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ClassicsOnline Home » LEVY, E.: Symphony No. 7 (Polish National Radio Symphony, Oberg)
Ernst Lévy (1895–1981)
Symphony No. 7
Ernst Lévy, born in Switzerland in 1895 and very much a musical Wünderkind, 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.
In Symphony No. 7, a long narrative work, a musical drama without a plot, we are propelled from the start into an intense and stressful musical landscape. It is one of my father’s longest works with the added problem of being all in one extended, mostly slow, movement. A mood of gloom and despair seems to pervade throughout with a feeling of quiet resignation at the end. It is scored for a huge orchestra, including a saxophone quartet and solo piano. The saxophone was one of my father’s favourite orchestral instruments, which he used both as part of the mass orchestral texture, as he does in this work, and as a solo instrument in many of his later orchestral works, such as the Tenth Symphony. I remember my father describing to me how he had to sit on the floor in order to work on the huge score of the Seventh Symphony in the small cottage, part of a large estate, which he occupied at the time of its composition. That was in 1925, five years before I was born. It appears that a film crew was working on a feature film outside the cottage, which caused him considerable annoyance. He was thirty years old and in a very stressful stage of his personal and professional life. Disappointment in love and difficulties in establishing a professional career were weighing heavily on him. He had long arrived on a distinctive musical style, a diatonic polyphony with great rhythmic flexibility, and had already dispensed with metric signatures in order to accommodate the open rhythmic structure of his music. It is interesting to note that the Seventh Symphony, which was completed in 1926, was actually written eight years before the Sixth Symphony (Sinfonia Strophica), dedicated to my mother Elsa Hammerschlag, which was composed between 1933 and 1934. At the time he wrote the Seventh Symphony, he was not yet married nor had he yet met my mother. I do not know the reason for this curious reversal of order. The overall form of the work consists of strophes, sections or statements, continuously evolving from one to the other, which was one of the hallmarks of my father’s form concept. The flexible rhythms as well as the modal melodic character of the work and its extremely expansive melodic flow, foreshadow my father’s later style. The contrapuntal intricacies of the later works are not yet to be found here, however. Instead we find a variety of textures, sometimes discordant, sometimes plodding, sometimes soothing (as in the long, quiet ending), but always fascinating and intriguing. Many passages have a certain hypnotic quality and textures somewhat reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen’s mystical and labyrinthine organ works. Although the Seventh Symphony is a lengthy, intense and sometimes challenging work, it holds ones attention throughout its span of 55 minutes or so.
Frank Ezra Lévy
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