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ClassicsOnline Home » LEVY, E.: Symphony No. 12 (J.S. Rodgers, Bunce, C. Scholl, Polish National Radio Symphony, Oberg)
Ernst Lévy (1895–1981)
Symphony No 12
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. At the age of 25 he moved to Paris and quickly established himself. In 1928 he founded the ChœurPhilharmonique, 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 convulse into chaos, Lévy’s family sailed to the United States in 1939, 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 civilization which culminated in World War II.” One suspects that, were it not for Lévy’s intuition regarding the impending Holocaust, audiences would probably have never 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.
Despite his teaching schedule and the many hours spent composing, he 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 that 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.
Dr Siegmund Levarie, a close friend and associate of the composer, has written of his memories concerning the origins of the Twelfth Symphony.
“Ernst Lévy’s Twelfth Symphony was written to order—not commissioned by a patron, but created by special circumstances at the University of Chicago in 1951. At that time he and I were colleagues on the faculty of the Music Department. Beside our academic obligations, I was in charge of setting up the programs for our annual subscription series of chamber music. The sophisticated University audience of students, faculty, and friends permitted me to schedule, beside the standard repertoire, unusual or rarely heard works.
For the 1951–52 season I had decided to present a song cycle by the composer Hugo Kauder based on ten poems from James Joyce’s Chamber Music, scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and string quartet, and lasting about 25 minutes. What could I find to fill the rest of the evening? When nothing seemed to fit, I asked Ernst Lévy whether he had any ideas, and he promptly offered to write a work utilizing the available time and forces. The limited budget allowed for the addition of six additional wind players.
Ernst Lévy devoted his Swiss summer vacation to the composition, finishing it [according to his note in the score] on 6 August 1951, in Ronco/Ancona; the full score he completed on 9 October in Basel [his birthplace]. The first performance, preceded by Hugo Kauder’s Chamber Music, took place on 7 March 1952, in the sold-out concert hall on the campus of the University of Chicago. Lévy conducted both works. The audience of over a thousand people was receptive and attentive throughout the one-hour duration of the Lévy symphony.”
For the program booklet Ernst Lévy sketched the outline of the seven movements printed below:
Chamber Symphony (Symphony No 12)
Exposition Air (soprano)
Air with one counter melody (tenor and violin II)
Air with two counter melodies (alto, violin II, violoncello)
All three voices a cappella (free imitation style)
Musical commentary on each line of the poem
Dr Levarie continues his memories of the origins of the symphony: “After leaving Chicago in 1954 for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lévy conducted the same program in Cambridge with first-desk players of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Boosey and Hawkes published Hugo Kauder’s Chamber Music, dedicated to my wife Norma and me, and sponsored by the Fromm Music Foundation, in 1955. The publication was eventually reissued by the Seesaw Music Corporation.”
Text for Movement 7
Harvesters’ Song by George Peele [1558?–1599?]
All ye that lovely lovers be,
Pray you for me:
Lo, here we come a-sowing, a-sowing;
And sow sweet fruits of love;
In your sweet hearts well may it provel
Lo, here we come a-reaping, a-reaping, a-reaping,
To reap our harvest-fruit!
And thus we pass the year so long,
And never be we mute.
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