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Lévy, Ernst

    Full Name: Lévy, Ernst

    Other Names:

    • Ernst Levy

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1895

    Date Died: 1981

    Place Born: Basel, Basle-Town, Switzerland

    Place Died: Morges, Vaud, Switzerland

    Home Country/ies: Switzerland

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre), French Gothic, Gothic (Medieval), and sculpture (visual works)

    Career(s): musicians and pianists


    Swiss composer and pianist who wrote an important treatise on the measurements of Chartres cathedral. Lévy studied in Basle and Paris under the virtuoso Raoul Pugno (1852-1914) and Egon Petri (1881-1962). Beginning in 1916, he taught at Basle Conservatory under the composer Hans Huber (1852-1921), with whom he also studied. When Huber fell ill in the following year, Lévy succeeded him. He moved to Paris in 1921, teaching and founding the Choeur Philharmonique in 1928. The Choeur was responsible for the first Parisian performances of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem and Liszt’s oratorio Christus. At the outbreak of World War II, Lévy, a Jew, emigrated to the United States to escape the Nazi invasion of France. In the U.S. he concertized and taught, first at the New England Conservatory, and then at Bennington College and the University of Chicago. At Chicago, Lévy came into contact with the German art historian Otto von Simson. The two shared interests in theory, especially medieval. Lévy had studied the writings of Pythagoras and the mathematical similarities between musical scales and star distances explored by Keppler. In this connection, Lévy performed a detailed measurement of Chartres cathedral, whose proportions, he concluded were carefully planned, symbolism thoughtfully organized and “full of musicality.” Lévy joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also teaching at Brooklyn College, CUNY. Simson published Lévy’s measurements as an appendix to Simson’s book on Gothic cathedrals, the same year that Lévy published his findings separately at MIT. He retired in 1966 and returned to Switzerland. Lévy was an accomplished, if unique, pianist and composer whose work on Chartres was his only foray into architectural history. His treatise was superseded in 1961 by the research and measurements of Leonard Cox. Simson used Lévy’s findings as an appendix to his 1956 book The Gothic Cathedral. Despite Lévy’s request that his Chartres work not be used in Simson’s second edition, Simson wrote in that edition that all students of Chartres are in Lévy’s debt.

    Selected Bibliography

    [bibliography:] Hagmann, Peter, ed. Ernst Levy (1895-1981): Werkverzeichnis/liste des œuvres. Zürich: Schweizerisches Musik-Archiv, 1989; On the Proportions of the South Tower of Chartres Cathedral. Cambridge, MA: Department of Humanities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1956; Des rapports entre la musique et la socie´te´: suivi de Re´flexions. Neuchâtel. Switzerland: E´ditions de la Baconnière, acheve´ d’impr. 1979; and Levarie, Siegmund. A Dictionary of Musical Morphology. Henryville, PA: Institute of Mediaeval Music, 1980; Connaissance harmonique [unpublished work, 1950s], English, A Theory of Harmony. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.


    Manildi, Donald. “Ernst Levy: Forgotten Genius.”; Levarie, Siegmund. “Lévy, Ernst.” Grove Music Online.


    "Lévy, Ernst." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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