About this Recording
8.225076 - MARKEVITCH: Orchestral Music, Vol. 6 - Piano Concerto / Cantate / Icare
English 

Igor Markevitch (1912-1983)

Igor Markevitch (1912-1983)

Complete Orchestral Music, Vol. 6: Piano Concerto • Cantate • Icare

 

Markevitch’s extraordinary precocity as a composer is startlingly revealed in this sixth instalment in the series of his complete orchestral works: the Piano Concerto and Cantate were written when he was sixteen and seventeen years old. Nevertheless they display unsullied confidence of idiom and certainty of technique that are unnerving and remain to this day a mystery. Years later, in the 1940s, his Parisian mentor and perhaps only true composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger, said of him to colleagues in the United States that already at the age of eight he had been “un phénomène”.#

 

Sergey Pavlovich Dyagilev, as so many times before in the impresario’s meteoric career, was one of the first to spot this adolescent talent, and he presented the boy with challenges and an environment in which he could rapidly develop - or fall, as the case might be. The two had been introduced by Dyagilev’s secretary, Alexandrine Troussevitch, at a performance of Petrushka, and only days later Markevitch had played sections of his still incomplete Sinfonietta to this maker of lives and of reputations. An immediate commission to compose a Piano Concerto for the coming London season was the result.

 

The youth was whisked headlong into a different world. Markevitch knew that he was being “put to the test”, and he was not found wanting. The work is in every sense an exuberant Concerto Grosso. If the outer movements of this Concerto bear strong traces of attentive study of Bach (of Hindemith, too, whom he admired), they are nonetheless harmonically and rhythmically fresh, original and powerfully present. Indeed, the displacement of metrical expectations, the shortening or lengthening of bars by an unexpected quaver or semi-quaver, is a Markevitch hallmark that will characterize his musical style throughout his maturity. Here is the sequence of bars from the last pages of the first movement, where the “drive to the cadence” is fuelled by rhythmic experimentation :

 

 

3

6

7

6

5

6

6

5(x2)

3

5

6(x2)

6(x2)

4

3

4(x2)

4

8

8

16

16

8

16

16

8

16

16

8

8

8

8

 

The slow movement of the Concerto is most original, both in its delicate polytonality, and in its self-confident spareness, most especially in the featuring of solo snare-drum as a foil to the piano’s last restatement of the theme. In the Finale, this idea is transformed into a cadenza with the accompaniment merely of bass drum. The hymn-like quality of this second movement, and the grandiose wind chorales of the third look forward to the second movement of Cantate, to the Hymnes (Marco Polo 8.223724), and to the ‘ecstatic’ slow movement for strings alone of Lorenzo il Magnifico (8.223882). If it looks backwards at all to Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments of 1923-24, it is not in any sense derivative; rather it is in the best kind of homage.

 

Its première at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London, on 15th July, 1929, with Desormière conducting, took place alongside Stravinsky’s Renard and the great Nijinsky creations Carnaval, L’après-midi d’un faune, and Les dieux mendiants. The audience was star-studded: the cream of London society and intelligentsia, Edith Sitwell and Virginia Woolf among them. Dyagilev was rapt. “This is a music,” he rhapsodised, “that draws its vigour from the very same principles that underpin the world”. Overcome, too, was the Duchess of Portland. “My dear”, she drooled, “Beethoven il est entré in you!” Markevitch, to his credit, erupted inwardly into a “crazed laughter” at this aristocratic infelicity.

 

Very few creations of sixteen-year-olds enter the repertoire for their merits in themselves; most are curiosities of juvenilia. The energy, invention, mastery of form and sheer explosive élan of the present work mark it out as worthy of inclusion in the composer’s catalogue of mature works.

 

The intentional obscurities, non sequiturs and surreal evocations of Jean Cocteau’s writing around 1930 are no surprise; this strand of absurdist French poetry both grows in a natural progression from Rimbaud, and is a reaction against the familiar comfort of the kind of images immortalised by Proust. Without doubt, Mallarmé, Cocteau and René Char have contributed beyond measure to the path taken by French music between Debussy and the present day. The arts in France are perhaps more closely interlinked and interdependent than in almost any other country.

 

Cantate, written in Paris in 1929 to a text by Cocteau, should have been Markevitch’s first ballet. The day immediately following the successful (éclatant, indeed) reception of his Piano Concerto at its London première in 1929, Dyagilev excitedly discussed with Markevitch a new commission for a ballet. The scenario would be drawn by Boris Kochno from Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, the choreography be mounted by Lifar, and the sets and costumes designed by Picasso. Heady stuff for a sixteen-year-old. The work was to be called L’Habit du Roi, and Dyagilev conceived of it being “full of researches and of new forms”. Klemperer had already agreed to conduct, subject only to schedule considerations, and the other creative collaborators on the project were to convene for a meeting in Venice in September.

 

The composer set to work immediately. Nor was he overawed by Dyagilev; he caused consternation by proposing a fugue, no less, for the moment of the score where the king is discovered to be naked, “Mais le roi est nu!” “Why such a severe form?” asked Dyagilev. “To tame disorder with an element of precision”, replied Markevitch; and in response to a searching look, “don’t be afraid – it will be a ‘crazy’ fugue”. One thinks, perhaps, of La Damnation de Faust as the ultimate inspiration behind this youthful idea. Other elements of the music, highlighted in the complex polyrhythmic combinations already beloved of Markevitch, were to anticipate the controlled disorder of aleatoricism, described by Markevitch in the 1930s, not brought into general practice until the Darmstadt school instituted it in the 1950s. Both ideas are carried forward into the Cantate.

 

Events moved fast during the remainder of this summer. Twelve days after the London première of the Piano Concerto, on the youthful composer’s seventeenth birthday (27th July), Dyagilev and Markevitch were staying in rooms overlooking the Rhine at the famous Hotel “Des Trois Rois” in Basel (where Honegger composed his Symphony Di Tre Re). A contract was signed, with the spectacular sum of ten thousand francs agreed as commissioning fee, to be paid commencing August in ten equal instalments.

 

Only a short time later that summer, however, Dyagilev was taken ill, falling into a coma and peaceful death at his beloved Grand Hotel des Bains at the Venice Lido with Kochno, Lifar and Misia Sert# at his side. Thus it was that, returning to Paris by train with his mother Zoya, Markevitch conceived the idea of salvaging his substantial body of music already sketched for L’Habit du Roi by asking his slightly older friend, the young-lion poet, Jean Cocteau, to compose a text for a Cantate.

 

Cocteau, who already gloried in a self-proclaimed “slavery of popularity”, lived in chaotic circumstances in an apartment on the top floor of the Hotel Madeleine, indulging in a diet of petits-fours at Fauchon in the square below, and of opium in his rooms above. “I am without doubt the most famous and the least-known poet”, declared this outrageous, brilliant genius. Journal of an Unknown and the film (with music by Georges Auric) The Blood of a Poet were already under his belt. The latter had been first screened at the Moulin Rouge, under Dyagilev’s auspices. On 2nd December, 1929, Cocteau would accompany Markevitch to Brussels for the Belgian première of his Sinfonietta. In part stimulated by working on Cantate together, the two had become inseparable.

 

Cocteau’s work for the text of Cantate shows every sign of being written at a high level of poetic zeal. He took a great deal of trouble to tailor the text both to the Markevitch he knew, and, doubtless, to the pre-existing musical sketches that were played to him. It is nevertheless uncanny that, nearly three years before Markevitch worked on the defining orchestral score of his career, L’envol d’Icare (The Flight of Icarus) Cocteau should have included the lines :

 

Voyez, voyez,

je sais voler

je sais me tenir toute seule

je sais voler

me détacher de la terre

tourner sur moi

m’élever sans ailes

et monter en l’air

comme on tombe

doucement à l’envers.

 

Do you see, do you see,

I know how to fly !

all alone, I remain aloft

I know how to fly

to detach myself from the earth

spin around

raise myself without wings

rise into the air

just as one falls

gently upside down.

 

C’est le système des colombes

les inventions des rêves

on croit qu’on s’élève

et on tombe

oiseau cruel de rêve

votre secret est découvert.

 

This is the method of doves

these are the creations of dreams

one believes that one rises up

and one falls

cruel bird of dreams

your secret has been uncovered.

 

This reference can hardly be incidental. Allusions to opium-reverie apart (“the creations of dreams”), the two men must have discussed the Icarus myth, and Markevitch’s mind must already have been turning towards its music. Likewise, the Chorale that ends Cantate is no accident. In London the previous summer, Markevitch had mentioned to Dyagilev that he had yet to see a staged version of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale. He must have had the other-worldly Chorales of that work in his mind for some time.

 

Cantate was first performed in June 1930 at the Théâtre de la Pigalle (of all places!) not even a year after the young composer’s triumph with his Piano Concerto in London. The critics viewed the work as an indicator of a great compositional career at its dawn. “The Cantate is testimony to rare mastery and intelligence, marvellously in equilibrium with an outstanding spirit”, wrote Henri Sauguet# in L’Europe nouvelle. Vuillermoz spoke of “premature wisdom”, and Jules Casadesus of “joie de puer”, the “joy of simply being young!”

 

Cantate is written for a chorus of male voices only, with solo soprano and a standard orchestra without harps. It was published soon after its composition by Schott and Sons, Mainz, with an illustration by Cocteau for its cover.

 

The Icarus myth is the idée-fixe of Markevitch’s life: of his long and successful career as a conductor, of the complex man revealed in the autobiography Être et avoir été, and above all of the creative artist of the early years. As Markevitch grew into the life of the mature artist, he could never shake off the sense that, as an adolescent under Dyagilev’s tutelage, he had soared too high too soon, and had inevitably fallen, wounded, to earth. It was thus prescient that, at the age of twenty, he had chosen Icare as the subject of his first major choreographic collaboration with Serge Lifar, Dyagilev’s somewhat peacock-like substitute for Nijinsky.

 

Lifar was not up to the task, and the ballet never came to stage realisation; but under the title L’Envol d’Icare (The Flight of Icarus, or more literally, The launching into air of Icarus) the extraordinary orchestral score had several performances and recognition that can only be described as awed. “This work … will probably mark a date in the evolution of music”, wrote Darius Milhaud#; while Cocteau commented that the work might have “fallen from the moon”, quoting Nietzsche’s remark that “the ideas which change the face of the world make their entrance on doves’ feet#”.

 

(For exhaustive notes on the work’s genesis and musical content, the reader is invited to refer to the liner notes for L’Envol d’Icare, Markevitch Complete Orchestral Works Volume 2, Marco Polo 8.223666.)

 

Why, then, was the work rewritten in 1943-44 while the composer was living in the Villino on the grounds of Bernard Berenson’s Villa I Tatti, outside Florence? In part to blame may well have been the less than thrilling experience of its performance at the 1937 Venice Biennale, where the orchestra was so mediocre that only three sections of the work could be rehearsed to performance standard in the time available. This was the famous occasion of the rapprochement between Stravinsky and Markevitch, when L’Envol shared a programme with Jeu de Cartes. The older man (Dyagilev’s first Igor) had been somewhat arch with his younger rival up to this point, but admired L’Envol enough that he softened and warmed.

 

The 1938 Brussels recording on 78s of L’Envol d’Icare was not a great deal more assured, and Markevitch may have concluded that the score could be made more accessible for orchestras unaccustomed, in particular, to playing with quarter-tone intonation. Then again, it is possible that, during the fallow period of the Second World War, living at Settignano, he simply could not leave alone this emblem of what, by now, was a former life. In a fascinating letter of March 1944 (one of the first that Markevitch attempted in English), offering the dedication of the new score to Bernard Berenson, he relates how “by and by I considered Le Vol d’Icare as these sketches which painters make before a fresco, and I began to wish to make my real fresco also. Years passed, and finally, last summer I took this work in hand. But very soon I understood it was impossible to “correct” the first Icare. All my conception had evoluted [sic: evolved] with myself and a new work began to appear. It was the same as I am the same man of twelve years ago . . . Quite the same, and quite different. Indeed, it would be possible to give both Icare[s] in the same concert (and probably it will be interesting to try). To compare with a great example I should say there is as much difference between both, as between the first and the third Beethoven’s Leonora. I could say, besides, there is a second Icare, not written and constituted by my evolution, my sufferings, and my experiences during these last years.”

 

The small refinements in some of the movement titles distance the work from Stravinskian associations, but indicate no structural changes whatsoever; not one single measure is added or subtracted from the original composition. The large number of alterations of substance between L’Envol d’Icare and its recasting as Icare all occur on a level of musical detail that might at first be imperceptible, but which is in fact quite profound.

 

Most immediately noticeable is the removal of the group of solo instruments tuned a quarter-tone higher than the remainder of the orchestra. There are many changes of instrumentation: the substitution of trumpet for bassoon on the opening motif and countless other small reorchestrations. More significant is the addition of long-phrased, legato counter-melodies that are not present in the sparer textures of the original. A troped melody for ’cello solo that is added during the six bars at Où l’on apprend la Chute d’Icare is perhaps the most obvious recomposition. Does it represent a loss of confidence in his musical vision? Is it a filling-out of a suspended thought that was more effective as a “hidden melody” à la Robert Schumann? It “works”, but does it perhaps say too much?

 

Many composers have rewritten or recast earlier scores. In the present case, what results is an utterly different, completely valid work. Though the surface distinctions are almost imperceptible, as compared, say, to the wholesale hacking out and replacement of significant passages in Bruckner’s symphonies, the internal rethinking of the work is profound. While it would be a rank overstatement to say that courage is replaced by caution, exploration by convention, it is undoubtedly the composer’s intention to seek understanding of a work that, in the ascetic spareness of its first incarnation, was perhaps ahead of its time and outside of its audience’s æsthetic ken.

 

And the composer remained ambiguous about the virtues of the two versions. In the same letter to Berenson, Markevitch later writes, “Perhaps some will regret the taste of unripe fruit of Le Vol d’Icare. I think they would be in the wrong. Today we have too often the tendency to take awkwardness for genius, and inexperience for originality.”

 

The Icare incarnation has had considerable success in the concert hall. It was performed at Carnegie Hall three times in April 1958 by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (the two conductor-composers had a warm mutual admiration and affection). Other than radio broadcasts of concert performance, this is its first recording under studio conditions.

 

Notes and translations by Christopher Lyndon-Gee

 

Copyright © 2003 Christopher Lyndon-Gee


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