About this Recording
8.572153 - MARKEVITCH, I.: Orchestral Works (Complete), Vol. 3 - Cantique d'Amour / L'Envol d'Icare / Concerto Grosso (Arnhem Philharmonic, Lyndon-Gee)
English 

Igor Markevitch (1912–1983)
Complete Orchestral Works • 3

 

This third volume of the complete orchestral works of Igor Markevitch includes the first recordings of Cantique d’Amour and Concerto Grosso; L’Envol d’Icare was previously recorded by the composer in 1938 on poorly-preserved 78 rpm shellac discs. Other than that single recording and a handful of radio broadcasts, the present series is the first ever made of the arrestingly original orchestral music of a composer hailed in the 1930s as one of the most challenging voices of his time, yet subsequently ignored—not least by himself. Thus these discs may offer the beginnings of an opportunity to decipher the mystery that is Igor Markevitch.

The singular 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 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. On the contrary, 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 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 diffidently replied: “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 with his family to Paris 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 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 started 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 nineyear marriage, and Markevitch soon married again, though not before he and Kyra had had a son, Vaslav (nicknamed “Funtyki”, or “small pound weight” by Berenson), named in honour 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 marvellous 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 1930s. Indeed, the most striking passage of Icare is the lengthy, hypnotic, ecstatic-obsessive “Death” that concludes the work, occupying nearly onethird 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 probes beyond the conventional in a very personal manner, especially in their searchingly original polytonal and polyrhythmic treatments.

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 the perspective of the 1990s 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 which 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, 27 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 19 August, 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 Markevitch in his Piano Concerto the previous year) presents the enormously successful première of Cantate in Paris on 4 June.

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

8 December: world première in Paris of Concerto Grosso, reviewed as follows by no less than Darius Milhaud in L’Europe of 13 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 24 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 15 December is hailed as a major triumph for the composer. Writing in The New York Times for 10 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 ten, 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 26 June 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 20 December.

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 21 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 Markevitch 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. Owing 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 Handel 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 describes 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 a 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), Monte Carlo, and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome. He also holds conducting courses in Salzburg, Mexico, Moscow, Madrid, Monte Carlo and Weimar.

1978

Markevitch has effectively suppressed 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 and 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 and Hawkes offer a new and comprehensive publication contract.

Nevertheless, the present series of recordings, commenced eighteen years later in December 1995, are the première recordings of all but a handful of works which are 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 7 March.

© 1996 and 2009 Christopher Lyndon-Gee

 

Cantique d’Amour (Hymn to Love) (Corsier, Switzerland, October–4 December 1936)

When, after an interval of nearly forty years, Markevitch again heard Cantique d’Amour towards the end of his life, he gently rebuked it for having too much “magic” and for sounding “too good”.¹

This short composition, orchestrated with a luxuriant vocabulary worthy of Ravel, feather-bedded with harmony redolent of Skryabin, is unique in his output. Its rich language was soon rejected for the astringent, almost violently energetic classicism of Le Nouvel Age as he prepared to enter his own New Age, an age of performing the music of others, untrammelled by what had become the burden of his own creativity.

Cantique d’Amour was commissioned, like Partita and Hymnes, by Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse de Polignac, and first performed in Rome in May 1937 by the Augusteo Orchestra under Mario Rossi. Subsequently, it was not heard again until 1980. It is a simple arch with coda, beginning and ending in a meandering forest of bird-song within an evocation of wind and filtered light. The apex of the arch, a violently energetic storm of passion full of rushing scales in the strings and soaring melodies in the trumpets, soon subsides into the languor of the opening.

It is the coda that looks forward to Le Nouvel Âge; chords in harmonics in the violas and cellos, doubled by celesta and glockenspiel, locked on the same unresolved dominant seventh that will conclude the later work. This is an ending that subsumes the lushness of the music that preceded it into a conclusion that is both exquisitely poised and infinitely “cold”.

Cold is a word that has sometimes come to mind in response to the music of this man; the same man who in 1972 would tell dance critic John Gruen “No, I don’t want to talk about my life, or my music—I don’t want the world to know!”. ² The same man who quelled the passion of his “love-song” within a work which remains essentially detached.

L’Envol d’Icare (The Flight of Icarus) (La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, July–Sept 1932)

The quarter-tone tuning of five instruments of the orchestra of L’Envol d’Icare yields harmonies like those in no other work, whose effect inhabited the composer’s inner hearing with an imaginative acuity that creates an unforgettable sound-world.

The Flight of Icarus was undoubtedly the single work in which Igor Markevitch saw himself most vividly reflected. The period of 1932–33, when he planned the work with Serge Lifar, sketched initial musical ideas, and assembled the fair copy of the score became for Markevitch an odyssey of profound self-examination, above all centering on the motifs of the fall and death of Icarus.

Some quotations from the composer’s autobiography, Etre et avoir été, published by Gallimard in 1980, illuminate his state of mind:

…the subject of Icarus caused me with a jolt [to ask] Why? My existence has never ceased to draw from me responses to this question, each destiny being a reliving of some myth in which the human spirit finds meaning or identification. ³

and,

…the myth of Icarus seemed rich in spiritual elements well capable of being assimilated within the architecture to which they gave birth. 4

Perhaps most personally revealing of all, particularly in the light of Markevitch’s mystifying abandonment of composition after 1941, are these remarks:

…I was led to discern in the myth of Icarus one of the most modern and dramatic meanings of which I know: the arrival consumed by fire [author’s emphasis in bold]. …Pressed onwards by ambition, the subject is devoured during his path; he attains his goal only in the realisation that his wings will no longer carry him. 5

Further, though, it was an incident uncharacteristic of the composer’s later asceticism of life, when he was prevailed upon (probably by Cocteau) to share an opium pipe, that led to heightened perceptions about time, the unity of physical and spiritual perceptions, and the nature of sound itself.

[In this state] the characteristic of sounds was that of never disappearing entirely. Like these bells or crystals that seemed to resonate for an eternity, chords were prolonged, mingling with each other, and forming pure and abstract melodic lines.”…“[I became] aware of the rhythm of death, of the movement within its seemingly immobile appearance. 6

Whether through courage, shame, or simply the ignorance of a twenty-year-old, he sought no medical help, but merely spent an extended summer holiday at Cap Ferrat getting over the ill effects of the drug, bolstered by the company of his friends the Szigetis and the Piatigorskys. This was also the time when the sketches of The Flight of Icarus were written. He persisted in searching deeply for a music that would recapture the purity and resonance of his recent experience, placing into question for him the most fundamental concepts of music itself. Anticipating, if anyone, those most dissimilar composers John Cage and Giacinto Scelsi, he remarks on the extraordinary richness of the sympathetic vibrations heard within the piano, finding that:

…each sound being an entire world with an infinity of different harmonics, hearing each single note can be compared to [witnessing] a comet which illuminates the sky along its own trajectory. 7

The originality and compelling unity of the resulting score were immediately recognised by Markevitch’s contemporaries, who spoke of its “magic” sonorities; Cocteau, comparing lcarus to Le Sacre du Printemps, called it a work which might have “fallen from the moon”, and quoted Nietzsche’s observation that “the ideas which change the face of the world make their entrance on doves’ feet.” 8 These doves’ feet, of course, refer neatly to the section of the music where Icarus studies the flight of doves—something which Markevitch himself did “with passion” while composing the score. In an article in La Revue Musicale of July 1932, which curiously pre-dates the appearance of The Flight of Icarus but was enthusiastically endorsed by Markevitch as evidence of its progress, Pierre Souvtchinsky comments that

Markevitch’s manner of creating proceeds directly from the auditory inspiration of the “heard object”, without any preliminary interference of psychological or formal elements. 9

Markevitch reacted that he believed he had indeed discovered “…truly new effects…and a truly new sensibility” 10by which he doubtless meant an innovative language that threw off the ubiquitous influences of Stravinsky.

Thus the most singular features of the startlingly original Flight of Icarus, are above all, its use of quarter-tone scordature in one flute, two solo violins and two solo cellos within the orchestra; and the pervasive presence of complex polyrhythms. It is not hard to imagine that the microtonal retunings resulted in some way from the “oriental” experience of the opium pipe, though Markevitch is at pains to describe that certain chords could not be perceived in an exact manner”, 11 and that the sole function of the re-tuned instruments was to “correct that which tricked the ear”. 12 The polyrhythms are the most singularly personal stylistic trait of the work, both for the manner in which Markevitch draws multiple cross accents within “simple” metrical structures—such as the 6/4 against 3/2 against 4/4 = 12/8 in the “Flight” passage—and, not forgetting that Skryabin had pioneered writing of this kind, for the still novel use of irrational values of four against nine, creating random cross-rhythms in the music for Icarus traps two doves.

Why then was this extraordinary score never performed as a ballet? There is no evidence that there was any serious falling-out with Serge Lifar, more a parting of the æsthetic ways. Lifar had reacted with enthusiasm when the composer played him the score towards the end of 1932, and had initiated a collaboration with Brancusi on the designs. Lifar’s ideas “evolved ceaselessly” in the succeeding months, and, although holding exclusive rights to the work, early in 1933 he readily accepted a proposal for a concert performance of the orchestral score under Roger Desormière at Salle Gaveau, which took place on 26 June that year.

Then, the impetus seems to have dried up. Markevitch alludes to Lifar’s wish to “liberate choreography as far as possible from the constraints of music”. 13 Lifar must have found the concert performance of the orchestral Icarus unnerving or intimidating; he may perhaps have retained vivid recollections of the choreographic disaster that was Nijinsky’s world première of Le Sacre du Printemps twenty years earlier. He doubtless feared similar ignominy, and commenced a search for alternative ways of mounting his subject, creating a complete choreography without music. Once this was finished, he approached first Honegger, then the Belgian conductor-composer Szyfer to supply a score for percussion alone, following his dictated rhythms. None of these attempts succeeded; but finally, in 1943, in Havana, the great Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso reproduced Lifar’s choreography that she had learnt while with the Ballets Russes, to a fine new score ICARO, for seven percussionists and piano, written in fifteen days by her compatriot Harold Gramatges. 14

Lifar, whether sensing his own inadequacy to cope with Markevitch’s music, or genuinely convinced that either the dance or the music was “condemned” by the impossibility of their synthesis, explained in July 1935, in his Manifesto of a Choreographer that:

the music was admirable, the idea of its union with dance seductive, but I had a clear sense that it would be impossible for me to bring my rhythm into accord with that of Markevitch.” 15

Lifar’s attitude became the centre of a lively (and unresolved) debate in the pages of the Revue Musicale and elsewhere about the nature of the relationship between music and dance. Many (as testified by John Gruen in The Private World of Ballet) 16 simply felt that “the symbol” Lifar had a grossly inflated view of himself as Nijinsky’s successor, to which rôle he was woefully inadequate.

Markevitch did not let go of L’Envol. In 1933 he commenced a version for two pianos and three percussion (completed by Christopher Lyndon-Gee for publication by Boosey & Hawkes, and recorded for Largo in 1993). Bartók paid homage to this trail-blazing score when composing his own Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion six years later. 17 In the midst of the war, in 1943, Markevitch re-orchestrated the work entirely, abbreviating its title to the simple Icare. This version, however, represents a loss of faith in his startling ideas of 1932, as it abandons the visionary quarter-tones, simplifies many of the rhythmic counterpoints, and ruins the suspended drama of the Chute d’Icare with the addition of a plangent, but rather obvious melody in the cellos.

The sections of The Flight of lcarus are as follows:

Prélude (Prelude)

A short slow introduction, highlighting the quarter-tone re-tuned instruments: the resulting complex harmonies (the “ICARUS”-chord from the fourth measure onwards) are calculated with remarkable acuteness of effect. The composer introduces the important role that is to be played by untuned membrane percussion instruments—indeed, sounds which are indistinct as to pitch form the principal thematic material of the work.

Jeux des Adolescents (Eveil de la Connaissance) (Adolescent Games: Awakening Knowledge)

Introduced by ringing four-note chords in the tuned percussion, this is rhythmically highly-charged, based around a motoric ostinato. Despite the obvious allusion of the title, the intersections of numerous countermelodies give this a most un-Stravinskian sound.

Icare attrape deux colombes; il étudie leur vol (lcarus traps two doves; he studies their flight)

Begins and ends with music, largely for xylophone and timpani, of a tentative character, featuring unpredictable accelerandi and ritardandi that are clearly designed to portray unpredictable avian behaviour. The lengthy central allegro section features a highly complex interplay, of four quaver beats against six against nine, with additional frequent semiquavers, and superimposed triplets. The rhythmic counterpoint of these irrational rhythms is given focus by a refrain melody in the piccolo. Not forgetting that Skryabin included birdsong in his Second Symphony (but Markevitch was essentially un-Russian, having left Kiev when he was three), the vivid depiction of bird-calls intriguingly anticipates Messiaen.

Jean Cocteau’s description vividly evokes the music itself:

…these foot-scratchings, these bird-stampings, these wing-strokes, this pigeon-house of impatient slaps. 18

Icare se fait fixer des ailes aux épaules et s’essaye à voler (Icarus has wings affixed to his shoulders, and attempts flight)

A brief recapitulation of the Prélude, pivoting on the quarter-tone tuned “ICARUS”-chord, and leading with an air of mystery into the Flight.

L’Envol d’Icare (The Flight of Icarus)

In 6/4 throughout, marked allegramente, this is an incandescent invention of enormous driving force. The music is in three main sections; the first alternates relatively straightforward 6/4 and 3/2 metres, with strong accents given by the xylophone to a simple motif constantly rising in register.

Great energy is unleashed in the second section (con impeto, ma a rigore del tempo), by rhythmic devices of considerable contrapuntal complexity; the ear can with reasonable ease focus separately on four main stands: a melody of four beats to the bar played by the trumpets against a treading bass of six beats; and running counterpoints of twelve and eighteen beats each measure. Further subdivisions feature in the timpani and untuned percussion.

The third section is a sheer outburst of joy: clear, bright, triadic music in first inversion B major, the trumpet melody now modulated by the addition of the scordatura violins. Timpani and growling bass-register chords signal Icarus’ fate.

Où l’on apprend la chute d’Icare (News of Icarus’s fall)

Eight measures only, but a shattering moment of suspended tension: Markevitch calls for the extraordinary (for the time) effect of air blown loosely through trumpet mouth-pieces together with scordatura chords in flutes and violins. (In the 1943 revision of this passage, its ethereal, suspendu quality is badly compromised by the addition of a wholly alien, “plaintive” cello melody.)

La mort d’Icare (Icarus’s death)

A slow moto perpetuo with an air of suppressed energy, full of obsessively repeated melodic cells in constantly varying semiquaver metres, all the more penetrating because of its restraint. Though the ending is purified by chords from which the scordatura instruments are now absent, it is perhaps denied finality by a tonally ambiguous timpani stroke reminiscent of the ending of Also sprach Zarathustra.

The composer scornfully dismissed those who believed they heard “an evocation of Java” 19 in the modal melodies and detached repetitiveness of this magical conclusion. Rather, it was for him a personal response to the transcendence of the Adagio of Beethoven’s C minor Piano Sonata, Opus 111:

Icarus’s arrival at [self]-knowledge can be considered as a paraphrase of the Adagio of this last sonata, which, ever since my adolescence had represented for me one of the most perfect creations in sound. 20

…for those who understand this page, the Death of Icarus becomes transparent. 21

In Etre et avoir été, Markevitch, comparing his subject to Faust, speaks of Icarus observing his own death:

The fall takes place only when the absurd is no longer considered as such. In Icarus the wings are in some sense found again, like the cast-off skin of a serpent. They are the signs of renewal. 22

And he quotes the reaction of his wife, Kyra, to the music of L’Envol, following its triumphant world première on 26 June 1933:

You have taken the elements of transient existence and made them into the components of an eternal music. 23

Concerto Grosso (Concerto Grosso) La-Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, August—October 1930

Markevitch’s musical style was never overtly influenced by the neoclassicism of Les Six or of Stravinsky. In this youthful work there are however occasional glimpses of the Hindemith whose Concerto for Orchestra, Op. 38 (which Nadia Boulanger had analysed in her composition class) made such an impression that the then sixteen-year-old composer

slept with the score, and many times each night [I] would put on the light to re-read it and remind myself of what his music was saying. 24

But these are shadings more than “influence”, for the word in this case means no more than saying that a young artist was growing up within a certain environment, absorbed everything that was happening within it, and reflected pluralistic aspects of his surroundings as might a camera interpret the temperature of light through a variety of filters. Indeed, the Concerto Grosso is more of a challenge to the styles of his contemporaries than an extension of their own endeavours; its innovations and daring rhythmic play are tantamount to a glove or handkerchief cast down by a supremely confident new entrant to the lists.

Milhaud’s La Création du monde of the previous year, for instance, introduces the saxophone to the instrumental lexicon of European art music, yet gives it nowhere near the same prominence as does Concerto Grosso. Whereas Milhaud “buries” his alto saxophone within the strings in slow-moving cantabile melody, Markevitch uses the dominating soprano instrument in agile, whirligig display.

The initial concertino episode of the work’s first movement, for example, is set for the grouping of saxophone, bassoon, trombone and solo violin. It is the saxophone that first introduces the rhythmically clashing triplet-across-the-bar that is to become such a hallmark of Markevitch’s style.

In later concertino sections, contrasting orchestral groups are presented in turn, with the triplet rhythmic counterpoint next heard in the horns against an 8/8 unison bass-line in bass clarinet and cellos. Later again, the saxophone is heard once more, doubling tutti violins against basses, tuba, trombone and trumpet.

The Andante of Concerto Grosso grows directly out of a short meno mosso section of the first movement; the one moment in the work that distantly recalls the music for Es sungen drei Engel in Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. The triadic nature of this theme is designed to upset any sense of tonality created by the sforzando close of the Allegro con brio on G. At the same time, its strong F major implications are constantly upset by an attraction to tritone relationships, which feature most prominently in a striking solo for piccolo towards the end.

The Finale is thematically a direct extension of the first movement, beginning with a boldly original scurrying fugato for pizzicato strings. The entry of the brass powerfully develops the “wedge” motif, culled from Bach’s famous E minor organ fugue, of which Markevitch will make such dramatic use in Rébus in the following year. The structure of this movement is masterly, culminating in a set of variations by way of a lengthy coda. Immediately reminiscent of the opening of the Andante, the variations commence unassumingly with the solo flute, illustrating just how closely the principal melodic motifs of the entire piece are tied together. Moreover, this magnificent passage, gathering momentum by inexorable small degrees, is also a premonition of Rébus; in the following year, the identical compositional idea will reappear as a separate movement in the latter work, subtly re-orchestrated and with an entirely new conclusion. Even in its first manifestation, however, the characterisation and “driving force” of this music are uniquely Markevitch’s own.

The first performance of the work was given at the Salle de la Conservatoire, Paris on 8 December 1930, by the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris under its dedicatee, Roger Desormière.

© 1996 & 2009 Christopher Lyndon-Gee

 

Reproduction of brief quotations permitted with acknowledgement. For permission to use longer citations, please contact Naxos Rights International Ltd.

¹ David Drew, Igor Markevitch: The Early Works and Beyond, in Tempo, N° 133/134, Boosey & Hawkes, London, September 1980, p. 38; reported from a conversation between Drew and Markevitch.

² John Gruen reported these remarks to the present writer in New York, April 3, 1996: Markevitch made these informal comments preceding the tape-recorded part of his 1972 interview with Gruen. But see also the transcript of that interview, dated August 6, 1972 : New York Public Library Dance Collection ms. MGZMT 3-176.

³ Être et avoir été, p. 236: “…le sujet d’Icare provoqua en moi un choc. Pourquoi ? Mon existence n’a cessé de me fournir des réponses à cette question, chaque destinée étant une réédition de quelque mythe, où l’âme humaine se signifie ou trouve une identification.

4 Op. cit. p. 245: “…le mythe d’Icare apparaissait riche d’éléments spirituels susceptibles d’être assimilés à l’architecture qu’ils animeraient.

5 Op. cit. p. 237: “… j’ai été amené à déceler dans le mythe d’Icare …une des significations les plus modernes et dramatiques que je sache: arriver brûlé. …Poussé par l’ambition, le sujet, consumé en route, atteint son but pour constater que ses ailes ne le portent plus.

6 Op. cit. p. 238: “La caractéristique des sons était de ne jamais disparaître complètement. Comme ces cloches ou ces cristaux qui paraissaient résonner pour l’éternité, les accords se prolongeaient, s’enchevêtrant les uns aux autres, et formaient des lignes mélodiques pures et abstraites.…[ça] m’a fait prendre conscience du rhythme de la mort et de son mouvement d’apparence immobile.”

7 Op. cit. p. 241: “…chaque son étant un monde complet avec une infinité d’harmoniques différents, l’audition de toute note peut se comparer à une comète qui illumine le ciel par le trajet qu’elle y allume.”

8 Op. cit. p. 247: “Les idées qui changent la face du monde approchent sur les pattes de colombes.”

9 Pierre Souvtchinsky, Icare, in La Revue musicale, July 1932: cit. in Être et avoir été p. 244: “La création chez Markevitch dépend directement de l’inspiration auditive de la «chose qui s’entend», sans intervention préalable d’éléments psychologiques ou formels.”

10 Être et avoir été, p. 244: “…effets réellement nouveaux et [la création] d’une sensibilité nouvelle.”

11 Op. cit. p. 243: “…certains accords ne pouvaient être perçus avec exactitude…”

12 Op. cit. p. 243: “…la seule fonction était de corriger ce que fausse l’oreille…”

13 Op. cit. p. 249: “…[une tendance] à libérer autant que possible la choréographie de la sujétion de la musique.”

14 See transcript of an interview with Harold Gramatges conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee in Havana on February 4, 1994; a brief reference to this work is also to be found in Alejo Carpentier, La Musica en Cuba, Mexico City 1946, p. 266: “El Icaro de Gramatges, debemos señalarlo, es bastante superior al de Szyfer, logrando un clima muy tenso y dramático con los instrumentos de percusión tradicionales.”

15 Serge Lifar, Manifeste du Choréographe, in Comoedia, 2 July 1935; quoted in op. cit. p. 252: “La musique était admirable, l’idée de son union avec la danse séduisante, mais je sentais parfaitement qu’il me serait impossible de faire coïncider mon rhythme avec celui de Markevitch.”

16 John Gruen, op cit pp. 5–6; in particular the reference to Serge Lifar, My Life, Paris 1965.

17 See Bartók’s letter (late 1930s?) to Markevitch reproduced in the New York Philharmonic program books for the orchestra’s concerts at Carnegie Hall with Leonard Bernstein on April 10, 11 and 15, 1958: “J’ai nécessité du temps pour étudier et comprendre toute la beauté de votre partition, et je pense qu’il faudra beaucoup d’années pour qu’on l’apprecie…Vous êtes la personnalité la plus frappante de la musique contemporaine et je me réjouis, Monsieur, de profiter de votre influence.” — “I would need more time to study and understand the beauty of your score, and I believe that many years may be necessary before it is fully appreciated…You are the most striking personality in contemporary music and I rejoice, Sir, in being able to benefit from your influence.”

18 Être et avoir été p. 247: “…ce grattement de pattes, ces piétinements d’oiseaux, ces moires d’ailes, ce pigeonnier de gifles et d’impatiences…”

19 Être et avoir été p. 462: “(Il y eut même des malheureux qui crurent voir [sic] dans la Mort d’Icare une évocation de Java…)”

20 Être et avoir été p. 461: “En fait, l’accession d’Icare à la connaissance peut être considérée comme paraphrase de l’Adagio de cette dernière sonata, qui a représenté pour moi, depuis mon adolescence, une des créations sonores le plus proches de la perfection où celle-ci se retrouve elle-même.”

21 Être et avoir été p. 462: “…pour qui comprend cette page, la Mort d’Icare devient transparente.”

22 Op. cit. p. 236: “ La chute commence lorsque l’absurde n’est plus considéré comme tel. Dans Icare on retrouve quelque part ses ailes, comme les restes d’un serpent qui a fait peau neuve. Ce sont les signes de renouveau.”

23 Op. cit. p. 398: “Tu as fait des éléments d’une vie qui passe, ceux d’une musique éternelle.”

24 Conversations with Claude Rostand in Point d’Orgue, Paris, 1959.


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