Thüring Bräm. Ernst Levy (1895-1981): A Composer Alongside of the Mainstream 24 Jun 2010


The Outer Career: The Child Prodigy, Pianist and Teacher

As a practical musician, Levy ranks with the great pianists of the first half of the 20th century. The well-known music critic, Andrew Porter, mentions Levy in the same breath with Schnabel, Solomon, Backhaus and Kempff, and places him even closer to Busoni who, like Levy, was a composer, music theorist and philosopher as well as pianist (New Yorker Magazine, May 30, 1977).

Unfortunately, very few recordings of Levy's piano performances exist.  The few private tapes or radio recordings which are available are overwhelming in their brilliance and depth. (e.g. Haydn Sonates, Beethoven op. 106 and 111, Schumann's Etudes Symphoniques, the Liszt Sonate, Brahms' Handel Variations and op. 118.)
From diary notes made by Levy's nurse, we can trace the stages in the development of Levy's extraordinary musical talent. His musical career as pianist begins in 1901 when he is six years old and gives his first public concert in Basel, playing the Haydn D-Major Concerto.  In 1904, he performs a concerto by Hummel and in 1905, Mendelssohn's Capriccio in B-Minor.

In 1906 (Levy is now 11 years old), his teacher, Hans Huber, writes a letter to the rector of the Gymnasium which results in Levy, on the basis of his extraordinary talent, being excused from further public education and being allowed early entrance examinations for the university.  Levy finishes his studies at the Basel Conservatory in 1910, playing a Liszt Concerto in his final examination concert.  He continues his piano studies with Pugno in Paris. Hans Huber dedicates his D-Major Piano Concerto to him, which Levy performs, among other places, in Berlin with the Berlin Symphony. His development as a child prodigy and his early career guarantees him a position in 1917 at the conservatory in Basel. He leaves this post in 1921 to go to Paris. He has achieved everything he could in his hometown and, as he puts it, 'feels like the dregs in Basel.

Alongside of his performing and composing activities, he now begins to be active as a journalist as well.  He writes regular notes for the newspaper, the Baseler Nachrichter in which he describes the eventful music life of Paris of the early 1920s. The names Stravinsky, Milhaud, Honegger are often mentioned. In 1928, he founds the 'Choeur Philharmonique de Paris' with which he performs the great chorus works and makes a reputation for himself as a conductor.  He begins composing his own choral pieces.  At the same time, he travels every month to La Chaux-de-Fonds, where he teaches a professional class in piano.

In the wake of the political events of the 1930s, he tries to establish himself once again in Switzerland, this time in Lausanne.  However, it soon becomes evident that his name is not welcome there.  He emigrates to the U.S.A., where he establishes an outstanding university career.  From 1941-45 he is at the New England Conservatory in Boston; from 1945, a teacher at Bennington College in Vermont; from 1949, at the University of Chicago; from 1954 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and from 1959-66, at New York University (Brooklyn College) as Professor for Music.

Following his retirement in 1966, Levy returns to Switzerland, to Morges on the Lake of Geneva. He reappears in Basel in 1974 as the State Expert for examinations at the Basel Conservatory.

Levy died at Easter, 1981, at the age of 86 in Morges.

The Inner Career: The Composer

Ernst Levy once commented that the fact that he was forced to spend the greater part of his life in America was a stroke of luck.  The American universities gave him the opportunity to earn his living as a many-sided humanist, without restricting his creativity and without forcing him to market himself in the big business music world.

The price of being outside of the public spotlight was that Levy never heard many of his own works performed, among them, the 15th Symphony on this record. He suffered from being so little performed, but nevertheless remained a creating composer until the end.

This ability to continue creating in the absence of a large audience is in harmony with Levy's idea that music is basically not a communication system. That is, he did not see his music as a kind of code used to convey messages to an audience. Music for Levy was rather a kind of communion through which his philosophical world view and musical universe could be shared with others. His judgment of performances of his works (and of music interpretation in general) can best be understood in light of his idea of music being a sharing of a musical universe: "Il y a ceux qui comprennent et ceux qui ne comprennent pas" ("There are those who understand and those who don't understand ").

After Levy found 'his' style during his Paris years (1925-30), he never changed it again.  He rearranged the same material over and over, always striving to refine his contents an ever clearer form. (In his last years, Levy humorously observed that his drive for always clearer expression was his kind of competition with Verdi and his output.) We thus have from Levy's last years vital and splendid works, not the least his last, the Sonata for Ten (1980) of which exists an excellent cassette recording of a performance with New York musicians under the direction of Siegmund Levarie.

In 1963, Levy wrote an article for the Magazine, Chord and Discord, in which he discusses Anton Bruckner's music. This crucial article reveals much about Levy's own musical thinking, especially his determination to continuously reformulate the same material and thereby come somewhat closer to the truth:

The inherent dramaticism of Bruckner's symphonies does not result so much from conflict, from dialectic as from a TRAVERSAL OF STATES OF BEING, embodied in the succession of the strophes. That is the theme common to all the symphonies, so much so that it might be no more just to say that Bruckner wrote but one symphony in nine versions. This again is a feature that will most people as a strange one - and that is no wonder times like ours, when 'new' automatically carries the connotation of 'better', when 'better' can only be thought of as being also 'new', and when it has been almost forgotten that the essential inner experiences are always the same, and at the same time are always new. Bruckner's music, however, is deeply traditional. His ways are much like those of the oriental artist who will paint the same subject over and over again, gradually approaching the Divine by drawing nothing else perhaps in all his life but bamboos.

('Bruckner's Want of Success'
Chord and Discord. Vol. 2, No. 10, 1963, p. 163-4.)

In this same article, Levy discusses Bruckner's idea of musical form:
An impression of 'development' now arises from the way the various periods follow each other. We are presented with a strophical rather than with a dialectal principle.... The effect is comparable to that of a series of terraces. (p. 163)

These comments of Levy on Bruckner are also particular apt for describing Levy's own style. A good example is Levy's Sonata Strofica (1970), a work for a large chamber orchestra. The title of this piece already indicates the special features of the style. 'Sonata' is meant here as a 'sounding' piece and not in the sense of a Beethoven sonata in which a line of tension evolves out of the dialectic development of themes and motives. The tension in this piece is created through the juxtaposition of 13 lyrical movements or verses which spread fanlike in different directions from the 'primary sound form'.

When asked about his early musical models, Levy replied that he actually had no real models, but rather composers or composing attitudes with which he felt spiritually related. As a scholar of European music history, Levy lets himself be influenced by remote historical phenomena such as the tension of consonance and dissonance resulting from the superposition of melodic lines in the music of the 13th century. The attitude of Monteverdi, in whose work poetic and musical values are evenly balanced, is closer to him than the attitudes of his contemporaries Stravinsky and Schoenberg. For example, Levy's piece 'A Musical Gathering' for ten players, written in 1969, would have for Levy been ideally performed in an Italian Renaissance palace in analogy to the early forms of Italian opera. Levy had a critical opinion of his contemporaries Schoenberg and Stravinsky. He found Stravinsky's innovations in the area of rhythm impressive, although he didn't like the static motorics in 'Sacre du printemps': "C'est de la musique qui ne marche pas, c'est de la musique qui piétine" ("This music does not go forward, it stamps in place"). He sees here a mechanization of music which leads to a "calcifying, deadening and, above all, a dehumanizing of music making.... /which is/ unfortunately the expression of our time" (letter dated from Paris, Dec, 21, 1921). The organization of pitch in Schoenberg's twelvetone technique is, for Levy, also too theoretical, too unnatural. With the expanding influence of the technical media, through recordings and electronic music, Levy sees the person becoming diverted from the direct spontaneity of the creative spirit.

Out of this dialectic with the spirit of his own time, developed Levy's own style, alongside of the mainstream.
In his short autobiography (Musique, XXXVIIIe, January 1971, Conservatoire La Chaux-de-Fonds), Levy takes his own position concerning his peculiar situation of "Neben-der-Zeit-Stehen" ("Standing Alongside of the Times"):

When I arrived in Paris in 1920, I was considered old fashioned. When I left Paris 20 years later, I was considered 'too advanced'. Actually, I had not essentially changed.

Kussevitsky had to drop Levy's Third Symphony from the program because it was too modern. The same thing happened with the Fifth Symphony in the 1930s in Utrecht, for fear of a scandal.
Levy resists being categorized and he is not easily categorizable. He developed his completely own style. However we try to place Levy and his music in history, his honesty and unwillingness to compromise in his attitude and in his compositions remain convincing.

The Theoretician and Writer

Although Levy's importance as a musician lies primarily in his pianistic and composing activities, he must also be mentioned as a writer. He very early shows an interest in observing music not as an isolated activity but rather in all its interrelationships with other fields. Alongside of his musical education, he took courses at the University of Basel in musicology, philosophy and art history. He wrote his musical notes for the Basel newspaper from Paris in the 1920s and, during his American period, gave lectures which ranged far wider than questions of musical detail. In America, he wrote, together with his friend, Siegmund Levary, the acoustics book, Tone, and a few years ago decided (again, in collaboration with Levary) to make a 'Dictionary of Musical Morphology'. His humor and sharpness of thinking are readily apparent in numerous historical articles and, especially, in his book, Rapports entre la musique et la société (Baconnière, 1979). In this collection of anecdotal aphorisms are comments which prod the reader to deeper reflection and, at the same time, are typical of Levy's turn of phrase: "Les ultra-modernes sont souvent des romantiques qui se genent" and "Il faut penser musique tout le temps, en faire beaucoup, en écouter peu" ("The ultramoderns are often [inhibited] Romantics [who are constraining themselves]" and "It is necessary to think music constantly, to make it often, to listen to it little" ).

Th. B. Basel, 1982
Translated by Dr. Penny Braem-Boyes

Bibliografische Hinweise:
Ernst Levys Werke samt Werkkatalog sind in der Obhut der Basler Universitätsbibliothek.

Sein mehr als 160 Nummern umfassender Werkkatalog enthält 15 Sinfonien, Konzerte für Violine, Trompete und Violoncello, eine grosse Zahl Kammermusikwerke (u.a. 5 Streichquartette, drei Werke mit grösserer gemischter Besetzung: Sonata for Ten, A Musical Gathering, Sonata strofica), Orgel- und Klavierwerke, Klavier- und Orchesterlieder, 9 Kantaten, Chormusik.

Bezüglich Ernst Levys Biografie und Geisteshaltung sind folgende Artikel und Interviews von zentralem Interesse:

Ernst Levy: Bruckner's Want of Success. Chord and Discord.
Vol. 2, Nr. 10 (The Bruckner Society of America, New York, 1963)
Siegmund Levarie: La Musique d'Ernst Levy. SMZ 1968, Nr. 3
Ernst Levy: Curriculum vitae suivi de quelques aveux et
remarques. Musique, Bulletin du Conservatoire de La Chaux-de-Fonds. XXXVIIIe année, Janvier 1971
Siegmund Levarie: L'oeuvre d'Ernst Levy. Revue Musicale de la Suisse romande Nr. 5, Hiver 1976, 29e année
Ernst Levy: Aperçu sur un arrière-plan de l'histoire de la musique. Revue Musicale de la Suisse romande, No. 2, Printemps 1978, 31e année.
Thüring Bräm: Interview mit Ernst Levy. Radio DRS Basel, Januar 1980
Bernard Falciola: Vier Sendungen über Ernst Levy. Radio de la Suisse Romande 1980
Siegmund Levarie: Ernst Levy, 1895 - 1981. SMZ Nr. 4, Juli/August 1981, 121. Jahrgang
Greifbare Aufnahmen seiner Werke der letzten Jahre:
Sonata strofica. Aufnahme Radio DRS, 1980. Basler Musiker unter der Leitung von Thüring Bräm
Sonata for Ten. Private vervielfältigte Aufnahme mit
New Yorker Musikern, 1981, unter der Leitung von Siegmund Levarie.
Ferner frühere Orchesterwerke bei Radio DRS Basel und Kammermusik bei Radio SR in Genf

Bibliographical References

Ernst Levy's works, together with a catalogue of his works, are deposited at the Basel University Library. The catalogue, which contains more than 160 items, includes 15 symphonies, concertos for violin, trumpet and cello, a large number of chamber music works (e.g. 5 string quartets, 3 works for large chamber music groups), organ and piano music, songs with piano and orchestra accompaniment, 4 cantatas, and choral music.

25 Jan, 1980



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