Michael Schäfer Revives Paolo Litta


LITTA: Konzert-Trilogy für Violine und Klavier:  Le Lac d’Amour – Der Minne-See; La Deése Nue; Der Tod als Fiedler – Le Ménétrier, Le Mort / Ilone Then-Bergh, vln; Michael Schäfer, pno / Genuin 20690

I doubt that more than a couple of hundred musicologists worldwide have ever heard of Paolo Litta, but here is a CD containing his complete published trilogy of symbolist music.

Ida Isori

Ida Isori, c. 1920

Litta (1871-1931), half Swedish and half Italian, spent at least some of his school years in Brussels where his first compositions were published but also traveled to France, Germany and Switzerland. He performed publicly as a pianist and somehow wrangled a professorship in Moscow. In 1900 he married Italian opera singer Ida Isori and settled with her in Fiesole, near Florence. He then founded the Libera Esetica music society, which organized concerts in its offices in a villa on the Via Michele di Lando. They also acted as a publishing house which eventually published the first two works in this trilogy in bibliophile format; the third was published by Universal Edition, who had also acquired the rights to the first two parts, in 1924. At that point, Litta apparently stopped composing. Isori died in 1926 and he himself passed away on May 8, 1931, a day after his 60th birthday.

The Konzert-Trilogy is described by the booklet as “a massive symbolist work” using Wagner’s leitmotif method which in performance lasts a little over 80 minutes. The first part, “The Lake of Love” (1907), is divided into the usual four-movement sonata form which, by itself, lasts 36 minutes, more than half of its length. The movements are titled “The Lake,” “The Swan,” “Bells of Antan” and “The Source of Crying,” evoking visual, acoustic and literary images. The second part, titled The Naked Goddess (1912), bears the subtitle “Esoteric Monodrama from the Life of Psyche” and was suggested to be performed with an expressive dancer. In this section, Litta completely abandoned himself to the use of leitmotifs and uses a variant of the “Tristan chord” which is even further developed. The last work, Death As a Fiddler (1924), shows another and even more radical change of style, with the sophisticated harmony including many ugly, harsh, and even grotesque sounds, ending in an orgy of apocalyptic horror. Litta himself called it “The triumph of death for all eternity.” These above descriptions are adapted from the CD liner notes. Apparently Litta didn’t see aging as a process to be accepted, worked with or enjoyed in any way, but rather more like falling into a meat grinder and not being able to escape.

Needless to say, the first piece in this trilogy, the four-movement violin sonata, is the most Romantic of the three, but surprisingly uses more French harmonies resembling early Ravel than German ones. Despite the Romantic bias, the music is seamless in structure and developed with great sweep and imagination. Yet, were the music to stop with this first piece, it would merely be an interesting lost work by a good, solid composer but not nearly a masterpiece. The last movement ends indecisively, on a sustained fifth by the violin.

La Deése Nue picks up where Le Lac d’Amour leaves off, again in the French impressionist style but somewhat more harmonically advanced. Although the top line played by the violin remains tonal in structure, the underlying harmonies played by the piano are extended chords with no roots to ground them, causing an unsettled feeling as the music progresses. At around the 7:50 mark, there are also several dead stops in the music before it continues. Yet although Litta continues in this vein for the full 24 minutes of its length, I felt that La Deése Neue basically went nowhere and overstayed its welcome. Perhaps the addition of an expressionist dancer might alleviate some of the repetition in thematic material and inconclusive meanderings of the music, but to my ears it seemed much ado about nothing.

Then we come to Der Tod als Fiedler. In addition to being much more harmonically advanced than the previous two pieces, and much more technically developed around leitmotifs, this music has much stronger rhythms and is better developed than its immediate predecessor. This is clearly the best and most original piece of the three. Were it recorded as a stand-alone composition, along with the dramatic cantata he wrote for his wife, La morte di Cleopatra, this would have made a fine CD, but to be truthful there’s really nothing that Tod als Fiedler has in common with the two preceding pieces other than that it was written by the same composer for the same combination of instruments. I doubt that Litta thought of these three pieces as a series; he probably considered them totally different works that simple showed his development as a composer. Der Tod als Fiedler sounds more to me as if a fairly decent composer suddenly came up with a highly original brainstorm, put it down on music, and then died, knowing that he could never top it.

Tod als Fiedler 1

Page 8 of the score of “Der Tod als Fiedler” showing the leitmotifs used in the music.

Whereas little of La Deés Neue arrests one’s attention or stays in the mind, everything about Der Tod als Fiedler does. The music, being dramatic, is a bit more episodic than Le Lac d’Amour but everything in it works, and works brilliantly. I suspect that Litta may even have been inspired by Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and/or Strauss’ Elektra in writing this piece. Certainly, for 1924 it’s a VERY advanced piece in addition to being more coherent than some of George Anthiel’s early works or anything written by Edgard Varèse (one of the most incompetent phonies I’ve ever heard). Indeed, Der Tod als Fiedler virtually stands alone, particularly among violin-piano works, for its time.

Tod als Fiedler 2

Tod als Fiedler 3

The first two pages of the “Tod als Fiedler” score

So there you have it: one masterpiece preceded by two solidly-written but not brilliant pieces. If I were you, I’d purchase Der Tod als Fiedler online as a separate track and download it. But where to put it? Perhaps you have a CD of modern violin-piano works that has 22 minutes of room on it. If so, you can re-burn the CD and add Litta’s masterpiece to it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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