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Martin Louis Litolff was a dance violinist from Alsace who joined Napoleon's army as a bandsman and was taken prisoner by the British Army during the Peninsular War in Spain. He wound up in England and married a Scotswoman named Sophie Hayes; they had a son, named Henry Charles Litolff. Martin taught his son music and in 1830 sent him to study with Ignaz Moscheles.
Henry developed into a prodigy and made his concert debut at the age of 14. At the age of 17, he eloped with a 16-year-old, Elisabeth Etherington. They moved to Paris, where he met various teachers and luminaries who encouraged him to continue his concert career. François-Joseph Fétis, head of the Brussels Conservatoire, invited Litolff to come teach, so he left for Brussels, separating from his wife in 1839. He taught there for two years, then moved to Warsaw. Fétis records that Litolff took the position of conductor of the National Theater orchestra there and during his life, suffered from some sort of nervous disorder. He met the Von Bülow family in Dresden after he returned from Poland to Germany. He became friends with the Von Bülows, who gave him treatment for his condition while Litolff taught piano to young Hans Von Bülow, who later became one of the leading conductors of the century. Litolff resumed touring, with great success. Following the tour's winding up in Berlin, he returned to London hoping to obtain a divorce. Instead, he was thrown in jail and given a heavy fine; however, the jail-keeper had a young daughter on whom Litolff worked his charms and she aided him in escaping. He went to Holland, becoming very popular there.
He went on to Brunswick, where he was befriended by music publisher Gottfried Meyer and his wife Julie. Meyer died in 1849 and Litolff succeeded in getting his divorce and married Julie on March 30, 1851. This gave him control of the publishing company, whose name he changed to Henry Litolff's Verlag. He also adopted her son, Theodore, who ultimately succeeded Litolff as its head. Litolff was an innovative publisher and established the Litolff Editions series, noted for their uniform yellow-covered appearance, designed and priced so as to make classical music available to the common man. The company was successful; it continued to flourish under Theodore Meyer's direction after Litolff stepped down. In 1940, it was sold to and became part of the C.F. Peters Company.
While Litolff lived in Brunswick, he founded a festival season, attracting some of the leading musicians of the time. He shifted from piano playing to conducting at about this time and stepped up his activity as a composer. In that field, he had already accomplished an innovation: the invention of a form he called the concerto symphonique. As the name suggests, they are actually symphonies in form, with piano, and the main thematic material is given to the orchestra, while the piano embroiders it. Notable for their brilliant scherzo movements, the most important thing is that they were unithematic. One basic theme is the germ or motto from which the rest of the work progresses and is derived. While Litolff is not the only composer to whom occurred this means of generating a composition while preserving its essential unity, he was one of its most influential innovators. Liszt patterned his two piano concertos after Litolff's concertos. He extended Litolff's idea of generating new themes from the basic motive and then developing it; in Liszt's hand the theme was constantly transformed, thus avoiding Litolff's main structural problem: his tendency to make excessive use of literal repetitions. Wagner took Liszt's thematic transformation idea into opera, building them from such transformations a set of basic "leading motives" which in turn transformed themselves into other motives.
In 1855, Litolff was appointed Kapellmeister of the court of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. In 1858, he divorced Julie and moved to Paris, which he made his home for the rest of his life. In 1860, he married Louise, daughter of Count Wilfrid de la Rochefoucauld. He established himself as a leading piano teacher and conductor. When his this third wife died in 1873, Litolff himself had been ill and married his 17-year-old nurse. In spite of his frequent illnesses and becoming quite feeble in his old age (or so he complained in his letters), he lived until just two days before his 73rd birthday. He wrote several operas, some overtures, a couple of large-scale choral works, 19 "songs" for violin and piano, a little chamber music, and 117 short characteristic piano pieces, in addition to the works that are best-known: his five concertos symphoniques, of which the last four survive. He is most widely known (and, to most music-lovers, solely known) for the brilliant Scherzo No. 4 of that series. ~ Joseph Stevenson, Rovi
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