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Henry Litolff and his Concertos Symphoniques

Henry Charles Litolff (August 7, 1818–August 5, 1891) was a piano virtuoso, composer of Romantic music, and music publisher. Litolff was born on Aug. 7, 1818, in London, England, the son of a Scottish mother, Sophie Hayes, and an Alsatian father, Martin Louis Litolff. His father was a dance violinist who had been taken to London by the English as a prisoner after being captured while serving as a bandsman for Napoléon during the Peninsular War in Spain. Henry began his musical education under his father. The adverse circumstances of the Litolff family placed the son as a laborer in F W Collard’s piano factory where he later demonstrated pianos, and his practicing was so impressive that Collard recommended Litolff to renowned Bohemian virtuoso pianist Ignaz Moscheles. As a result, in 1830, when he was twelve he played for Moscheles, who was so impressed that he gave him free lessons starting that same year. Litolff developed into a prodigy and began to give concerts when he was fourteen. His lessons with Moscheles continued until Litolff eloped in 1835, at the age of 17, to Gretna Green, to marry 16-year-old Elisabeth Etherington. For a time, his wanderings and temporary residencies were the life of a flamboyant concert pianist, teacher and conductor in cities and countries throughout Europe, The couple moved to Melun, and then to Paris.

François-Joseph Fétis, head of the Brussels Conservatoire, invited Litolff to come teach, so Litolff separated from Elisabeth in 1839 and moved to Brussels. Around 1841 he moved to Warsaw where he is believed to have conducted the Teatr Narodowy (National Theatre) orchestra. In 1844 he travelled to Germany, and gave concerts at Berlin. At one point he had a nervous breakdown and lived with the Von Bülow family in Dresden, in exchange for which he taught the young future great pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow to play the piano. The following year, he returned to England with the idea of finally divorcing Elisabeth; but the plan backfired and he ended up not only heavily fined but imprisoned. He managed to escape on a fishing boat and flee to the Netherlands, however, where he enjoyed some success as pianist and a composer, particularly with his Concerto Symphonique no. 3, which employed Dutch songs.

Sometime during 1846 Litolff visited Braunschweig, Brunswick, briefly, where he became a friend of the music publisher Gottfried Meyer and his wife Julie. This friendship proved to be of lasting value to Litolff who returned to Braunschweig in 1849 on the occasion of Meyer’s death, after which Litolff married his widow in 1851 (after finally being granted a divorce from Elisabeth as a new citizen of Brunswick). Meyer’s will had appointed Litolff as executor, and from that point he was accepted as a family member, even legally adopting the eldest son, Theodor. Litolff assumed control of the publishing firm, attached to it his own own name (‘Litolff’s Verlag’), and settled in Braunschweig where he ran a series of music festivals. . It was through his work as a publisher that he would come into contact with some of the great musicians of his time. But business life did not appeal to Litolff, and 1855 he entered the employment of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. This second marriage lasted until 1858, when he divorced Julie and once again moved to Paris, giving many concerts on his way. In 1860, he married Louise, daughter of Count Wilfrid de la Rochefoucauld.

In Paris Litolff’s career became more limited, corresponding to the gradual decline of the popular piano virtuoso and the overcrowded field. Conducting and operatic composition captured most of his creative activity. A distinct change was perceptible as Litolff gradually settled into Parisian musical life. The former flamboyance and the erratic behavior disappeared, and in their place there appeared a humble and mature musician who ultimately won considerable respect from many segments of musical life in Paris. But the operatic field remained inaccessible to him, although several of his operas were performed. Thus it seems that it was mainly for financial reasons that he maintained a studio for teaching piano, although he managed to be chef d’orchestre at the Opéra from 1867 to 1870. Since his success as an operatic composer had been limited he now restricted himself to the composition of operetta. After the death of his third wife, Louise, he continued to live for some time in Paris where he was the conductor of an orchestra in a small theatre in the suburbs. Falling ill shortly afterwards, he was nursed back to health by a young girl whom he married later in the same year at Nogent-sur-Marne. She was seventeen and he fifty-eight.

The final fifteen years of his life were spent in semi-retirement, sporadically guest-conducting, teaching, and composing operettas. His health was feeble and, aside from moments of revival, the career which had begun so flamboyantly ended in obscurity. Besides his four marriages, the final one in 1873, he befriended many musicians including the renowned piano teacher at the Paris Conservatoire Pierre-Joseph-Guillaume Zimmermann, the piano builder Jean Henri Pape, the music critic François-Joseph Fétis, composers Hector Berlioz and Franz Liszt, and the Parisian conductor Jules Étienne Pasdeloup, He died at Bois-Colombes near Paris on August 5, 1891, just two days before his 73rd birthday. His death was a symptom of the demise of this versatile type of musician—performer and composer—and occurred at the end of the era in which the piano had been the dominating force.

Litolff is often perhaps more often remembered for his contribution as a Romantic pianist and publisher and for the exemplary musical company he kept, than for his own compositions, although in recent years his Concertos Symphoniques, integrating the two forms, have witnessed something of a renaissance. He is most widely known, and, to most music-lovers, solely known, for the brilliant Scherzo No. 4 of that series. Among Litolff’s finest surviving compositions are the four Concertos Symphoniques, German several operas, some overtures, a couple of large-scale choral works such as the Drame symphonique No. 1 Maximilien Robespierre, Op. 55, lieder, chansons, 117 short characteristic piano pieces, and a little chamber music including 19 “songs” for violin and piano. There were actually five concertos symphoniques; the first one, in D minor, was lost.

The following works by Henry Litolff are included in my collection:

Concerto Symphonique No. 3 in EbM, op. 45, National Hollandais (c. 1846).
Concerto Symphonique No. 5 in cm, op. 123 (1870).

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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