Friday 23 June 2017

Classic talk: One-hit-wonder Litolff, music's great romantic

Prolific: Henry Litolff
Prolific: Henry Litolff

George Hamilton

The term one-hit-wonder could have been invented for the Romantic composer Henry Litolff. The only music we tend to hear that has his name on it is a snatch of what he called a concerto symphonique - an orchestral symphony featuring a piano, a form he developed.

That a single movement from his Concerto Symphonique No. 4 serves as his legacy does him scant justice. He was prolific and well respected in his day.

Franz Liszt greatly admired him. Some of the drafts for Liszt's first piano concerto bear the title concerto symphonique, and the finished work was dedicated to Henry Litolff.

It's a bit of a shame that he's on the margins now, for if his name meant more, he'd be the perfect subject for a biopic.

The story begins in the early 1800s, when Martin Litolff, a dance-band violinist from Alsace in eastern France found himself in Spain as part of Napoleon's efforts to take over that country.

The British were also involved in what would be known as the Peninsular War, so when Martin was taken prisoner, it was to London he was sent, and when hostilities ceased and he was released, it was there he stayed.

He met and married a Scottish woman, Sophie Hayes, and Henry, their son, was born in 1818. The family didn't have much and Henry was still a child when he was sent out to make some money.

His father had taught him the basics of music. They found him work in a piano factory. There, he was spotted by the top Czech pianist and composer Ignaz Moscheles, who was based in London at the time, and he took the young Litolff under his wing.

With Moscheles as his mentor, Litolff was performing in public by the time he was 14. This was a young musician who would make the term "romantic" his own.

At just 17, he split with Moscheles and eloped. He and his bride, a year younger, headed for Paris. She was the first of four wives.

Abroad, his career took off, and he toured extensively. All of this put pressure on his domestic situation, and led him to seek a divorce.

Back in England to try to arrange this, a combination of circumstances put him in prison, but he was able to schmooze his jailer's daughter and escape to the Netherlands.

The touring resumed. In Germany, he became friendly with a music publisher by the name of Gottfried Meyer. That ultimately led to his second marriage, for when Meyer died, Litolff married his widow.

He also took over the company, and changed its name to his own. With their distinctive yellow covers, the keenly priced Litolff editions of classical scores became both instantly recognisable and extremely popular.

Litolff divorced again. By the time he married for a third time, he had resettled in Paris and was devoting his time to teaching and conducting. And the composing was continuing too.

This marriage lasted for over a decade until the death of his wife in 1873. By now 55 and ailing, Litolff wed for a fourth time, his bride on this occasion his 17-year-old nurse. They were still together when he died almost 20 years later.

If Henry Litolff is to be remembered for only one thing, it's fitting that it's that Scherzo. Exuberant and full of life, what better sums up the man himself, one of the great Romantics.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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