Thüring Bräm. After a conversation with Ernst Levy 17 Mar 2011


The following passages are based on an interview with Ernst Levy on the occasion of his composer’s feature of January 25, 1980 at the concert series „Kammerkunst Basel“.

"... (Hans Huber’s) D-major Piano Concerto was played by a 15 year old from Basle, someone who has already begun to draw attention, Huber’s highly gifted student, Ernst Levy." I read this in a description of a concert from 1910 in a biography of Hermann Suter by Wilhelm Merian, who conducted the concert. I knew that in academic circles in the United States, the name of Ernst Levy was well known. In the archives of the Musikkreditkommission of Basle I had come across manuscripts (such as a 15th symphony, unperformed). Who was this Ernst Levy?

Levy was born on November 18, 1895 in Basle. He studied piano with Hans Huber at the Basel Conservatory from 1916 until 1920 after which he left Basel, feeling that he had exhausted the possibilities there. It wasn’t until 1974 that he returned to Basel as the ‘state expert’ for the conservatory’s diploma examinations. Meanwhile, Levy had founded the ‘Choeur Philharmonique de Paris’ in 1928. Not being able to regain a foothold in Switzerland (surely partly due to his name), he then emigrated for political reasons to the United States. There his positions included being a Carnegie Visiting Professor of Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his later years, Levy lived with his wife in Morges on the Lake of Geneva, remaining mentally as active as ever.

Ernst Levy writes in his absolutely own style. Coming out of the late-romantic music tradition, he consistently goes beyond the harmony-bound, striving for the linear, the melody and the melodic core. He places sequences reminiscent of the medieval style of the ‘organum’ alongside of strict contrapuntal sequences. Elements of folk songs appear, not as exaggerated ironic quotations, but rather as "a primary sound pattern”. Who are his role models? Levy feels this question is not rightly put. He says he has no models, but that his way of musical thinking is akin to that of, for example, Mahler, to whose Zeitgeist he feels closest. Stravinsky is completely foreign to his thinking, representing for him a dead end: "C'est de la musique qui ne marche pas, c'est de la musique qui piétine" (“It’s not a music that moves; it stomps”); it does not breathe. Also with Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique he cannot identify. For Levy, Schoenberg is the only composer who has developed a theory of composition but afterwards neither taught nor intended to teach it to anyone. Levy likes Monteverdi, in whose work the poetic and the musical have equal weight. He also feels a strong affinity to the 13th Century’s tension of dissonance and consonance that develops from the linear principles of the melodic line.

Is the "Sonata strofica", performed in this concert, not a "sonata" in the classical sense? No, it is more a sounding piece in the original sense of the word, "suonare". The piece develops from a basic formula, a primary sound form, which radiates in all directions like a fan. In a unison string trio in the last movement, this open, moving fan, held in a variety of angles, closes the “sonata strofica”.

The logic of the developments in Levy’s music is always of a purely musical nature and derivation. Multimedia aspects are of no interest to him. He says that, in the end, all is a question of metaphysics. He believes in the axioms that justify his music, although it is clear to him that he is at the end of a cultural era. Typical of his philosophy is his aphorism, aimed at our constant inundation through background music:  "Il faut penser musique tout le temps, en faire beaucoup, en écouter peu". (“One should always think music, make a lot of music, listen to less”.) These convictions characterize Levy's music and are the source of his own unique personal style.

Thüring Bräm, 25 Jan.1980 / February 2011



Log in to post a comment