LITOLFF: Scherzo from Concerto symphonique No. 4, Opus 102

Scherzo from Concerto symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Opus 102

Henry Charles Litolff was born August 7, 1818, in London, England, and died August 5, 1891, in Bois-Colombes, a northwestern suburb of Paris, France. He composed his Concerto symphonique No. 4 in about 1852. We lack information about its early performance history. The second movement Scherzo has become a popular standalone concert piece. The first and only previous San Francisco Symphony performances of the Scherzo, in May 2010, featured pianist Garrick Ohlsson with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. This movement employs the full instrumentation required by the concerto in its entirety, which is to say two flutes and piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle, and strings, in addition to the solo piano. Performance time: about seven minutes.

Henry Litolff bowed to deafening applause at the height of his career, but by the time he died, two days before his seventy-third birthday, he was largely forgotten to the world. Posterity remembers him through a single work, and not even the whole of that work. The Scherzo of his Fourth Concerto symphonique remained an evergreen on the pops concert circuit for more than a century, and it never has fallen out of fashion entirely. So far as the listening public was concerned, it might as well have been created entirely on its own rather than as the second section of a full four-movement concerto. Glancing at the CD offerings of the classical music recordings site ArkivMusic.com (a good barometer for what can be had at any moment), we find fifteen performances of the Scherzo as a standalone item, mostly by fondly remembered pianists of yore like Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany, Shura Cherkassky, and Leonard Pennario (who recorded it twice). The full Concerto symphonique No. 4 is currently available in exactly one complete performance, and apart from that I can recall only one earlier recorded release.

Litolff’s father, a dance-hall violinist from Alsace, became a British prisoner during the Peninsular War (the Napoleonic adventure we music-lovers remember especially thanks to Beethoven’s extravaganza Wellington’s Victory). Thereby did he end up in London, where he married a Scotswoman. As the family was in sore financial straits, young Henry entered the workforce as a child and had the good fortune to become employed in a piano factory. He began playing on the firm’s instruments, and showed such musical talent that at the age of twelve he began studying piano under the eminent Ignaz Moscheles. This tuition lasted until he was seventeen, at which point he eloped to France with his sixteen-year-old bride. Litolff’s marital history was unusually repetitive for the time, marked as it is by three divorces and four weddings. His last marriage was the most enduring; it took place in 1873, when he was fifty-five and his bride was seventeen, and it was still in place when he died.

He was a cosmopolitan figure who spent extended periods sequentially in Paris (where he befriended Berlioz and Liszt), Brussels, Warsaw, Dresden (where the von Bülow family nursed him following a nervous breakdown, in exchange for which he gave piano lessons to their son, Hans), London, Amsterdam, and Braunschweig (where he took over a music publishing firm), before finally settling again in Paris. His professional commitments were never long-term, but they did include stints as Capellmeister to the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1855-58) and conductor at the Paris Opéra (1867-70). He was acclaimed as a pianist, though not unreservedly. In the 1904 edition of Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, we read an intriguing assessment: “As a pianist Litolff’s rank is high; fire, passion, and brilliancy of execution were combined with thought and taste in his playing. Were it also correct, it would have reached the highest excellence.” The article continues: “In his works, however, there is great inequality; beautiful and poetic ideas are often marred by repetition and a want of order, and knowing what the author’s true capacity is, the result is a feeling of disappointment.”

In his catalogue, which extends to 155 opus numbers, we find bushels of solo piano pieces but also a string quartet, three piano trios, and at least nine complete operas that were produced during his life. None of these seems to have made a great impression, the single possible exception being his Spinnlied, a piano piece that can be found in old piano benches. The one area in which Litolff did make a notable contribution, however, was in the domain of concerted works. To him we owe the concept of the concerto symphonique, a sort of concerto, expanded from the customary three movements to the four-movement plan of a symphony, in which the orchestra was constantly present and assumed a more important role than was accustomed at the time, even to the extent of introducing many of the work’s themes. Litolff composed five such concertos symphoniques for piano and orchestra, plus another (his Eroica concerto symphonique) for violin and orchestra.

Litolff’s concept of the concerto symphonique made quite an impression, and a number of piano concertos were soon cast from a similar mold. Two better-known composers proved not immune to its charms; of Saint-Saëns’s Fourth Piano Concerto, for example, the critic Henry Cohen wrote, in L’Art musical (October 31, 1875): “It is a known fact that this artist [Saint-Saëns] is expert at molding his orchestra. Like Litolff, Mr. Saint-Saëns makes the piano an instrument of the orchestra in his concertos, instead of reducing the orchestra to the subordinate function of accompaniment for the piano.”

Franz Liszt, too, was an admirer of Litolff’s, and his own piano concertos reflect much of the “Litolff ideal” of casting a soloistic work within a symphonic framework. Liszt worked on his Second Piano Concerto (in A major) from 1839 through 1861, a chronology that corresponds to the appearance of Litolff’s works in the genre. Throughout that process, Liszt’s manuscripts for this work carried the title Concerto symphonique; not until it appeared in published form, on the Schott imprint in 1863, was the heading transformed into “Second Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.” Liszt had dedicated his First Piano Concerto (in E-flat major, composed from 1830-56) to Litolff when it was published, in 1857, about five years after Litolff composed his Concerto symphonique No. 4. The critic Eduard Hanslick condemned Liszt’s First Piano Concerto for making prominent use of a triangle in its orchestration. Liszt protested, in a letter to his own cousin Eduard (not to Hanslick), that it all came down to how the instrument is played. “Concerning the triangle,” Liszt wrote, resignedly, “I do not deny that it will give offence—particularly if it is struck too hard and without precision.” In the course of this contretemps, however, Hanslick failed to note that this “lapse in taste” (as he put it) was surely derived from Litolff, who was apparently the first composer ever to employ not only triangle but also piccolo in the orchestration of a piano concerto. Both are heard in the Scherzo of Litolff’s Fourth Concerto symphonique, which preceded Liszt’s First Piano Concerto by several years; you will have no trouble hearing them.

Litolff’s Fourth Concerto symphonique is a big-boned piece, its four movements running nearly forty minutes in performance. The Scherzo, which is placed second in the order of the movements (and proceeds with no real break into the slow third movement), is the slightest of the sections, and it is the one that least displays the unified concerto symphonique concept. It is a rollicking display of pianistic virtuosity, and the soloist’s flying fingers take a break only at the beginning of the movement’s central span, where the orchestra plays a chorale-like tune. Even there, the pianist returns to the action after twenty quick-passing measures, with right hand tapping out the main theme pianissimo and leggierissimo e sempre staccato (very lightly and always detached).

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: For the Scherzo alone, pianist John Ogdon, with Louis Frémaux conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI)

Reading: The only monograph ever published about Litolff is the German-language Henry Litolff, by Rudolf Hagemann (Herne [a self-publishing imprint], 1978/81)

(May 2014)