Friday, January 24, 2014

Litolff - Concerto Symphonique No. 3 in E-flat Major 'National Hollandais'

Henry Litolff began his life in London, born in 1818 to a Scottish mother and a French father who had been a member of Napoleon's army who had been captured and taken to England. His father was his first teacher until he played for virtuoso pianist Ignaz Moscheles in 1830, who gave him free piano lessons. Litolff gave his first concert at fourteen years of age.

When he was seventeen he eloped with an English girl to Paris. He soon separated from his wife, moved to Brussels and ended up in Warsaw, Poland. He led the life of a traveling virtuoso and in 1844 settled in Germany and began teaching. One of his pupils was Hans von Bülow.

A wandering man by nature, he returned to England in 1845 to obtain a divorce from his wife but ended up in prison instead. He managed to escape prison (a rumor says that the jailer's daughter assisted his escape), bribed his way onto a fishing boat and ended up in Holland. He wrote his 3rd Concerto Symphonique in 1846 during his stay in Holland.

Litolff finally got a divorce from his wife and promptly married another woman in 1851, the widow of his friend and publisher Gottfried Meyer. Litolff gained control of the publishing house with the marriage, changed the name of the business to Litoll Verlag and created the Litolff Editions of classical music that were inexpensive and more readily accessible to the general public. Three years later Litolff turned the publishing house over to his step-son, divorced his second wife and  moved once again to Paris. He married again, and when his third wife died in 1873, he married his seventeen year old nurse. He died in a suburb of Paris in 1891 after suffering from bad health for a number of years.

In his younger years Litolff's piano playing abilities were so great that he earned the nickname of The English Liszt. The four existing Concerto Symphoniques (the first is lost) attest to his pianistic abilities for they are bristling with virtuoso writing and he played them in concert. But he was also a skilled and colorful orchestrator. The Concerto Symphonique is Litolff's contribution to the concerto literature and are so-called because they are 4-movement works. The works are written symphonically, as opposed to the concertos mainly written for pianistic display, but they essentially follow traditional concerto form in their first movements:

I. Maestoso -  The timpani opens the movement and leads the woodwinds to the statement of the beginning of the first theme. The first theme leads directly to the second theme which is shorter than the first.  Parts of the first theme return and lead to the entrance of the piano that plays a cadenza-like flourish. The piano and orchestra expand on the themes already heard. The development section contains the second theme that is now turned into a lyrical piece for piano and orchestra. Growing more and more passionate the music gives way to a short cadenza for the piano that leads to a restatement of the second theme and the first theme. Brilliant passages for the piano go up and down the keyboard as the music makes a rapid return to the beginning of the first theme that ends the movement.

II. Presto - Litolff's addition of a fourth movement to the piano concerto is always in the form of a scherzo. The pianist's rapid grace notes give the music a giddy quality that is overcome in the trio which is a full-throated march-like Dutch children's song, a tune Litolff heard while he was in Holland.  Litolff shifts the time signature from 3/8 in the scherzo to 6/8 in the march tune.

III. Andante - A simple song for piano and orchestra. There is a brief episode of tension, but the piano returns to the nocturne-like mood. The horn and the cellos play the tune in turn while the piano plays gentle figures as an accompaniment. The movement ends in a solemn mood.

IV. Allegro vivace -  The piano scampers up and down the keyboard in music of great lightness and agility. Litolff once again pays homage to his temporary Holland home as he quotes another Dutch tune as his second subject.

Litolff subtitled the concerto 'National Hollandais' (The Nation of Holland) and used two Dutch songs in the work as a tribute to the freedom he enjoyed after escaping prison in England.  He certainly lived a cosmopolitan life, and with such a busy life of concertizing, womanizing and publishing, where did he find the time to compose? His opus numbers go at least to 127, with a lot of other compositions without opus numbers, as well as 12 operas.

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