Ernst Levy, Vol. 3
Forgotten Genius: Live Performances of Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms

52039-2 (2 CDs)  | $ 36.00


Ernst Levy, Vol. 3
Ernst Levy was a remarkable musician and yet, few were familiar with Levy prior to our two previous releases. On this two-CD set, Marston presents the fiery pianist in “live” performances. These recordings are from performances in the Boston area during the 1950s and are in excellent sound. Levy brings his unique interpretive skills to bear on Beethoven sonatas including the “Waldstein,” Op. 10, No. 3 and Op. 28, as well as Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes and Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel. Greg Sandow of the Wall Street Journal refers to Levy as the “triumphantly rediscovered pianist.”
CD 1 (71:03)
Piano Sonata No. 7 in D, op. 10, no. 325:08
1. Presto 6:17
2. Largo e mesto 10:36
3. Menuetto: Allegro 4:19
4. Rondo: Allegro 3:56
 Performed 18 December 1955, Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
Piano Sonata No. 15 in D, op. 28, “Pastorale”19:52
5. Allegro 8:20
6. Andante 5:01
7. Scherzo: Allegro vivace 2:02
8. Rondo: Allegro, ma non troppo 4:29
 Performed 16 January 1955, Huntington Hall, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C, op. 53, “Waldstein”25:59
9. Allegro con brio 10:51
10. Introduzione: Adagio molto 4:38
11. Rondo: Allegretto moderato—Prestissimo 10:30
 Performed 18 December 1955, Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
CD 2 (73:14)
Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, op. 57, “Appassionata”20:43
1. Allegro assai 9:10
2. Andante con moto 6:44
3. Allegro, ma non troppo—Presto 4:47
 Performed 20 February 1955, Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts 
Symphonic Etudes, op. 1318:33
4. Theme 1:00
5. Variation I (Etude I) 0:43
6. Variation II (Etude II) 1:21
7. Etude III 1:39
8. Variation III (Etude IV) 0:57
9. Variation IV (Etude V) 0:45
10. Variation V (Etude VI) 0:44
11. Variation VI (Etude VII) 0:44
12. Variation VII (Etude VIII) 1:00
13. Etude IX 0:34
14. Variation VIII (Etude X) 0:44
15. Variation IX (Etude XI) 2:19
16. Finale (Etude XII) 5:56
 Performed 14 November 1954, Cambridge, Massachusetts  
25 Variations and Fugue on a Theme by G. F. Handel, op. 2421:58
17. Aria 1:12
18. Variation I 0:49
19. Variation II 0:16
20. Variation III 0:21
21. Variation IV 0:22
22. Variation V 0:36
23. Variation VI 1:14
24. Variation VII 0:16
25. Variation VIII 0:35
26. Variation IX 0:58
27. Variation X 0:16
28. Variation XI 0:30
29. Variation XII 1:11
30. Variation XIII 1:19
31. Variation XIV 0:19
32. Variation XV 0:19
33. Variation XVI 0:15
34. Variation XVII 0:16
35. Variation XVIII 0:22
36. Variation XIX 0:56
37. Variation XX 1:09
38. Variation XXI 0:35
39. Variation XXII 1:15
40. Variation XXIII 0:13
41. Variation XXIV 0:15
42. Variation XXV 0:34
43. Fugue 5:20
 Performed 22 March 1959, Kresge Auditorium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 
Selections from Klavierstücke, op. 118
44. Intermezzo in A Minor, op. 118, no. 1 1:56
45. Intermezzo in A, op. 118, no. 2 6:54
46. Ballade in G Minor, op. 118, no. 3 3:09
 Performed 14 November 1954, Cambridge, Massachusetts 


Producer: Donald Manildi

Audio Conservation: Ward Marston

Audio Assistance: J. Richard Harris

Photographs: Gregor Benko, The International Piano Archives at Maryland, and the Ernst Levy Family

Booklet Design: Takeshi Takahashi

Cover Photo: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum

Marston would like to thank Ernst Levy’s sons, Frank and Matthys Levy, his colleague Siegmund Levarie, and his admirers Gregor Benko, Gerald Morgan, Jr., and The International Piano Archives at Maryland for their help in the production of this CD release.

Our third volume devoted to Ernst Levy (1895–1981) presents recordings of the Swiss composer, teacher, and pianist taken from live recitals. Although he was an extremely accomplished pianist, and certainly one of the most innovative, Levy devoted much of his life to teaching, and a great many of his concerts were given at universities and conservatories, not major concert halls. Teaching music was not mere technical instruction; rather, he aspired “to place what [he] taught…within a larger context.”

As his educational background reflects, Levy always sought to integrate technical and interpretative matters with broader historical and intellectual pursuits, even at a time when conservatories and universities were not on speaking terms. He studied the piano with Egon Petri and Raoul Pugno, composition with Hans Huber, while also studying musicology at the University of Basel.  The gap between two worlds was most apparent in the university, where Levy describes how Professor Karl Nef, the first chaired professor of musicology in Switzerland, never supported his work with music examples. Levy faced a new battle in the late 1940s when he came to teach at the University of Chicago. In a letter to the chancellor, Robert M. Hutchins, he advocated the inclusion of composers on the music faculty. American universities, he claimed, were out of touch with the reality of music. Universities, he wrote, “have a wonderful opportunity to form a type of musician-philosopher who will have to play an important role in the future.” The school did begin to offer composition along with theory and music history until 1953, his last year there, when he taught advanced composition.

Levy believed that music education should reflect the vision that music was connected to the physical world and its social traditions. Ahead of his time and perhaps apart from the usual establishment, Levy was determined to broaden the study of music beyond its traditional limits, remaining technically outside of the music department and listed in the course book as a “Professorial Lecturer” in the Division of the Humanities. He insisted that music be connected to other disciplines such as physics, English, art history, and philosophy. The breadth of his teaching can be grasped from a list of some of the courses he taught during his five years in Chicago. These included: “English Music and Its Relation to English Literature”, “Word and Tone”, “The Musical Treatment of Texts”, “The Acoustical and Aesthetic Bases of Music”, “Hans Kayser’s Acoustical Philosophy”, “The French Renaissance Madrigal”, and “Wölfflin’s Categories and Their Translation into the Musical Field”. In addition he taught more traditional musical courses such as “Research in the Theory of Melody”, “The Homophonic Forms and Their Construction”, and courses more directly tied to his role as a pianist:  “The Piano Works of Liszt”, “Late Beethoven Piano Sonatas”, and “The Evolution of Pianoforte Styles”. Unlike his professor in Basel, Levy often lectured from the piano.

Levy’s interpretations are distinctive for their power, sense of overall development, and their hypnotizing intensity. For him, interpretation was paramount, the result of his investigation of the score. He interpreted music with a deeply learned respect for the composer. When asked about his rendering of Beethoven’s op. 111, Levy replied, “The construction is in the Sonata. It can be demonstrated. It is not an invention of mine. It is evident….No, no the interpreter is not a creator. He is an interpreter. He is an interpreter in the exact meaning of the word. He interprets, translates, what he sees or what there is. He interprets; he cannot do other than interpret because he is another individual. The reflection of the work in him produces naturally a diversity… There are as many interpretations as there are interpreters, but the essential should always remain the same.”

Many of Levy’s interpretative decisions, however, might strike the listener as extreme. His choice of tempo in the “Menuetto: Allegro” movement of Beethoven’s Sonata op. 10, no. 3 (CD 1, Track 3) is a good example. Beginning with a hypnotic, almost paradoxically unsettling tranquility, the tempo is far from the instructed “allegro” or the buoyancy expected from this dance form. The ABA form of the movement, in which the minuet frames the trio, reminds us of the fundamental breathing form. When the minuet after the trio is repeated, the repetition is not literal, rather it is developmental. He plays the trio in a much more dynamic and brisk tempo, energizing the meditative inhalation of the minuet. The growth of tension invigorates the minuet upon repetition, “exhaled” by Levy with considerably more vitality. The tripartite form of the movement advances in a single direction, leading the musical drama into the enthusiastic last movement.

Ernst Levy demonstrated the genesis and metamorphoses of this form from its primal melody to the monumental single-movement sonata of Liszt at a lecture-recital in 1950 in Chicago, which is quoted at length in Marston 52007-2. The basic form of the melody, or “breathing-form”, consisted of a melodic rise and the creation of tension, followed by the subsequent fall, thereby releasing the pressure. Even as musical form evolved to include more elaborate and complicated musical developments, the overarching dramatic principle of this form remains the same; we realize that our state of being upon releasing the tension was not the same as that when we began. Music, when developed and repeated, can no longer be understood as if “nothing had happened.” The basic form derived from this principle is one in which a melodic or thematic phrase is stated, the theme developed or diverted, and finally the phrase is repeated. Performances must themselves breathe this form, an aspiration that we can witness in Levy’s own interpretations.

Another, and not conflicting justification for Levy’s choices could be made in his desire to view the sonata as a “whole.” The third movement is not only connected to the finale through Levy’s dynamic development but is also linked to the preceding slow movement. The minuet is continued with the same tempo as the preceding largo, the two movements united without a pause, sustaining the musical drama. Continuity, he claimed, was at the heart of dramatic narrative. His suggestion to the interpreter of the Liszt Sonata is true to his own conception of the Beethoven here. The performer “must not yield to the natural temptation of spiritually ‘settling down’ during that slow section, for should one do so, the work might fall apart…the ‘thread’ [could] be lost—the feeling for continuous development…interrupted.” As Beethoven, in his later works, considered each individual movement within the context of a larger whole, so, too, did Levy approach every sonata as a coherent web of unified movements rather than a “loose succession of pieces.” “[E]very movement of the sonata,” Levy wrote, “is in some way part of a great development, a limb of an organism.” Traditional interpretations reinforce the contrast of tempo between the second and third movements. Doing so they naturally pause in between the movements, allowing the audience to cough and otherwise settle down. Levy eliminates this gap, weaving the movements together through their common tempo, uniting the sonata as a whole.

In the “Waldstein” sonata (CD 1, Tracks 9–11) we once again see the connections made between movements, the final note of the slow movement unresolved, completing the last movement. Beethoven clearly indicates that the performer should resolve the suspended tension of the slow movement and move immediately into the rondo (Attacca subito il Rondo), thereby uniting the movements. Levy realizes this connection between the two movements by beginning the rondo in the same tempo as the adagio. He plays the opening of movement at a spellbindingly slow pace, derived from the second movement. He builds the tempo up slowly and surely, as Beethoven does in the bridge in between the third and fourth movements of his Fifth Symphony. As in the symphony, Levy amplifies the tension as he brings out the repeated G in the left hand (CD 1, Track 11, 1:05) creating the same throbbing pulse of timpani, the same dominant pedal. The unremitting repetition of this G overpowers the surrounding texture, surging forward and growing louder until finally (CD 1, Track 11, 1:19) Levy, releases the built-up pressure at the musical climax. In essence, Levy transfers the bridge between the third and fourth movements of the Fifth symphony to the beginning of the third movement of the “Waldstein” sonata. For Levy the real finality and glory of the rondo do not truly begin until this climactic declamation. The “outstanding character” of Beethoven’s entire œuvre, Levy writes, is “an impression of dramaticism.”

Levy’s desire to create a larger whole out of disparate parts is also evident in his interpretation of Brahms’s Handel Variations (CD 2, Tracks 17–43). The “form cannot be derived,” Levy wrote, from the variations themselves. There … “is nothing in the principle of variation” that suggests a form. “The ‘form’ of a set of variations…is determined by the principle [of] the inner development through the set.” Musicologists, before and after Levy, have praised Brahms’s composition for its monumental exploration of the variation form. From Hans Meyer in 1928 to John Rink in 1999, theorists have sought to map out the work’s architectural plan, grouping variations together by mode, dynamics, tempi, or gesture, elements that collectively cohere and develop towards the final climactic fugue. Levy, in his performance, creates his own analysis of the composition through his selective use of Brahms’s repeats. The theme, taken from Handel’s Suite de Pièces pour le Clavecin of 1733, is divided into two sections, both of which, by Baroque convention, are repeated. Brahms follows these repeats, not only in the presentation of the theme but also in the successive variations. Most of Brahms’s repeats are literal, but there are a few variations (Nos. 8, 9, 13, 17, 19–20) in which Brahms composes variations on the repetitions within the variation.

Levy did not adhere to all the repetitions, which will disturb many. He posited that in many compositions, “the repeat-signs lingered on for a long time, increasingly obsolete.” In other words, composers wrote in repeats in order to conform to convention, not necessarily to enhance the musical drama or formal organization. For Levy, repetition was a primary dramatic feature of music drama, a technique that served both to extend and to shape musical form. He chose to obey some repeats and not others, but his selection of repeats, however, is not haphazard. If we focus on his performances of variations 23–25, an example representative of his approach throughout the work, we can hear how Levy, still demonstrating the principles of tension and release, builds to a grand climax. In order to extend the musical line, he disregarded the repeats in variations 23–24. The performance consequently surges toward the final variation, a flow unhampered by small-scale repetitions. In the final variation, Levy plays both repeats, reinforcing this variation by extension as a structural pillar. The musical form of these final three variations, in other words, is brought to a momentous climax, beyond which comes the final liberating fugue.

Levy’s interpretative creativity extends far beyond the few passages analyzed here. His performances demand close consideration—not only for their subtle and complex beauty but also for the deep conviction, intelligence, and idealism that animate them. He was an uncommonly philosophical pianist, a theorist of the keyboard who brought not only his thoughts to life, but also his passions and fiery spirit. Our discussion will only take us so far. As Heine once wrote, “Nothing is more futile than theorizing about music.” Let us then leave off and permit Ernst Levy, through his playing, to speak.

© Daniel Barolsky, 2005


In 1852 Wilhelm von Lenz published a book entitled Beethoven and His Three Styles, sending a copy immediately to Franz Liszt. In a letter dated 2 December 1852, Liszt replied:

“To us musicians the work of Beethoven parallels the pillars of smoke and fire which led the Israelites through the desert, a pillar of smoke to lead us by day, and a pillar of fire to light the night, so that we may march ahead both day and night. His darkness and his light equally trace for us the road we must follow; both the one and the other are a perpetual commandment, an infallible revelation. If it were up to me to categorize the diverse states of thought of the great master as manifested in his sonatas, symphonies, quartets, I…would frankly weigh the big question which is the crux of criticism and musical aesthetics to the point where Beethoven has led us; that is, how much traditional, conventional form necessarily determines organization of thought.

The solution of this question, as it is derived from Beethoven’s works, would lead me to divide his works…very logically into two categories: one in which the traditional and conventional form contains the rules of thought, and the other in which thought recreates and fashions a form and style appropriate to its needs and inspiration. Undoubtedly, in proceeding thus, we shall encounter head-on those perennial problems of authority and freedom. But why should that frighten us? …In the realm of the Beautiful, genius alone is the authority. Dualism disappears, and the concepts of authority and liberty are restored to their original identity. Manzoni, in expressing genius as ‘a greater borrowing from God,’ has eloquently expressed this truth.”

Liszt’s words (taken here from Sam Morgenstern’s Composers on Music) speak directly to several central issues affecting the understanding of idea behind musical conception—issues of such magnitude that most of us cannot bear to consider them. We feel uncomfortable, challenged by comparisons of genius with Old Testament miracles, divine inspiration, and destiny. We shy away from discussing authority and freedom in such contexts. Paralysis of a kind sets in to stymie our thoughts about such matters.

Natural to musicians in Liszt’s day, this sort of thought has become so contrary in our time that musical perception at large has changed. It is ironic. Our search for musical truth via so-called urtexts is a comparatively recently launched phenomenon. Our focus on serialism as well as our acceptance of artificial perfection on heavily edited recordings—all have led us to the realms of the quantifiably objective and away from the expressively qualitative, with the resulting confusion that we have come to believe that the former automatically includes the latter.

Composers fell into this trap, as did teachers, performers, critics, and even ordinary listeners. Our loss of touch with the idea of transcendence has cost us mightily. Works of music have become artifacts for exhibition, carefully prepared, artificially lighted ….and sterile. Public performances now can be likened to detached museological experiences, with the minutiae of scores occupying attention more than feelings. Attendance at live concerts often results in unmoving experiences. That which should be extraordinary and indelible has become so unmemorable that we find it rewarding to remain piously comfortable at home in the company of our sound systems, secure in our isolation from others, and reassured by the predictable sameness of recordings made piecemeal in studios. For the while, the impersonal has triumphed. Collaborative efforts by manipulative record companies, concert managements, international music competitions, and presenting organizations to manufacture careers for the market have contributed to the growing ills of depersonalized sameness and interchangeability. Music schools contributed, too, with the production of stamped-out, blind replicas—musicians whose training has made it impossible for them to see beyond the notes and into people’s souls.

A vital connection between music and emotions has been weakened. If we do not reestablish contact with the former spirit of authoritative music making, we risk losing a life-deepening, vast heritage. Beethoven, who loomed immensely in Liszt’s mind when he wrote the letter above, launched 19th century music on a course which hit society with the force of a bomb. His was music to be heard in the feelings as well as in the mind, not an accompaniment to social interchange, but a new form of life expressed via tone. That two aspects exist to this music of “smoke and fire,” the score, and its interpretation, is a truism.

“Dry ink on a white page,” writes Kenneth Drake in his The Beethoven Sonatas and the Creative Experience, “is the only trace of the ideas that swept through the composer’s mind.” He compares looking at a score to “reading the road signs beside dry creek beds in the American Southwest that warn of swollen streams.” The player must know what the signs mean. Perception of intent is crucial to interpretation. If the player’s search reveals the idea that the ink symbolizes, then “the result is a oneness with the music that confers upon the player a new, spiritual identity.” Having grasped Beethoven’s thought and passed it through such fantasy as is theirs, the interpreter becomes the medium through which, for example, the sonatas reach us as experiences of the spirit—inevitable, indomitable, infallible—particularly when heard in public under the hands of a great artist.

Live recordings that capture such instances of spontaneity and power are rare. The four sonatas heard here and the two great sets of variations by Schumann and Brahms come to life as if we were hearing them for the first time in Ernst Levy’s tremendously original performances. Commanded as if by a distant, encompassing vision and directed straight at our being, these interpretations are for the strong of heart, for listeners who do not fear revelation.

©Frank Cooper, 2005
Research Professor of Music
University of Miami

The recordings presented here were made directly in the auditorium during Ernst Levy recitals, using an Ampex professional recorder and a high quality condenser microphone. The recordings were undertaken by several dedicated and enthusiastic MIT students who today might be referred to as Ernst Levy groupies. Magnetic tape recording was quite a novelty then, and these students were justifiably proud of their efforts. Sadly, the original tapes have apparently vanished but we were able to gain access to 7 and 1/2 ips half-track copies that were made by Stephen Fassett, a Boston recording engineer and close friend of the pianist. These tapes contain occasional dropouts, which though noticeable, are not so severe as to mar these electrifying performances. From a technical standpoint, the worst of the recordings is the three pieces from Brahms op. 118. For some reason, the pitch begins to flutter midway through the A Major Intermezzo and becomes even more prominent during the G Minor Ballade. Levy did perform all six pieces during that concert but the flutter is intolerable during numbers 4 and 5, and the tape runs out during the final minute of number six. Perhaps this flaw only appears in our copy but we shall never know unless the original tape surfaces.

In addition to what is presented here, tapes exist of Beethoven Sonatas op. 101, 106, 109, 110, and 111. There are also concert recordings of Liszt’s B Minor Sonata and Bénédiction de Dieu. If there is sufficient interest, we will issue these in the coming years.