László Lajtha (1892-1963)
LászlóLajtha, one of the greatest Hungarian composers of the first half of thetwentieth century, was born in Budapest on 30th June 1892.
He took his composer's diploma as a pupil of Viktor Herzfeld at the BudapestAcademy of Music and continued his studies in Leipzig and in Geneva, until 1914 spending six months of eachyear in Paris. There Lajtha was apupil of Vincent d'Indy, who introduced him to the musical world of Paris and the periods hespent there brought friendship with a number of people who exercised a decisiveinfluence on his musical language. He began to collect folk-music in the seconddecade of the century, then spending the four years of the war at the front asan artillery officer. In 1919 he was appointed to the teaching staff of theBudapest National Conservatory. From 1928 Lajtha was a member of theInternational Commission of Popular Arts and Traditions of the League of Nations and then a member ofthe Commission of Arts and Letters until the outbreak of the second World War.
He was also a member of the committee of the International Folk Music Council,based in London. It was in 1930 that hesigned his first contract with the Paris publisher Leduc, his exclusive publisher from1948. His international career as a composer began in 1929 with the award ofthe Coolidge Prize for his Third String Quartet.
Afterthe second World War László Lajtha became director of music for HungarianRadio, director of the Museum of Ethnography and of the National Conservatory.
In 1947, commissioned to provide film music, he spent a year in London, but onhis return lost all his official positions, for political reasons. In 1951 hereceived the Kossuth Prize for his activities in the field of folk-music. Hewas the only Hungarian composer since Franz Liszt to be elected correspondingmember of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. Lajtha died in Budapest on 16thFebruary 1963.
AlthoughLajtha was a very gifted pianist, a pupil of disciples of Liszt, Arpád Szendyin Budapest and Stavenhagen in Geneva, well able to enjoy a successful careeras a concert-pianist, his compositions for piano constitute only a minor partof his work as a composer, characteristic particularly of the early part of hiscareer. Four of his few compositions for piano were written between 1913 and1918, Des écrits d'un musicien, Opus 1, Contes, Opus 2, Sonate, Opus 3 and Prélude.
The first three were published shortly after their completion. In old age herecalled that it was Schoenberg who had the first pieces for piano performed inVienna in a concert of the Privataufführungen für neue Musik. In 1922 Béla Bartókw rote an appreciation of the young composer for The Chesterian, in which hepraised the surprising boldness of Des écrits d'un musicien, going on todescribe the Contes and Piano Sonata as evidence of the influence on thecomposer of the atonal school and Arnold Schoenberg and, at the same time, ofmodern Hungarian music. He found it too soon to make a definitive judgement,but expressed the opinion that Lajtha was a talented and innovative composerworthy of attention.
Inan earlier letter, dated 24th November 1920, Bartók wrote in fuller terms tothe English critic and composer Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock), explainingthat Lajtha, with whom he was on the most friendly terms, was not his pupil,since he only taught the piano at the Budapest Academy: only three works hadbeen published, all for the piano, and these would be sent to Heseltine, whileother compositions, chamber and orchestral music, had been neither publishednor performed, because, in Hungarian parlance, they were "toodifficult", furthermore the composer had done nothing to promote his work:apart from Kodály and Lajtha, Hungary had, in his opinion, no composer of importance.
Ifwe seek to discover the musical aspirations of Lajtha at the time ofcomposition of these piano works, we need to turn to his own reminiscences.
Recalling his earlier years, he said in 1962 that he had sought inrevolutionary changes the freeing of emotions and the kind of language thatwould enable him to express his sensibility: for this reason he had never likedWagner and found the world of German music after Schubert, with its sinisterheroic giants, quite alien: Bartók, who distanced himself from Tristan and whoeven at the end of his life was nearer to final period Beethoven, was fond ofteasing and always called him the Latin: Lajtha claimed he had struggled in allrevolutions for the freedom of musical language and would continue to do so inold age.
Lajtharejected the serial system of Schoenberg, describing it as a musical systemdepending on restrictive and pedantic rules. On the other hand, in an interviewwhen he was seventy, he was able to describe Debussy as the greatest master ofour time, who had opened windows, alluding also to the anti-Wagnerian opera Pelléaset Mélisande.
Desécrits d'un musicien, Opus 1, was published in 1913 under the aegis of EditionsRózsavölgyi in Budapest. In this year Lajtha completed his studies at theBudapest Academy of Music, was awarded his doctorate in Political Sciences andbecame curator of the musical instrumental collections of the National Museum.
The work is in nine movements (only four of these are included in thisrecording), to each of which the composer gave either a title or a quotationsuggesting a programme. The series of pieces represents, in some measure, theknowledge of musical expression, in particular that of Debussy, of the atonalschool associated with Schoenberg and Webern and above all the effect of Bartók,taken as a model. Even as a young man of 21 Lajtha shows himself here anindependent artist. Several characteristic traits of his later style areapparent in the cycle, including the importance of long melodic lines in thestructure, demanding forms, diversity of rhythm and instrumental virtuosity.
The titles are II?é?íK like a letter about myself..., III Motherhood, IV Elegy (inthe form of a triptych) and V Carnival Serenade.
LesContes pour piano, Opus 2, was written in 1914 and dedicated to Béla Bartók,the composer's very dear friend. Bartók himself corrected the proofs of thework, which was published by Harmónia in Budapest. Each of the"stories" of the expressionist series describes a picture or a moodin music. The programme is as follows:
1. ...Onceupon a time...a lamp placed on a wicker table formed a circle of gold on ahammock hanging between two trees...sang... "tell me a favouritestory"
2. ...theRascal's moving little story...
3. ...littlestory of calm, darkness, waiting and a big arm-chair
4. ...andthen the princess with golden hair on the plain strewn with violets...
5. ...littlestory of sadness...
7. ...littlestory of an avenue of flowering chestnuts, of a lace sca