarian revolution. This explains the particularly tragic, lament-like atmosphere of the work. In this sense, the symphony is an organic continuation of his Seventh "Autumn" Symphony, which also commemorates the revolution. Lajtha was unable to attend the Eighth Symphony's Parisian premiere for political reasons: between 1948 and 1962, Lajtha was unable to travel abroad, with the exception of a single trip, and his passport was confiscated by the communist authorities. Although the programme notes of the Parisian performance claimed it was a world première, this actually had taken place the previous year on May twenty-first, with a performance by the Hungarian State Concert Orchestra, conducted by Lajtha's pupil, János Ferencsik.
The bright pastel colours of the Allègre et léger first movement, and its piano-pianissimo dynamics, capture the listener's attention from the very opening bar. The prescribed rhythm is unusual: 15/8. The asymmetric pulse goes to increase the feeling that we are not in a world of solid objects. It is as if we were gliding over some imaginary fairy world. It is no accident that Maurice Fleuret singled out the delicacy of the orchestration: the harp, celeste and xylophone receive just as important a rô1e in the magical combination of sounds, as the divided strings or the many secretive string tremolos. The dance-like melody, which is the defining theme of the movement, is first heard in the woodwinds as a bassoon solo. The traditional woodwind section is augmented with a piccolo, alto saxophone, English horn and contrabassoon, which further enrich the soundscape. Precisely because of the melodic role of the woodwind, and to a lesser extent, the brass, striking new sonorities are achieved with the introduction of a solo cello and at the very end of the movement when the first violin takes a leading role. The almost continuous scurrying sonorities are reminiscent of Mendelssohn's fairy music, most especially in the final bar, where the music dies away in the ethereal upper registers.
The second movement begins with a profound, and darkly coloured Lent et triste which, according to the letter, depicts "a cloud descending over everything." Although the basic tone is relaxed and delicate, occasional distant, frightening sounds are heard, thanks to the rich use of percussion and brass instruments. These suggest unambiguously that something unavoidably terrible is approaching. The virtuosic use of string tremolos and the vibrations of split phrases express an inner fear and apprehension. The beautiful violin melody heard at the end of the movement is unable to lighten the deep sorrow of the polyphonically treated melodic material.
The third movement is marked Très agité et toujours angaissé, and by contrast to the previous two movements, is filled with shocking fortes and powerful percussion and brass effects. The quiet interludes though, are spine chilling, and suggest utter bleakness. In connection with this movement, Lajtha's wife refers to "worry and terror", "unimpeded rush", "heart-wrenching screams." The music is at times grotesque and nightmarish. The peal of bells at the end of the movement means the end: after this unreal nightmare, this desperate flight, there is no return, no consolation.
If the symphony had finished at this point, as it might well have done since most of Lajtha's symphonies are cast in three movements, it would have presented us with a shocking experience. But Lajtha adds a fourth movement, which is entitled Violent et tourmenté. "It is a tragedy without consolation" wrote Lajtha's wife, and in her letter, she compares the fourth movement's atmosphere to Dante's Inferno. So from the heaven of the first movement, we finally arrive in Hell: from the ethereal pianissimo of the opening, we progress to heavy, painful fortissimos. After the wailing tutti introduction, the woodwinds intone the melody, reminiscent of the famous Rákóczi melody which was closely associated with the struggle from 1703 to 1711 against the Habsburgs led by Ferenc Rákóczi. The melody accompanied a variety of texts, which were just as applicable to the fate of Hungary in 1956 as they were during the Rácóczi era. Two episodes are wedged into this extraordinary outpouring of pain. In the first, a solo clarinet plays a beautiful melody, to two highly differentiated accompaniments which seem to come from a different, pure world, but in the form of pale fragments of memory. This section creates a strong contrast with the opening and the remaining music. The principal character of the second quieter section is a solo violin. This second interlude brings with it far more pain than does the first. The finale works itself up into a veritable dance of death.
"The Seventh and Eighth symphonies, which referred to Hungary's historical trials and tribulations, both enjoyed great success in Paris. But in reality, his final message, the Ninth Symphony, premièred at the Théâttre Champs-Elysées on May second, 1963, two and a half months after the composer's death, was the one that convinced us that László Lajtha was truly one of the greatest symphonic composers of the twentieth century", wrote Maurice Fleuret. The première was performed by the French Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Louis Soltesz and was an immense success. Lajtha's final symphony received its Hungarian première on April sixth, 1964 by the Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by János Ferencsik. Interestingly, there was a further première. On May twenty-eighth, 1978 a one-act ballet was performed to this symphony at the Erkel Theatre. It was choreographed by Imre Eck.
It is has been said on numerous occasions that the Ninth Symphony was composed "under the shadow of death." This hardly conforms to the facts. Although Lajtha was 71, he suffered a quite unexpected heart attack and died instantly. He still had many plans, and had regained his passport. In 1962, he toured Europe, where he was celebrated as an ethnomusicologist, a composer, and a conductor. He did not plan to spend long periods in Budapest, as he intended to accept his many invitations. Lajtha was not prepared for death and passed away with his creative powers still intact. The Ninth Symphony, written in 1961, begins in an unmistakably serious vein, and echoes what he perceived as Hungary's tragic fate as dealt by the twentieth century. Nonetheless, it is also characterized by a will to live and a form of religious elevation.
The order of the movements is the most typical of Lajtha: fast, slow, fast. The first movement has no instructions other than a metronome marking (crochet=92). This begins with a heart-wrenchingly painful melody, emerging sob-like, played by the full orchestra. Then a strange, resigned section follows, which owes its experimental character to it being performed by the percussion section. First the orchestra, then the alto saxophone, and finally the bass clarinet each intones a stumbling melody that radiates loneliness and inhibition. We seem to be passing through corpses on a burned out, devastated territory, perhaps a battlefield. A declamatory viola solo, seemingly improvised in folk fashion, gives sorrowful voice to the soul. Then the theme of lamentation heard at the beginning of the movement bursts forth once more with renewed elemental vigour, and in it, we can perceive the folk influence that was so important to Lajtha. During all this, a rhythmic pattern is heard three times seeming to evoke war. Then there is a huge polyphonic build-up, that seems to be clearing the decks for the emergence of a devout melody reminiscent of Gregorian chant. This pure, beautiful melody suddenly breaks off: the movement is closed with material that is percussive in effect: we hear the suggestive rhythm stripped to its bare essentials.
The action of the second Lento movement seems to take place in two worlds simultaneously. The first world has all the hallmarks of purity and beauty that characterizes the world to come, a world somehow outside space and time. Lajtha uses all his famous instrumental techniques to evoke this unique dream world. The harps, celeste, xylophone, side drum and bass drum are used prominently in the creation of the ethereal background. The melody is first intoned by the lower registered woodwinds (bassoon, English horn, alto saxophone), counterpointed by the strings. Then, like the blossoming of a beautiful flower, a longer melody unfolds in all its splendour in the solo flute, accompanied by enigmatic glissandos on the strings. Then, suddenly, a theme of a very different character intrudes into thia idyllic world: this melody is crude and frightening, and creates a sense of evil and anxiety. This is the earthly world, the terrible reality of wars and tyranny. It is actually very characteristic of Lajtha that he builds a defence against the unresolveable experiences of the outer world by creating an inner one. This is something that he explicitly talked about. These two contrasting musical materials alternate throughout the course of this movement.
Just as in the opening movement, the third movement, Vite begins with the percussion. From the very first, the drum hammers out "sixteen to the beat", and this gives the strings' material its fast perpetuum mobile character. This rhythm relentless and determines the rhythmic character of the whole movement. At first, a certain music is heard again and again, first in the flutes and then in ever-larger groups of instruments. In its spacing, it is reminiscent of a medieval parallel organum, and evokes the sky-shattering arches of Gothic cathedrals and their vast spaces. At the climax of the movement, a hymnic song of thanksgiving is played by the strings. It is as though the composer wants to embrace the entire world, and here it is impossible not to be reminded of the closing movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, as if he were thanking the creator for everything, both suffering and happiness alike. The finale thematically related to the more dramatic and darker opening movement, and this not only strengthens the workís inner cohesion, but also makes its positive message more evident. László Lajtha's Ninth Symphony closes with an ecstatic stretta coda.
Emoke Solymosi Tari
translated by Nicholas lenkins
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LAJTHA: Symphonies Nos. 8 and 9