Lajtha, Höllering and Eliot

“Les trois grands Hongrois” – the “Three Great Hungarians”: this is how the French referred to the three preeminent Hungarian composers of the first half of the 20th century, Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály and, a decade their junior, László Lajtha (1892–1963). Like his elders, Lajtha was not just a composer but a notable music ethnographer and distinguished teacher. On the recommendation of Bartók, Lajtha oriented his career with a view to French culture, and studied in Paris under Vincent d’Indy, who headed Schola Cantorum. Later on, most of his works were published by Éditions Alphonse Leduc, and many of his compositions were performed in Paris and other cities in France. Lajtha made friends with leading French intellectuals such as Romain Rolland, to whom he dedicated his String Trio No. 2, and who wrote about the young master’s talent in superlatives. Lajtha frequently returned to the French capital in the capacity of cultural diplomat, and in 1955 he became the first Hungarian composer ever to be elected member of the Institut de France’s Académie des Beaux-Arts. (It is another matter that he was unable to deliver his inaugural address until seven years later. Between 1948 and 1962, the Communist regime denied him a passport. During this period of 14 years, Lajtha was permitted but a single brief trip to the West.) Silenced for political reasons for so long, Lajtha has in recent decades been rediscovered, by music professionals and the public alike, as a composer of a distinctive musical voice and vision. In 2012, we celebrate his 120th birthday, and 2013 will mark the 50th anniversary of his death. It is on the occasion of this double anniversary that Hungarian Review publishes the present study on Lajtha’s film music – just a small part of his rich oeuvre, which contains nine symphonies, ten string quartets, three ballet scores, and one opera, as well as sacred music.

In 1936, László Lajtha made the following observation in an interview with Claude Chamfray for the journal Beaux-Arts:

Another thing I find fascinating is film. I set great store by the future of this genre. Film has the potential to evolve into the musical play of the future. The grand opera houses have lost touch with the mass audience, and the motion picture has restored this connection.

A few months after the 1937 première of his first ballet, Lysistrata, Lajtha elaborated on the idea, speaking at an international music conference:

Our era has produced two art forms of a collective nature: the sound film and the radio. The former is still so fresh as an art form that, for now, the technical issues of its development are of more interest for the studios than for music itself. Indeed, film is regarded by many merely as a nascent new type of musical play. Nevertheless, some of the films we have seen, with their accompaniment of superb modern music, corroborate my thesis that audiences at large will not reject modern art out of hand, even if they are not particularly educated for its appreciation. None of these films have fared for the worse on account of their track of contemporary music – quite the reverse, in fact. We are, to be sure, on the cusp of progress. The problems of the motion picture call for the emergence of a new art form. In my view, film production – which has made quite some progress in spite of its considerable sluggishness – harbours tremendous opportunities for new music, because a new form will demand new substance.

More than a decade later, in a study published in The Chesterian of London, Lajtha makes a similar argument:

Opera as an art-form is in a crisis. The causes of this state of affairs are many: artistic, as well as economic and social. The new musical stage-works of the past thirty years indicate the various tendencies and ideas with which composers have been experimenting to create a form of opera conforming to the contemporary trend of new music, and yet stage-worthy. Another, not insignificant reason for the crisis is the fact that the constituent elements of opera: the realism of the stage, the libretto, the dramatic action, stage-setting, and music, have all progressed along divergent paths. Consequently, the artistic possibilities of the sound-film are very great indeed: a new form of music drama, or rather drama with music, is about to be born. It is quite possible that this new form of film, and the new opera with which it would progress simultaneously, will greatly benefit from mutual influence.

In other words, Lajtha considered the art film the potential heir to the stage- bound genres – “the musical play of the future”, “a new form of music drama” – assuming that it accorded music a role equal to that of the images themselves. He saw film as a form capable of luring back audiences that have deserted the opera, and as a great opportunity for modern music. At the same time, Lajtha reckoned that film had the power to shape the future of opera as well. These intimate connections warrant a closer look at his work as a film score composer.

Lajtha is credited with the music score to four films, three of which are his own compositions, while the fourth consists of folk songs and folk music that he collected and adapted to the screen. (The first of these, Hortobágy, is quite a mixed bag in this regard, featuring as it does both collected music and original compositions, as we will see shortly.) The first three films were directed by Georg Höllering (1897–1980), an Austrian-born director and producer who settled in England in 1936 (where he became known by the name of George Hoellering), and from 1944 to his death ran the Academy Cinema on Oxford Street as managing director. Over the years, the Academy showed a number of Hungarian films by various directors, including Miklós Jancsó. Höllering and Lajtha made the following films together: Hortobágy (1936), Murder in the Cathedral (1948), and Shapes and Forms (1949). They also had plans to collaborate on a film version of Lysistrata with Lajtha’s ballet score. (I was not aware of this project until recently, when I was authorized to research the estate of László Fábián, a colleague of Lajtha’s.)

Apart from Höllering, the only film director Lajtha ever worked with was István Szőts (1912–1998), the Hungarian master to this day best known for his film Emberek a havason [People of the Mountain], which garnered a Grand Prix at the 1942 Venice Film Festival. Szőts’s 28-minute short film entitled Kövek, várak, emberek [Stones, castles, people], which treated traditional life in the village of Hollókő and its vicinity, was finished in 1955 on the evidence of the date appearing at the end, whereas Lajtha’s compilation of the music score is dated 1956. (This music score – like his other folk music adaptations, except for String Quartet No.10, Op. 58 – was not given an opus number by the composer.) As I will explain later, the production of this short film was preceded by plans for another film on which Lajtha would collaborate with Szőts and the writer Áron Tamási, who would contribute the screenplay. However, the project was never realized.

All in all, then, Lajtha’s work for the screen consists of music for a total of four finished films and scores for another two.

It is important to stress that Lajtha’s compositions for the screen constitute music of the highest order in its own right. For instance, his Symphony No. 3, which supplied some of the material for the soundtrack to Murder in the Cathedral, is not in any measure a lesser piece of work than his other symphonies, and, like them, was in fact originally intended by the composer to be performed in the concert hall. As I hope to be able to show in what follows, Lajtha never conceived of the film score as a form of applied art that would somehow be subordinated to another art medium. In his creative collaboration with Georg Höllering, Lajtha always enjoyed the kind of autonomy as a composer without which he would never have agreed to compose a soundtrack in the first place.

For the fortuitous encounter between Höllering and Lajtha we have none other than Béla Bartók to thank, who declined the director’s request and recommended his young colleague in his stead. The Austrian director had been seeking to source music for footage he and the Hungarian cameraman László Schäffer had shot in the steppe of the Hortobágy over two summers in the mid-1930s. The narrative is loosely based around a short story by Zsigmond Móricz entitled Komor ló – A Hortobágy legendája [“The Brooding Horse: A Legend of the Hortobágy”] (1936), which was actually not completed until after Höllering had finished shooting most of the material for the film. Originally, Höllering only intended to portray the natural scenery, the people, and animals of the Hortobágy; the frame story was merely a requirement stipulated by the film’s sponsors. Ultimately, the short story ties in with the plot of the film by very loose threads only.

In those days, not only did Lajtha not regard film as an art form par excellence, but he felt decidedly repulsed by the idea of being associated with a motion picture that would present rural life in the idealized light of false romanticism. That he revised his position after viewing the film probably has as much to do with his recognition of the director’s talent and the artistic power of the film as with the fact that, as a music folklorist, he realized that Höllering’s work had the potential to become a valuable record of ethnography.

As Lajtha was convinced that the sound film would claim a vital role in the preservation and cultivation of folk traditions, the collaboration came in handy for him in implementing his own scholarly vision. In the soundtrack to Hortobágy, folk music outweighs composed music by nearly 20 percent. Apart from setting the appropriate mood for the film, the almost 40 minutes of folk music from the Hortobágy and its broader region contribute to and augment the film’s air of authenticity. In his memoirs, Höllering recalls how he would team up with Lajtha on a trip to the Hortobágy to collect folk music. The images they recorded there were to be incorporated in the film as part of the action. Indeed, a longer segment, which makes up ten percent of the length of the film, obviates any talk of a soundtrack, since the action itself consists of music-making – peasants singing and dancing to the accompaniment of a flute, a bagpipe, and a gipsy band; there is also a brass band playing. Shot on location between 1934 and 1936,1 the film thus goes beyond a realistic portrayal of harsh life in the grasslands to capture vocal and instrumental folk music as it was practiced in the mid-1930s within its authentic natural and social context.

As for the composed portions of the soundtrack,2 Lajtha must have been irresistibly seduced by the apparatus of the symphony orchestra, which he had never had the opportunity to employ before, except for the single instance of the ballet Lysistrata. This time, Lajtha was given the means to create some 32 minutes’ worth of symphonic music, the finest parts of which were to be later performed to great acclaim across Europe as a suite in two movements.3 The second movement, entitled Galopade dans la puszta, lends stupendous power to the images of the herds and studs thundering past the camera, but remains equally compelling when heard in and of itself as a symphonic tableau.

These circumstances certainly explain why Lajtha would dedicate to Höllering, of all people, his Symphony No. 1 (Op. 24), which he completed in 1936, shortly after their joint project. As a soundtrack composer, Lajtha was never expected to play the part of the hack writer of tunes churning out utilitarian music to be subjugated to the visuals, but was instead given a free hand to create music for Hortobágy as a sovereign artist. This freedom led him closer to composing music in a genre of a higher order: the symphony. At this point it might be worth making a brief detour to mention an unrealized project, if only because the idea was clearly inspired by the film Hortobágy. This was to be a full-length feature film, for which the major novelist Áron Tamási would contribute the screenplay, according to a record of negotiations conducted between the author and Hunnia Motion Pictures in 1951. The plan was to win László Lajtha as composer and István Szőts as the director for the project. The plan survives in a memorandum signed by the three artists, giving us a good idea of the kind of film they envisioned and the kind of music track they had in mind.

In terms of its genre, the film will be a full-length feature with its action framed by a narrative reminiscent of fairy tales, but also with the uncompromising and rigorous credibility of a documentary. For this reason, we will cast folk players rather than professional actors, and rely on the natural environment rather than stage sets. Also, instead of using orchestras and choirs, we will give preference to the folk musicians and the ancient, traditional music characteristic of each region. Central to the film concept are the four seasons and the cycle of human life, from the cradle to the grave. The way we see it, the life of our people is intimately linked with traditions and folk customs in all of its major elements and events. It is our intention to portray this typical Hungarian life set in those parts of the country that best exemplify it, and during the season most appropriate to each of those parts.

We can get a glimpse of how this feature film project relates to Kövek, várak, emberek, the nearly half-hour-long short film completed in 1955 with a track featuring folk music collected and adapted by Lajtha, from an interview with Mária Gyenes, the widow of István Szőts:

[Szőts] had been entertaining plans to make a film about folk traditions. Even back then, there was talk about how Hungarian folk customs were slipping away from us, and that a full-length feature film should be made about them for the benefit of posterity. He took to the country roads with Lajt[h]a to “take notes” on cine film, as they put it. Later, they showed the footage to the film committee. The members really liked it, except that they were puzzled by the curious absence of any reference in the film to 1st of May, Labour Saturday, and other latter-day holidays.

My husband replied that these holidays had no business being thematised in the film, since none of them could be regarded as part of the folk tradition. Ultimately, the committee refused to grant permission for the film if it would not feature these holidays. My husband remained adamant, and the film was never made. What did come to be realized instead was the short documentary Kövek, várak, emberek, which portrayed a day in the life of a village in an attempt to show how much Hungarian culture stood to lose if it neglected its folk traditions.

But let us retrace our steps to the 1930s. Possibly as early as in 1937, following the highly successful Budapest première of the ballet Lysistrata, Höllering and/or Lajtha conceived the idea of a film based on a screenplay adapted by the poet Lajos Áprily from Aristophanes, and on three quarters of an hour’s worth of music by Lajtha, in ten movements. Lajtha had not brought the single extant copy of the orchestral score with him to Höllering in London until after the war, in 1947 – only to have it perish in a fire that destroyed the warehouse. As a result, not only did all hopes for realizing the film roll up – literally – in smoke, but the loss of the score precluded any further performance of the ballet for a long time to come. (As of today, 2012, the complete version of the work has not yet been performed since its première in 1937.)

Fully aware of the extent to which the music track had underpinned the artistic merit of Hortobágy, Höllering invited Lajtha to London in 1947 to help him adapt T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935) to the screen, a verse play about the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. This was the only year in Lajtha’s life that he was able to devote exclusively to composing music, without having to bother with other things. His letter to the musicologist Bence Szabolcsi, as well as his unpublished correspondence with his wife, supply unambiguous evidence that he was given carte blanche both by Eliot and Höllering. The composer reports on his first encounter with Eliot:

First we chatted for a while, then we got on to the play. I told him about my idea for allocating the music, how I shaped the music, and how it will in turn shape each part of the play for which it was written. Finally, […] Eliot declared that few had been as sensitively attuned to his poetic concept as I was… He was rather self- effacing and generous about it, saying that “it is only through your music that the film will come into its own. Your music will be very helpful in raising my words, ideas, and visions to a higher level”.

Nor was Lajtha expected to compose his music in the medieval style, tailoring it, as it were, to the setting of the action in the 12th century. Having read the play, Lajtha was at liberty to decide which segments to supply with his music, and what that music ought to be. Indeed, he had set about the work of composing before the shooting even began. His letter to Bence Szabolcsi offers an insight into Lajtha’s work methods:

I am composing for this film amid conditions hardly ever granted to a musician. No sooner is a portion written than it is recorded, and the flow of images and text follows the score from the outset. I will not compose background or didactic music – Hoellering understood perfectly that this would be neither possible nor necessary. I am not bound by anything but time. And this bondage – given the temporal nature of music – is not a form-engendering principle that would be alien to my work.

This assessment tallies perfectly with what Lajtha, nearly a decade and a half later, in the spring of 1962, had to say to the famous folklorist, Zsuzsanna Erdélyi, about his Symphony No. 3 (Op. 45, 1948), which supplied some of the soundtrack to the film:

My Symphony No. 3, which I had composed first before Höllering and Eliot devised the action for the film (Murder in the Cathedral), consists of two movements.

If one attempts to correlate each musical segment with a turn of the plot,4 it soon becomes clear that Lajtha primarily wanted to write music for the scenes depicting the temptations of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This, indeed, was the inception of Variations pour orchestre sur un thème simple “Les tentations”, [Variations on a simple theme – “The Temptations”, Op. 44, 1947–48], a symphonic work consisting of 11 variations and four interludes, as well as of Symphony No. 3 and Harp Quintet No. 2 (Op. 46, 1948). The film also features an excerpt from Harp Trio No. 2 (Op. 47, 1949), which Lajtha completed later, even though there is no mention anywhere of this also being part of the soundtrack. All four pieces were intended for the concert hall, so any claim that these works were based on the soundtrack as a source – and such claims have been made – must be false. As the excerpt from the letter quoted above shows, precisely the opposite happened: rather than shaping the music to fit the film, as is customary, the creators chose the unorthodox method of designing the visual sequences and even units of text to accommodate the selected music segments. T. S. Eliot, who actively participated in the making of the film by authoring the screenplay and lending his own off- screen voice to the fourth tempter, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1948. The collaboration between the three artists was crowned in 1951, when the film was first screened and won two prizes at the Venice Film Festival, vindicating the creators’ bold vision. (The American première followed a year later, in New York.)

In his study published in The Chesterian in 1948, Lajtha had his own personal experience to rely on when he spoke about the equal rank of the screenwriter, director, and composer, or the “polyphony of the three arts”, stressing with full conviction the autonomy of music composed for a film:Thus we get three artistic categories and their representatives: the “film-choreographer” i.e. the producer, the poet or writer, and the musician. They work independently to a certain extent, and also cooperatively. This latter element manifests itself in the finished product: the audience experiences (sees, hears, understands) the whole indivisible film. On the other hand, each of them works independently according to the laws of their respective métiers.

But we must not expect the music to express exactly the same things as the picture – or vice-versa! […] Let us forget the so-called dramatic background-music. Let music be music, and it will be far more affecting than any of those “illustrative” tone-pictures. […] film music worthy of its name must be good music independently of all outside circumstances, considerations, and requirements. Which is only possible if the music can stand on its own feet, i.e. without the film; just as the story must be a good one independently of its “photogenic” qualities.

Answering a question by a Hungarian journalist, Lajtha commented on the collaboration between writer, director, and composer as follows:

It’s not about an order of priority but about a perfect harmony […] I have never composed a track for a film unless the theme called for pure, absolute music.

In the same interview, the composer expounds on the idea, in rather compelling terms, that a film with a music track is not different from a musical play on stage in that it must be raised to the higher plane of unreality:

Generally, music begins where the reality conveyed by words and images trails off, where the real must become unreal. This does not exclusively spring from artistic, intrinsic causes but also from a simple exigency of a technical nature. For the simultaneous projection on the screen of space, colour, air, and a human being will not stand a chance to achieve a perfect correspondence with reality. And for that “believable beauty of reality” to emerge, we need the sound of music to be heard. It is then that the movement of land, event, and man on the same plane will transcend tangible, flesh-and-blood reality…

Lajtha seems particularly concerned with discussing the relationship between art and the real/unreal dichotomy and art’s tendency for stylization in the context of the musical dramatic genres and film. In the quoted study of film music, which he wrote in English, he elaborates on the subject as follows:

The visible and invisible world, reality and unreality might engulf the whole flow of the film, and not appear only behind the spoken word, the poetic diction. As soon as the music commences, even the most naturalistic scene acquires a different meaning and exercises a different effect: it will be artistically modified, stylized by means of music. All art is stylization, transmutation […]

Since Lajtha was denied a passport after his return to Hungary in 1948, Höllering, who continued to insist on having him as his soundtrack composer, mailed to Budapest the time intervals between cuts for his new film Shapes and Forms. (The resulting music only survives in the form of a recording. The score is believed to have been lost or taken to an unknown location.) We know from documents kept at the British Film Institute’s archives that this 20-minute short film presents the collection exhibited in London in 1948 with the title 40,000 Years of Modern Art. The exhibition showed objects from ancient Europe and from primitive cultures in Africa, Australia, and Oceania alternating with 20th-century sculptures and paintings from prominent artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, Chagall, and Henry Moore, in an attempt to map the common ground between primitivism and modernity. Remarkably, the director did not deem it important to name these famous artists, although he made it a point to identify by name not only the composer but the conductor (Mátyás Seiber), the music consultant-pianist (Ilonka Kabos), and even each of the 12 musicians with their respective instruments who performed the work Lajtha composed for wood and brass winds, celesta, percussions, and strings.

The fact that the director – unusually for the short art documentary genre – listed such detailed credits is in itself sufficient to give us an idea of the importance he accorded to music. Indeed, in the preface to the film, Höllering explicitly points out to the audience that, “aided by the music, the camera will be your guide on this journey”. In reality, however, the music track serves a much more central purpose by lending coherence to the film, which uses the technique of rotating the sculptures in order to exploit the interplay of light and shadow. Lajtha, who did not get to see a single frame of the visual sequence, composed a 20-minute long continuous piece marked by exceptional formal rigour. As he observed, it is the musical form employed by the composer that “the success or, as the case may be, failure, of the film hinges on”. In Höllering’s short film, the sweeping arcs of melody are contrasted with the narrow intervals between the visual cuts, and the music’s diversified character successfully offsets the monotony of the consecutive frames. Much the same type of dramatic counterpoint is theorized by Adorno and Hanns Eisler in their study of film music, published in 1944, as a novel solution for the dramaturgical issues of the film genre.

Of course, Lajtha’s sovereignty as a composer might have caused quite some indignation, particularly among music critics, and even among viewers at large, who considered film music a form of applied art and expected it to comply with this subservient role. Just to mention one specific example, the critic for Monthly Film Bulletin found the soundtrack for Shapes and Forms “fascinatingly irrelevant”, because – as the anonymous author suggested – it had nothing to do with the film itself. One might counter this verdict by saying that Lajtha would obviously never have composed some sort of tapestry-like background accompaniment obediently adapted to the cuts, even if he had been able in 1949, as he had been before, to collaborate in person with Höllering in London, the director’s place of residence. As it happened, Lajtha was cut off from Höllering for political reasons, but he remained artistically free to make his contribution to Höllering’s film in such a way that his composition must be seen as perfectly valid as music in its own right, and also as perfectly relevant as part of a film – whether one’s point of reference is the approach of Höllering and Lajtha himself or the aesthetics of Adorno and Eisler. As I hope to have shown, Lajtha formulated his own views and expectations concerning the aesthetics of film music, and remained faithful to these principles in fulfilling commissions. Moreover, he articulated these principles in his correspondence and writings intended for the broader audience. Just as ballet music is composed on the basis of a script and its choreography must take both that script and the music into consideration to achieve artistic unity, so does the original text adapted to the screen – such as Eliot’s verse drama – provide inspiration for the film music.

This antecedence notwithstanding, the finished work, in its complexity as an integrated whole, must respect the intrinsic laws that govern music itself. The perfect fusion of music and spectacle cannot be attained on screen unless the composer maintains his autonomy. Thus the “polyphony” of the arts, which Lajtha deemed so desirable for the process of creating a film, at once formed a precondition for this novel genre to be elevated to the rank of the musical play, sung or mimed.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel


1 Following the European première in 1936, the film was first screened in the United States in 1940, with the title Life on the Hortobagy.

2 The music recorded for the film was performed by the Budapest Concert Orchestra under the baton of Viktor Vaszy.

3 Suite from the music for the film Hortobágy. Movements: I. La grande plaine hongroise. Andante; II. Galopade dans la puszta. Presto. The first performance of the suite, under the title Two Symphonic Tableaus, was conducted by János Ferencsik in Budapest in 1946. French concert audiences first heard the work Hortobágy in Dijon, under the baton of André Ameller.

4 The film music was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult and The Renaissance Singers, Michael Howard conducting, with Diana Maddox as the soloist.

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