Friday, 28 December 2018

Henry Charles Litolff: A Famous London Composer

Back in January of this year I flagged up that 2018 was the bi-centenary of Henry Charles Litolff. I guess that I had not realised that he was a British composer, despite having heard his delightful Scherzo many times. In fact, the Scherzo from the Concerto Symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Op. 102 is the only work that is regularly heard. There are currently some 12 or 13 recordings of this movement in the CD catalogues. This compares to only a single entry for the entire concerto! The other four piano concertos are represented by a single recording of nos. 2 and 4, two discrete versions of no.3 and none of no.1 (as this score is lost). As for any other music by Henry Litolff there appears to virtually nothing, although I did find reference to a now deleted LP of a Piano Trio. (Genesis ‎– GS1058/59)

What of Henry Charles Litolff himself? He was born in Marylebone, London on 7 August 1818. His mother, Sophia Hayes was Scottish, and his father, Martin Louis Litolff was Alsatian (Alsace Lorraine). Interestingly, Martin, serving in Napoleon’s army, had been captured during the Peninsular Wars. He was a violinist in a ‘dance band.’ Litolff studied music with his father until he was twelve years old. In his early years, he worked at the Bond Street premises of Collard and Collard where he demonstrated pianos. Collard was so impressed by the young man’s playing that, c.1831, he introduced him to the great pianist, teacher and composer Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) (in my opinion, an ‘honorary Englishman’ himself) and Litolff soon became one of his pupils.  One of his earliest solo appearances was at Covent Garden Theatre on 24 July 1832, as ‘a pupil of Moscheles, 12 years old…’ He was actually 14 years old.

Litolff studied with Moscheles for five years until he was 17, after which he eloped (1835) to Gretna Green with a certain Miss Elizabeth Etherington. After their marriage, they fled to Melun in the Île de France and then to Paris.  Unfortunately, the couple lived in near-penury. Shortly, Litolff separated from his wife. With encouragement from François Fétis, Henri Pape and Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann, he began to build his career as a pianist.  Tom Blair (Grove’s) suggests that Litolff moved to Warsaw for several years during which time he was conductor if the National Theatre. There is no record of this appointment.

Litolff went on to develop a stunning career as a virtuoso pianist. In fact, he was known as ‘The English Liszt’. As part of his solo career, Litolff travelled extensively throughout the world. He performed many concerts and recitals in Paris, Brussels, Leipzig, Prague, Dresden, Berlin and Amsterdam. Litolff suffered from a nervous disorder and was helped through this illness by the Bülow family. As a thank-you, he taught the great German conductor, composer and pianist Hans von Bülow for a short time.
Despite being a brilliant technician, his contemporaries often criticised his style as being ‘more showy than correct’

In 1845 he returned to England to attempt to get a divorce from Elizabeth, but his in-laws prosecuted him for abduction. He was fined heavily and given a prison sentence. He managed to escape with the assistance of the jailer’s daughter and set up base in The Netherlands.
The following year he became friendly with Gottfried and Julie Meyer. Meyer was the founder of Meyer music publishing. A few years later, Gottfried died and, after becoming a citizen of Brunswick, Litolff married Julie on 30 March 1851. The name of the firm was changed to Edition Litolff Verlag, later becoming noted for their yellow bindings. This popular edition made many of the ‘classics’ available to the ‘man in the street.’ The upshot of this was that for many years Litolff’s name was only recalled as a publisher.

Litolff was active in Brunswick music scene and was appointed Kapellmeister at the court of Ernest II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1855. He was not happy in his new marriage and repeatedly ran away from his wife. She eventually divorced him in 1858 (or was it the other way around?).  Litolff’s third marriage in 1860 was to Comtesse Blanche, who was the daughter of Count Wilfred de la Rochefoucald. In the same year, he transferred his business interest in Edition Litolff to his adopted son (from Julie Meyer) Theodor Litolff (1839-1912) and made his retirement to Paris. 
In 1873, three years after the death of Blanche, Litolff married for a fourth time, to the seventeen-year-old Lucie who had nursed him through his illness. Little is known about the years from 1873 until his death in 1891.
Henry Charles Litolff died at Bois-Colombes, near Paris on 5 August 1891, aged 73 years.

Litolff’s compositions include the above mentioned five piano concertos a dozen stage works, an oratorio as well as several chamber music works and more than a hundred solo piano pieces. There are four overtures including Maximilian Robespierre, op. 55 which is occasionally revived. In his day, his greatest success was his comic opera Heloise and Abelard – a somewhat strange subject for a comedy.

The important thing to recall about the ‘piano concertos’ are that Litolff effectively created a new form: these were ‘symphonies’ with a complex and virtuoso obligato. An ‘obligato’ is an essential accompanying solo passage for an instrument. In other words, it performs an important formal or structural function. What this means is that the orchestra generally introduces and develops the thematic material and the piano was used to provide textural interest. It was not a battle between orchestra and soloist. Musicologists see Henry Charles Litolff in a trajectory from the ‘classically-derived concertos of Hummel, Moscheles and Chopin’ towards the more romantic works of Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Edvard Grieg.

Finally, listen to Henry Charles Litolff most popular work, Concerto Symphonique No.4, Op.102 - 2. Scherzo on YouTube.  This is my favourite version with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent with Moura Lympany as soloist.
All four remaining Concerto Symphoniques have been recorded on the Hyperion CD label with Peter Donohoe (piano) and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Litton (CDA66889 and CDA67210).

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