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ClassicsOnline Home » LEVY, E.: Symphony No. 11 (Polish National Radio Symphony, Oberg)
Ernst Levy (1895–1981)
Symphony No. 11
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”. One suspects that, were it not for Lévy’s intuition regarding the impending Holocaust, audiences would probably never have benefited from either his or his son’s compositional talents.
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. The Concerto for Cello and Orchestra was written while he served on the faculty of Bennington College in Vermont.
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.
Of the Eleventh Symphony by his father, Ernst Lévy, composer and author, Frank Ezra Lévy, has written: “The year was 1949. At the time, my father was living alone in Chicago, between wives and between symphonies. He had recently moved there from Bennington, Vermont where he had taught at Bennington College. Now, at the behest of Ernest Hutchins, the President of the University of Chicago, my father was a newly appointed adjunct professor at the university. He began the Eleventh Symphony in the spring and finished it on 17 July in New York.
The work is cyclical in form. My father described the middle section as influenced by the funeral scene from James Joyce’s Ulysses, which he had recently read. After this funereal episode with its stark combination of solo trombones and tenor drums, the previous sections are repeated in reverse order, ending with a re-working of the ponderous and majestic opening fugue.
It is interesting to note that, with the Eleventh Symphony, fugues (especially slow fugues) became an important feature of many of my father’s subsequent works. This was largely owing to the influence of composer Hugo Kauder, whose very personal style encompassed a unique manner of slow fugue. The two composers respected each other greatly, comprising a kind of mutual admiration society, which lasted until Kauder’s death in the early 1970s.
When the conductor Fritz Reiner was shown a copy of the Eleventh Symphony, he dismissed it as ‘just a lot of dry fugues’, a remark worthy of inclusion in Nicholas Slonimsky’s Dictionary of Musical Invectives. Slonimsky was an old friend of my father’s from the time he was teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
When the Fromm Foundation was organized, the founding director Siegmund Levarie, a devour champion of my father’s music, did his utmost to promote both Lévy’s and Kauder’s music. Apart from a few isolated performances and publication, not much came of this. Boosey and Hawkes were assigned the publication rights to the Eleventh Symphony but it was never performed publicly.”
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LEVY, E.: Symphony No. 11 (Polish National Radio S...