About this Recording
8.570773 - MARKEVITCH, I.: Orchestral Works (Complete), Vol. 1 - Partita / Le paradis perdu (Arnhem Philharmonic, Lyndon-Gee)
English 

Igor Markevitch (1912-1983) Complete Orchestral Works • 1

 

This first volume of the complete orchestral works of Igor Markevitch [Note 1 ] features his most ambitious large-scale composition, the oratorio Le Paradis Perdu. Markevitch’s arrestingly original orchestral music led to his being hailed in the 1930s as one of the singular voices of his time, yet he was subsequently ignored—not least by himself in later life. Apart from a handful of radio broadcasts and one work preserved on 78rpm discs, this series constitutes the first recordings ever made of these remarkable works. Thus, these discs may offer the beginnings of an opportunity to decipher the mystery that is Igor Markevitch.

The sole precedent of Rossini—who retired from the composition of opera at the age of 38 to become a restaurateur, but continued to write salon music and sacred works—seems hardly comparable. Markevitch’s renunciation at 29 of his identity as a composer is a unique case in the history of music. To quote David Drew, “It is a silence like no other in the music of this century or before”.

At first glance, the eclipse during his lifetime of Markevitch’s reputation as a composer appears due, more than any other single factor, to the dimensions of his success as a conductor.

What has yet to be fully explained, however, is why his life divides so dramatically and uncompromisingly into two halves—clearly a conscious decision on his part, and one whose true reasons this intensely private man seems to have sought to keep hidden. Markevitch’s last original composition was written in 1941 at the age of 29, and he never again returned to the creative endeavours that had brought him such renown and adulation when barely in his twenties.

The trauma of the Second World War marks a sharp dividing line during which the composer appears to have undergone a mental, as well as physical crisis—for in 1942 Markevitch suffered a serious illness while living in Tuscany, and in a letter of the same year written during his recuperation, he declared that he sensed himself “dead between two lives”. But this alone cannot fully explain the reasons for his abandoning composition; and his autobiography Être et avoir été, published in 1980, obfuscates and misleads even as it makes a show of revealing the writer’s inner life.

Markevitch is dissimilar to the “conductor-composer” model exemplified by Furtwängler, Klemperer, Weingartner and many others between the wars. Contrary to them, he emerged first as a phenomenally gifted adolescent composer exalted by his contemporaries on the basis of an astoundingly assured series of early scores, turning to conducting almost reluctantly when required by his own work and by the hardships of post-war life. Yet, after changing course to this new career exclusively as a conductor at thirty, he all but denied the existence of his own music until nearly seventy years old. When questioned in 1958 about his early life as composer, he replied diffidently:

“I would say to you, very frankly, that I am objective enough to claim that there is music which needs to be heard before mine, and for which the need is more urgent. Apart from that, if my works are good enough, they can wait; and if they cannot wait, it is pointless to play them”.

The facts of his ‘first life’ are remarkable enough. Born in Ki’ev on 27 July 1912, he moved to Paris with his family in 1914 before settling in Switzerland. As early as the age of thirteen, he played his piano suite Noces to Alfred Cortot, who recommended the work to his publishers and invited the boy to study with him.

In January 1929, before his seventeenth birthday, he enraptured Dyagilev with his Sinfonietta in F, leading in a matter of months to the young composer’s completing and playing his new Piano Concerto at Covent Garden (in concert form between L’après-midi d’un faune and Renard, at what the influential social columns of London’s Sketch referred to as a “rehearsal party” for a select group of intelligentsia including, apparently, Virginia Woolf). Soon after, he commenced work on a major ballet score, L’Habit du Roi (The Emperor’s New Clothes), to be choreographed by Lifar with décor by Picasso.

In short, he was at seventeen launched by Dyagilev on a path that brought worldwide fame as a composer by the time he was twenty.

“I was his last discovery” were Markevitch’s words in a revealing 1972 interview with the New York dance critic John Gruen; and indeed, the manner in which Dyagilev, “the greatest agent-provocateur that ever existed”, took him up must at least in part have been a journey into nostalgia for the impresario.

Markevitch could hardly have entered more fully into the world of the Ballets Russes, as he went on to marry Nijinsky’s daughter Kyra, though this marriage soon degenerated. So much so that during their wartime life in Italy, Bernard Berenson rather amusingly related that Igor and Kyra used to visit him alternately, since “when they were together their artistic temperaments tended to explode”. They were estranged four years into this nine-year marriage, and Markevitch soon married again, though not before he and Kyra had had a son, nicknamed “Funtyki”, or “small pound weight” by Berenson, named Vaslav in honor of his grandfather.

The music of this extraordinary young man betrays no hint of immaturity: both in style and technique it is complete, utterly assured and deeply original. His Cantate of 1930, written on a text of Cocteau (and including music rescued from the sketches for L’Habit du Roi), brought forth the comment from Henri Sauget “…it bears witness to a very fine mastery, and to a marvelous balance of intelligence and esprit”.

This eighteen-year-old, indeed, was hailed throughout Europe as perhaps the brightest hope in the musical firmament of that time. Only three years later Darius Milhaud wrote of the première of L’Envol d’Icare: “this work …will probably mark a date in the evolution of music”.

Was this adulation more than the young composer could bear? Had Dyagilev put pressure on him, conscious or unconscious, to be the new Stravinsky, exactly thirty years on? His autobiography reveals a sense that the overnight glory which assailed him as Dyagilev’s protégé caused such a break with the normal rhythms of adolescence that he felt a stranger had been born within, an alien persona that guided him beyond any of his desires.

It is undoubtedly more than coincidental that at nineteen Markevitch should have turned to the Icarus myth for his first truly individual work, L’Envol d’Icare, a score which he continued to re-work in various forms for more than a decade. Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and fell to earth, embodies a vivid image of the fate of the young composer, swept along by the frenetic Paris of the nineteen-thirties. Indeed, the most striking passage of Icare is the lengthy, hypnotic, ecstatic-obsessive “Death” that concludes the work, occupying nearly one-third of its duration.

The series of large-scale works that followed over the following brief eight years is a succession of masterpieces in constantly changing languages. Rébus and Le Nouvel Âge both embody a Prokofiev-like grittiness married to that motoric ‘moto perpetuo’ quality that so typifies the music of Albert Roussel, but in a more pointed harmonic framework, and continuing the exploration of multiple simultaneous polyrhythms that are Markevitch’s trademark. The all-too-brief Cantique d’Amour is a ravishing Skryabinesque essay in evocative color, yet curiously emotionally detached. Psaume and the cantata-symphony Lorenzo il Magnifico are massive and bold. The early works Sinfonietta, Concerto Grosso and Partita are memorable for far more than merely their youthful assurance of execution; their harmonic language explores beyond the conventional, and their polytonal and rhythmic ideas are searchingly original.

L’Envol d’Icare remains the singular work among these masterpieces, whether for its ascetic, pointillistic scoring; its visionary use of quarter-tone tuning, harmonically so precisely calculated; its brilliant exploitation of complex rhythmic simultaneities; or the sheer unique sound-world that it evokes from the orchestra. Above all, for the poise and emotional charge of its hypnotic “Death”.

The achievement of Igor Markevitch bridges important gaps in our understanding of the period between the wars. His language is aggressively individual. Not neo-classical, it has classical restraint and a poise that is almost frigidly disciplined. In an æsthetic distant from the transmuted romanticism that propels the music of Berg and Schoenberg, he initiated an exploration of dissonance (through polytonality) that from today’s perspective we can readily identify as a fertile harmonic path. Dissatisfied with what he seems to have perceived as the indulgent prettiness of impressionism, he sought a purity and detachment of style that were rare in this interbellum period of excess. Igor Markevitch has so recently begun to emerge from the shadows in his “first incarnation” as a composer that an outline of the major events of this early phase of his life will be illuminating; not least, because it shows him in constant, intimate contact with innumerable other, and hitherto better-known, major figures of the century.

Chronology

1912
Born in Ki’ev, 27th July, to the pianist Boris Markevitch (a student of Eugene d’Albert) and to Zola Pokitonova.

1914
The Markevitch family flees Russia for Paris. Markevitch grows up speaking primarily French, and will eventually write his autobiography Être et avoir été in French in 1980.

1916
The family settles in La-Tour-de-Peilz (Vevey), Switzerland.

1921-23
Igor studies piano with his father until the latter’s death in 1923.

1925
The thirteen-year-old Igor plays his piano suite Noces (Nuptials) to Alfred Cortot (himself a composer). Cortot arranges for its publication, and invites Markevitch to study with him.

1926-28
Studies piano with Cortot, and harmony and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger at the École Normale de Musique in Paris.

1929
Markevitch completes his diplomas at the École Normale, commencing his Sinfonietta for Orchestra as part of his qualifying work. Now sixteen, he plays the Sinfonietta and Noces to Dyagilev, who soon after commissions two new works from him: a Piano Concerto, which receives a concert première sandwiched between ballets at the Covent Garden season of the Ballets Russes in July (with Markevitch himself as soloist); and L’Habit du Roi (The Emperor’s New Clothes), a ballet with scenario by Boris Kochno and designs by Picasso.

Only briefly before Dyagilev’s death on August 19th, Markevitch accompanies him to Baden-Baden for the world première of Hindemith and Brecht’s Lehrstück; and to Munich for performances of Tristan und Isolde and Die Zauberflöte conducted by Richard Strauss. With Dyagilev dead, L’Habit du Roi is abandoned, but some of its music is incorporated into Cantate with a new text specially written by Jean Cocteau.

1930
Roger Désormière (who conducted for Markevitch in his Piano Concerto the previous year) presents the enormously successful première of Cantate in Paris on June 4th.

In August, the publishing house of Schott (Mainz) accepts the Sinfonietta, the Piano Concerto and Cantate for publication.

December 8th: world première in Paris of Concerto Grosso, reviewed as follows by no less than Darius Milhaud in L’Europe of 13th December:

“Markévitch’s Concerto Grosso was one of those great rendings of the musical skies, a door suddenly opening on the future which allows an as yet unknown climate to enter. Igor Markévitch has a formidable technique and a truly unique invention”.

1931
Composes the Sérénade (January - March), perhaps his most “Stravinskian” work, for the newly-formed Parisian ensemble ‘Sérénade’.

On 24th April, Hans Rosbaud conducts the German premières of Concerto Grosso and Piano Concerto with the orchestra of Frankfurt Radio (the latter work with the composer as soloist).

The world première of Rébus in Paris on December 15th is hailed as a major triumph for the composer. Writing in The New York Times for 10th January, 1932, Henri Prunières declares:
“I am in no particular hurry to proclaim the genius of even the most gifted musicians. But in the case of Markevitch, after the new work he has just given us, doubt is no longer permissible … his music is not young. He is a little like Menuhin, who, when he was 10, played like a master and not like a child prodigy”.

Hailed by many as the “second Igor”, Markevitch is now persona non grata with Stravinsky.

1933
After being asked by Mengelberg to conduct the Dutch première of Rébus with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in February, Markevitch takes conducting lessons from Pierre Monteux (who directs the remainder of this concert). At this stage, he sees conducting as a task purely in relation to his own music. The American première of Rébus follows in April, given by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.

On June 26th, Désormière conducts the tumultuous première in Paris of L’Envol d’Icare (The Flight of Icarus), declared by Milhaud to be “a date in the evolution of music”. Le Corbusier and Cocteau, as well as many musicians of importance are among the audience.

1934
Psaume is greeted by a riot at its Italian première in Florence.

1934-36
Markevitch undertakes occasional conducting study with Hermann Scherchen in Switzerland; Scherchen becomes one of the principal advocates of his music.

1935
Substituting for Scherchen, Markevitch conducts the world première of his oratorio Le Paradis Perdu (Paradise Lost) at Queen’s Hall, London, on December 20th.

1936
Marries Kyra, daughter of Vaslav Nijinsky, in April. They decide to live in Corsier, Switzerland.

1937
Conducts L’Envol d’Icare at the Venice Biennale in September, remarking to fellow-composer Alex de Graeff: “I rejoice to hear it again, but I am nervous to conduct it for the first time…it is so terribly difficult”. Stravinsky (whose Jeu de cartes is on the same programme) is in the audience, and retreats from his earlier hostility to Markevitch, expressing admiration for the score.

1938
Contriving a commission fee as a New Year’s Day gift, Piatigorsky requests a cello concerto.

The world première in Warsaw on 21st January of Le Nouvel Âge marks a new triumph for the composer. On his way back from Poland, Markevitch visits Nijinsky for the first time in the sanatorium at Kreuzlingen; Kyra describes this meeting, and its effect on her father, as “a marvel”. Performed at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in April, Le Nouvel Âge is acclaimed by an audience of two thousand. In response to this performance, Léon Kochnitsky writes in the May issue of La Revue Musicale:

“It is often said that a gulf exists between contemporary composers and the masses who are avid for music. For Markévitch this gulf does not exist; in that lies true genius”.

In June, Markevitch begins a collaboration with Stravinsky’s one-time librettist C.-F. Ramuz on La Taille de l’Homme, a ‘concert’ for soprano and ensemble designed to last an entire evening. Due to worsening conditions in Europe, and the end of his publishing contract in Germany, he supplements his income by giving lectures, piano recitals and radio broadcasts in Switzerland and abroad.

1939
Between the outbreak in September of World War II and Christmas, completes fifty minutes (the first, and only “half” ever finished) of La Taille de l’Homme.

1940
Visits Florence with Kyra, where he composes the ‘vocal symphony’ Lorenzo il Magnifico on texts by Lorenzo de’ Medici himself. Markevitch has failed to comply with Swiss residency laws, and is thus technically stateless upon Mussolini’s declaration of war. He therefore remains in Italy, where Kyra teaches dance.

1941-47
The Markevitches live in the “villino” (little Villa), provided by the art historian Bernard Berenson —who describes the house as a “cottage in my grounds” —on his “Villa I Tatti” estate at Settignano, three miles outside Florence. Dallapiccola is among his circle of friends. In October 1941, he completes for the pianist Nikita Magaloff, another Florence resident, his Variations, Fugue and Envoi on a Theme of Händel for solo piano, destined to be his last original composition.

1942
He falls seriously ill towards the end of a “hard, hard winter” (as he descibes it to Alex de Graeff in a letter of 7 April 1942). The composer senses himself to be “dead between two lives” during his recuperation in Fiesole; indeed, during the coming year he embarks on serious activity as conductor, giving a number of concerts in Florence.

1943
In October, Germany invades Italy. Markevitch renounces his conducting commitments to join the Partisans, becoming a member of the Committee of Liberation of the Italian Resistance (the ‘Partigiani’). He recomposes L’Envol d’Icare as Icare, abandoning the quarter-tones of the original work and re-orchestrating in a less “astringent” manner.

1944
A further serious illness.

1946
During a return visit to Switzerland, writes Made in Italy, a political study inspired in part by his experiences with the Florentine partigiani, which meets with considerable success on its publication in Italy, France and Britain.

1947-77
Is naturalised as an Italian citizen in 1947. Following the dissolution of his first marriage, he marries Topazia Caetani, descendant of a distinguished Roman artistocratic line.

His international conducting career over this thirty-year period will take Markevitch to music directorships in Stockholm (1952-55), Montreal (1956-60), Havana (1957-58), Paris (the Concerts Lamoureux, 1957-61), Madrid (1965-69) and Monte Carlo, and with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome. He also gives conducting courses in Salzburg, Mexico, Moscow, Madrid, Monte Carlo and Weimar.

1978
Markevitch has effectively supressed his music for 35 years when he receives an invitation from Hervé Thys to conduct Icare and Le Paradis Perdu for the Royal Philharmonic Society in Brussels. The concert is a success, and leads to over one hundred performances in fifteen countries during the following three years.

In connection with the Brussels performances (which Markevitch conducts himself), David Drew, then Director of New Music at Boosey & Hawkes music publishers, London, makes contact with Markevitch. Progressively over the next few years, Drew persuades Markevitch to unearth his entire oeuvre, for which Boosey & Hawkes offer a new and comprehensive publication contract. Nevertheless, this series of recordings, commenced eighteen years later in December 1995, are the première recordings of all but a handful of works preserved from 1930s radio broadcasts, and a technically poor recording on 78s of L’Envol d’Icare dating from 1938.

1980
Publication by Gallimard of the composer’s autobiography, Être et avoir été (Being and having been). To some extent a roman à clef, the book reveals much even as it hides or obfuscates more.

In this year, Markevitch undertakes revision of some of his 1930s compositions, in preparation for a series of performances in Brussels.

1983
Only a short time after his first, triumphant return visit to Ki’ev, his city of birth, Markevitch suddenly falls ill, dying in Antibes on 7th March.

© 1996 & 2008 Christopher Lyndon-Gee

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Partita
Meudon, 1931; first performed 13th May 1932 at the Salle de la Conservatoire, Paris, by Marcelle Meyer (piano) with the Orchestre ‘La Sérénade’ conducted by Roger Désormière.
Dedicated to la Princesse Edmond de Polignac

 

Being launched by the all-but-unassailable imprimatur of the great Dyagilev thrust the seventeen-year-old Markevitch straight into the most elevated circles of Parisian musical life. One of the pivotal figures in those circles was the American-born heiress to the Singer sewing-machine fortune, who entered Parisian society as Winnaretta Singer, but reigned over it for close on fifty years as the Princesse Edmond de Polignac (her first marriage to another Prince, Louis-Vilfred de Scey-Montbéliard, having been annulled in 1892). Acquisition of an elevated title had been of prime importance to her, since, though her mother Isabella was French and Winnaretta had grown up partly in Paris, she was still dogged by being pigeonholed among the ranks of “All Americans [who] were more or less equally unacceptable. One might therefore pick the richest without compunction”. Her second marriage in December 1893 with Edmond de Polignac, the aristocrat who yearned to be recognised as a composer, proved perfect for both, given her wealth and his impoverished state, a mutual desire for a mariage blanc with no active sexual component, and above all their shared and deeply genuine passion for music.

By the 1920s Winnaretta’s salon was well established as the most influential in Paris; she had already supported by generous patronage such composers as Chabrier, Fauré, Satie, Falla, Delius, Poulenc and Stravinsky; the organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll; and painters Manet, Monet, John Singer Sargent and many others. Marcel Proust, too, was an habitué of her circle, during the years when A la recherche du temps perdu was forming in his imagination; as was the violinist Olga Rudge, mistress and muse for fifty years to Ezra Pound.

Igor Markevitch was seventeen when Dyagilev introduced him to the Princesse de Polignac with the carefully prepared phrase, “This young man is less wise than he may seem, and could well be just as impertinent as his music”. The Princess was firmly impressed with a performance of Markevitch’s Piano Concerto specially mounted at her atelier, and he became a regular at her Friday circle. Two years later, following Dyagilev’s death, it was Nadia Boulanger, with whom Markevitch was studying, that used her influence to bring about the commission from the Princess for a further “work in concertante style for piano and small orchestra”, to be completed by May 1931 for performance at the salon. Boulanger had to intervene several times to soften the impact of the inexperienced and rather arrogant young composer’s gaffes: his expectation that the Princesse de Polignac would pay for the orchestral parts in addition to the agreed commission fee; his lateness in completing the score, when the orchestra had already been engaged by Winnaretta for May 1931; Markevitch’s insensitivity the following year (a year late) in suggesting that the Polignac salon might be a good venue for a “dress rehearsal” prior to a public performance by the new organisation “Sérénade”, founded by the violinist Yvonne Giraud, now the Marquise Illan de Casa Fuerte, and something of a rival patroness of music. (Poulenc, it is worth mentioning, endeared himself to Winnaretta at just the same period; he knew how to treat her with diplomacy, humour, charm … and prompt delivery of his scores. Markevitch, on the other hand, while praising her influence and taste, characterised her as presiding over her salons with “her intimidating Dantesque profile. Cocteau”, continues Markevitch, “gave her the nickname Dante and supposed that she loved music in the same way as a sewing machine loves textiles”.)

Nevertheless, the “intimidating” Princess declared herself well pleased, proud even of the Partita. She missed the first performance owing to indisposition, but wrote the next day, “From all directions I’m being told of the enormous success of the Partita. What great regret for me not to have been there for this triumph”. She finalised plans for the work’s second performance at her salon less than two weeks later on 2nd June, and was so well satisfied that she requested it be repeated on the spot—this despite the nine months full-term pregnant state of the soloist, Marcelle Meyer, who nevertheless played with great energy and “élan”. Markevitch reports overhearing a gentleman audience member saying that he might perhaps “leave before the third performance”, at which his lady companion assured him that “two different works had previously been played” and that she had distinctly “preferred the second”. Markevitch cannot, in his autobiography, resist observing that the earlier performance of Partita at the Salle de la Conservatoire had “happily had a more educated and less silly [“sot”!] audience”. Whatever his opinion of her circles, he cannot have been displeased that Winnaretta within six months offered him a further commission, at a higher fee, which by early 1933 was well in progress as the four-movement full orchestral work Hymnes.

Not everyone was as sure as the Princesse of the merits of Partita. Olga Rudge, one of the first to refer to the young composer as “Igor II” commented, “He’s doing what George Antheil was doing ten years ago … he has talent, but he’s very young, of course, eighteen [sic]”. An acute critic, Winnaretta’s niece Marie- Blanche de Polignac wrote in her diary, “Markevitch’s Partita, played at Tante Winnie’s, was even more gripping than [at its performance] at the Sérénade. Implacable music, serene in its nastiness, perfectly constructed. Despite its harshness, one had the satisfaction that is given by perfect things, by closed circles. One mysteriously perceived that, within, a mathematical problem was resolved”. On 21 March 1933 the Partita was given again at the prestigious Salle Pleyel, at a special concert honouring the Princesse de Polignac. Stravinsky, as ever importantly busy elsewhere, failed to attend; works by Fauré, Germaine Tailleferre, Ravel, Milhaud and Poulenc were played to perfection (according to Henri Prunières: see reference below). Unwisely, Markevitch played the solo piano part in his own work, causing Marie-Blanche de Polignac—who had already heard the work at least three times—to confide to her diary, “Markevitch massacred his Partita”.

Marie-Blanche shrewdly and accurately sums up the essence of this music. Its Ouverture and Rondo are dry exercises in compositional technique; baroque abstractions that give particular attention to Markevitch’s fascination with cross rhythms and ambiguous metres. From the very first measure of the Ouverture, the barline is denied, with a 12/8 grouping in the lower strings resolutely opposed to the pounding 4/4 of the timpani and solo piano, the latter at this point merely accompanying. 7/8 and 5/8 groupings abound. The treatment reveals virtuoso compositional technique, yet in the end results strangely four-square, despite all the metrical ambiguity. The same can be said for the lightning-fast Rondo finale, which is quite reminiscent of Stravinsky’s 1924 Sonata for solo piano — another work written for and dedicated to the “Princesse Edmond de Polignac”. It is Markevitch’s middle movement, the Choral, that is most personal in æsthetic and most perfect in technique. Placing itself from the very opening in a bitonal stance, the thematic material is developed in masterly fashion, reaching an appassionato climax before falling back into the tranquillo of its opening. The reprise is profoundly varied from the exposition; more of an extended coda in fact, with an elegiac tone, and a final major-minor dominant seventh chord that predicts the superb ending of Le Nouvel Age, one of his true masterworks, that is to come in 1938.

Writing in a long article in La Revue Musicale in 1933 of Winnaretta Singer’s importance as a patron of music, Henri Prunières noted, “The Partita of Markevitch already represents the past of this adolescent, but what force, what sense of architecture is manifest there … it affirms an original and dominating temperament”.

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Le Paradis Perdu (Paradise Lost)
Corsier-sur-Vevey & Villars (Switzerland), 1933-34; first performed 20 December 1935 at the Queen’s Hall, London, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Oda Slobodskaya (soprano), Betty Bannerman (mezzo-soprano), and Hugues Cuénod (tenor); conducted by the composer. Dedicated to Madame la Vicomtesse de Noailles

 

A journey to Italy; a memorable “scandal” attending the Florentine première of Psaume (how much did Markevitch wish for a “scandal” to measure up to that which had accompanied the Parisian première of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps twenty-one years before ?); the initiation of what was to be a long-lasting new friendship, of significant personal assistance during the war years, with the great art historian Bernard Berenson, his wife Mary and secretary Nicky Mariano at Villa I Tatti; new friendships with Petrassi, Dallapiccola, Mario Labroca and other luminaries of Italian musical life—all of this took place in the spring of 1934, in company with the 22-year-old Markevitch’s new lover, ten years his senior, the reckless and hedonistic aristocrat Marie-Laure de Noailles. Wed to the homosexual Vicomte Charles de Noailles in another mariage blanc, she bore several striking similarities to the Princesse de Polignac —except in matters of discretion, caution and sensitivity to the comme il faut of social conduct. Only two years later, the very public split between her and Markevitch would require all the weight of Winnaretta Singer’s rank and respected position to shore up her standing in society. But for the time being, all was simple and spontaneous in the fresh carefree days of new love. “This stay in Italy with Marie-Laure was the best period of our love”, relates Markevitch in his autobiography. “The success [of Psaume] in Rome seemed to imbue me with such qualities in her eyes that she behaved quite submissively”. The quite other reception of whistling, shouting and heckling that the same work received in Florence led to inconsolable tears on the part of Marie-Laure. And then she did what the wealthy do by way of consolation: she bought a new Alfa Romeo, capable of 200 kilometres an hour, with the tender words, “This will be our car”.

It was during this mostly idyllic journey that Markevitch began to conceive and plan his largest composition to date, Le Paradis Perdu; indeed, once the long trip was over, Marie-Laure returned to Paris, leaving Igor to his composition at Corsier-sur-Vevey, where he began a journal entitled “The Quest for Paradise Lost”. Marie-Laure wrote daily, and came to visit after a few weeks. Her tenderness touched him; for her part, the creative atmosphere of tranquil yet charged energy that she found caused her to stay longer than intended. Time elapsed, she returned to Paris. Correspondence with the influential Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and a visit from Jean Cocteau, both played a part in the gestation of Markevitch’s text, whose musical ideas were also rapidly taking shape. Then another letter from Marie- Laure: her husband Charles —well aware of the liaison between his wife and her boy lover —was offering to commission Le Paradis Perdu, paying the young composer a monthly stipend until it was finished. Ten months later, in April 1935, the score was complete. The composer returned to Paris.

Here, a new acquaintance awaited him, again by way of Marie-Laure. A regular visitor to London, she had met one Peter Watson, who had co-founded the review Horizon with W.H. Auden. Not especially wealthy, Watson had excellent connections. Completely entranced by Marie-Laure’s descriptions of her Igor’s new oratorio, he proposed that Markevitch fly to London (which he did, in a biplane of British Imperial Airways, his first flight ever) to meet the musical eminences of the B.B.C., for which he, Watson, would furnish the introductions. The trip was successful, and a performance of Le Paradis Perdu was arranged quickly for the same December, to be conducted by Hermann Scherchen. Scherchen had already planned a “première” of the work for Brussels in 1936, but was not averse to what he interpreted as a studio performance in London at an earlier date.

The exploratory trip to London was fateful in other ways, as well. Igor unexpectedly ran into Vaslav Nijinsky’s daughter, Kyra. He saw her as a “butterfly emerged from her chrysalis”, and unashamedly writes, “I remember the utter delight of that moment of emotion when fever invades one’s veins. I had never known such an intensity as I now felt with her. Kyra had acquired a much greater ease, and I felt her taken over by a new inner confidence”. Such a thunderbolt could only proceed in one direction, given opportunity.

Yet Igor, back in Paris, threw himself that summer into a ceaseless round of balls and parties with Marie-Laure. Then, a journey to Salzburg in the new Alfa Romeo, and disaster: a car accident, over the edge of a steep hillside, saved by a tree that prevented their further fall. Neither was hurt, but both were deeply shocked. This too, over many months to come, may have contributed to the decline in their affections.

Following a lengthy summer journey to Mount Athos in Greece, and strenuous efforts to have his French text for Le Paradis translated into English by his long-standing but unreliable friend Edward James (several collaborators felt that an oratorio derived, however distantly, from Milton’s great poem could not possibly be given in a foreign tongue), when December of 1935 came around, the conductor Hermann Scherchen was taken ill, and Markevitch himself agreed to conduct the B.B.C. performance of Le Paradis Perdu. We know from extant letters that he travelled to London with Marie-Laure, staying together at the Connaught Hotel; the same letters relate how extremely stressful he found it to rehearse this difficult work, and how close he came to cancelling the performance. Yet in Etre et avoir été, Markevitch speaks only with admiration of the ease of working with the expert English chorus and orchestra. Tellingly, the autobiography also relates that he met Kyra Nijinska again in London, and that she could not wait to give him her impressions of the rehearsals of the work, in which she found deep inspiration. The autobiography does not mention the presence of Marie-Laure, whose postmarked letters on hotel stationery are unarguable. The composer must have been playing quite a juggling match on buses, in taxis and in hotel dining rooms.

This evidently tense London sojourn with Marie-Laure clearly marked the effective end of their intimate relationship; for in 1936 Markevitch would marry Kyra Nijinska, only daughter of the great Vaslav, and their son, namesake of his grandfather, was to be born early in 1937.

Was Marie-Laure—directly descended from the Marquis de Sade, no less—Igor’s apple of temptation? Was Igor himself the “Eve” of the story, tempted beyond endurance by a seductive figure dressed in disguise? Was Kyra the “Life” figure assigned to the soprano voice in the oratorio? Certainly, when Igor returned to Paris after the break-up, he portrayed himself to all and sundry as the “prey of a wealthy, emotionally needy older woman who had used him ‘to fill her idle hours and sharpen her egocentricity by creating imaginary dramas of which she was the victim’”. It was against the immaturity of this vengeful outburst that Winnaretta de Polignac closed ranks with her aristocratic friend.

The music of Le Paradis Perdu is richer and more varied than anything we have heard before from Markevitch; it is also highly self-referential to other works within his oeuvre, both past and to come. The opening, for instance, reproduces exactly the same music that will be used for the setting of ‘Quant’è bella giovinezza …’ from Lorenzo il Magnifico. Yes indeed, ‘… che si sfugge tuttavia,’ - “How wondrous beautiful is youth, that is yet so fleeting!—for Adam and Eve are already in the shadow of the Fall. We know their fate; the composer presages it in the insistent, worrying sextuplets; this is a flawed paradise, fraught with danger. Amidst the seductive lushness of half-quoted motifs from Tristan und Isolde lie threat, the seeds of destruction.

Lucifer’s lines, meanwhile, frequently emphasise pride in the possession of Wings - “these poor human beings, they have no wings!”—thus is the music of L’Envol d’Icare quoted. The early exposition of the character of Satan takes place against the Icare music for the ‘observation of birds (flight of doves)’ —he is thus characterised as a sort of pterodactyl, through this angular, ill-at-ease music. There are echoes, too, of the music of Cantate, and especially of the poetic style of Cocteau’s text for that work.

The text for this work as a whole does present problems as a literary entity. While it is proudly indicated as being assembled by the composer after Milton, it seems to follow a relatively naive idea of what Milton was about, but in no detail reproduces any authentic text, and in many respects is often contrary to its spirit. For example, Part II begins with a Eve parlaying a (near-blasphemous?) quotation of the words of the abandoned Christ on the Cross, that nowhere appears in Milton:

Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, Pourquoi m’as-tu
abandonée?
(My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?)

Eve’s entreaty,

Mon Dieu, Ne me punis pas ... Ne me châtie pas ...
Je n’ai plus de repos
(My God, punish me not ... chastise me not ...
I no longer have any peace)

reads somewhat contrary to the penitent, anguished, remorseful figure painted by Milton, whose Eve is full of wonder and humility that she should be both the bringer of Death into the world, yet also granted to be the vehicle for the transmission of Life.

“... Infinite in pardon was my Judge,
That I, who first brought death on all, am graced
The source of Life; ...”.
(Paradise Lost Book XI, lines 167-169)

Acceptance of guilt is the first building-block of redemption for Milton. Markevitch, on the other hand, posits redemption through a vague, almost Hollywoodised notion of Love and aspiration towards “the Spirit”.

Thus reads Eve’s final peroration, in Markevitch’s “pantheistic” version:

“Témoigne que je vois, lié par l’Amour
L’Esprit qui se disperse
Par tout l’univers!
Brille toujours plus intensément,
Afin que les hommes
Apprennent à se vaincre eux-mêmes”.

“Bear testimony that I see, bound by Love
That Spirit which is present
Throughout the Universe!
Shine ever more radiantly,
So that men
May learn to gain the victory within themselves”.

Markevitch’s Eve is a self-pitying rag doll; Milton’s has dignity and responsibility. Indeed, a Lucifer who can declare “Quelle proie facile” (“what easy prey”) or can refer to Eve as “stupide épouvantail” (“foolish scarecrow”) does not fall from the pages of Milton, in whose poetic vision the opponents in this cosmic clash that affects the destiny of the known universe inhabit a higher moral plane. Redemption is achieved (all too quickly) without effort or confrontation with the terrifying majesty of God. The “Spirit” that “points the way” is a cross between a Victorian sentimental comfort-cushion and some kind of pantheistic prop of Futurism.

We should perhaps, charitably, conclude that our musically gifted, very young composer had merely normal literary abilities. His anthropocentric, twentieth-century individualistic view contrasts with the way Milton focuses his account on the dismay in heaven. (PL lines 229 - 231 ff. / Book X).

The one authentic depiction is perhaps that of Satan’s degradation, stung by failure into planning his own descent into pure, ever more “subtle” evil. He progresses from the state of a fallen angel into that of the agent of the world’s despair. Perhaps his truest lines in Markevitch’s version are:

“Encourageant la guerre
Et faussant le progrès
Je nourris la Mort
des fruits amers du vice”.

“Encouraging war
and placing obstacles in the way of progress
I nourish Death
by the bitter fruits of vice”.

Milton, let it never be forgotten, stayed as Galileo’s guest at Fiesole—not a mile from Berenson’s home at Settignano—in 1638-39, and some of what he learned made its way into his poem, especially in Books V and VIII, which so memorably speak of the “wandering Fires” that are the planets, the “attendant moons” of Jupiter observed by Galileo years earlier, and which subtly supports the Copernican view of the solar system. How telling is Milton’s reference to “ … a spot like which perhaps / Astronomer in the sun’s lucent orb / Through his glazed optick tube yet never saw,” thus to unforgettable sharing of wisdom in the company of the great scientist thirty years before. None of this here, but, instead … a remarkable musical edifice that in its energy and superb, often terrifying momentum does portray a compelling view of the cosmic, elemental drama of existence.

© 2008 Christopher Lyndon-Gee

 

[Note]
[1] This is the first volume of the Naxos Igor Markevitch Complete Orchestral Works Edition, to be followed by the seven volumes previously released on Marco Polo.


Extracts from the sung texts © copyright 1977 by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers Ltd. Reproduced by permission.

 


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