Born to Ida Wiesel, a Transsylvanian-Hungarian with some Saxon-German ancestry as the name Wiesel indicates and Pál Lajtha, an owner of a leather factory. The father Pál had ambitions to become a conductor, played the violin well and also composed. Lajtha studied with Viktor Herzfeld in the Academy of Music in that city and then in Leipzig, Geneva and finally Paris where he was a pupil of Vincent d'Indy. Before the First World War, in collaboration with Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, he undertook the study and transcription of Hungarian folk song, heading up a project to produce a series of folk music recordings. Throughout the war he served at the front as an artillery officer, an experience recalled in his sombre Second Symphony (1938) – a work that remained unperformed until 1988. In 1919 he began teaching at the Budapest National Conservatory. (Among his pupils was the conductor János Ferencsik, who was later one of the principal champions of his music.) From 1928 he was a member of the International Commission of Popular Arts and Traditions of the League of Nations. He was also a member of the International Folk Music Council based in London.
After the Second World War, Lajtha was appointed Director of Music for Hungarian Radio, director of the Museum of Ethnography and of the Budapest National Conservatory. His symphonic piece In Memoriam was the first new work to be premiered in Budapest when concerts could be given there again. In 1947-48 Lajtha spent a year in London, having been asked by the film director Georg Hoellering to compose music for his film of T. S. Eliot's verse drama Murder in the Cathedral. Rather than providing a dedicated film score, Lajtha wrote three important concert works – his Third Symphony, Orchestral Variations and Harp Quintet No.2 - extracts from which were used in the film. On his return to Hungary his passport was confiscated for having stayed too long in the West and he was removed from all the aforementioned posts. In 1951 he was awarded the Kossuth Prize for his activities in folk-music research.
With his wife Rózsa Hollós whom he married in 1919 he had two sons: László Lajtha (d. 1995) who was a world-renowned cancer researcher and Ábel Lajtha who is an internationally renowned neurologist and brain researcher living in the US.
Lajtha's international recognition as a composer began in 1929 with his String Quartet No.3, which was awarded the Coolidge Prize. From his time in Paris before the First World War Lajtha had many friends among French artists, such as the novelist Romain Rolland and the composer Henri Barraud, and from 1930 he had some of his works published by the Paris publisher Alphonse Leduc. He was the only Hungarian composer since Franz Liszt to be elected a corresponding member of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. Lajtha's works include
- nine symphonies
- ten string quartets
- three ballets: Lysistrata (1933), The Grove of the Four Gods (1943) and Capriccio (1944)
- an operetta: The Blue Hat (1950)
along with many other orchestral, chamber and solo instrumental works, church music and film music. His works display an intriguing synthesis of French and Hungarian national elements with musical neo-classicism, very clearly seen for example in his Fourth Symphony (1951), entitled Le Printemps. His later works are more radical in their construction and employ some extreme dissonance, for example the Seventh Symphony, Autumn (1957), conceived as a lament for the 1956 uprising.
Lajtha is regarded as the foremost Hungarian symphonist. Awareness of his music has however suffered, both in Hungary and abroad, as a result of its suppression under the Communist regime due to his support for the 1956 uprising. In addition a ban on Lajtha travelling abroad denied him performance opportunities, and it is only in recent years that his reputation has begun to be established as one of Hungary's most important composers.
Selected list of orchestral works
- Overture and Suite No. 1, op. 19 (1933) - from ballet Lysistrata
- Hortobágy, 2 symphonic pictures derived from music to the film by Georg Hoellering, op. 21 (1934)
- Symphony No. 1, op. 24 (1936)
- Symphony No. 2, op. 27 (1938)
- In Memoriam, op. 35 (1941)
- Suite No. 2, op. 38 (1943) - from ballet The Grove of the Four Gods
- Capriccio - Suite from the ballet, op. 39 (1955)
- Variations, op. 44 (11 variations for orchestra on a Simple Theme, 'Temptations') (1947-8)
- Symphony No. 3, op. 45 (1947-8)
- Shapes and Forms, music for a film, op. 48 (1949)
- Symphony No. 4 Le Printemps ("Spring"), op. 52 (1951)
- Symphony No. 5, op. 55 (1952)
- Suite No. 3, op. 56 (1953 - written for the 100th anniversary of the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra)
- Symphony No. 6, op. 61 (1955)
- Symphony No. 7, op. 63 Autumn (1957 - also called Revolution Symphony)
- Symphony No. 8, op. 66 (1959)
- Symphony No. 9, op. 67 (1963)
- Missa in dies tribulationis for chorus and orchestra, op. 50 (1950)
- Sinfonietta No. 1 for string orchestra, op. 43 (1946)
- Sinfonietta No. 2 for string orchestra, op. 62 (1956)
- Marionettes for harp, flute, violin, viola and cello
- Harp Quintet No. 2
- String Trio No.1 (1932)
- String Trio No. 3 "Soirs transylvanis"
- Prélude for piano
- 3 Berceuses for piano
- Missa for choir and organ
- 3 Nocturnes for soprano, flute, harp and string quartet
- Dreifus, C. The matriarch of modern cancer genetics. New York Times February 7, 2011.
- Short biography and list of selected works from Classical Composers Database
- Account of the Hungarian folk music recording project
- Documentary film commemorating Lajtha's work on folk music