About this Recording
8.572154 - MARKEVITCH, I.: Orchestral Works (Complete), Vol. 4 - Rebus / Hymnes (Arnhem Philharmonic, Lyndon-Gee)
English 

Igor Markevitch (1912–1983)
Complete Orchestral Works • 4

 

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 thirtyyear 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

 

Rébus (Rebus) La-Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, August–October 1931

A ‘Rebus’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “an enigmatic representation of a name, word, etc., suggesting its syllables”. In France and the Netherlands it is an especially popular kind of word-game, perhaps traceable to earlier practices of Parisian lawyers who, sidestepping possible libel actions engaged in satire of issues of the day in lampoons called De rebus quae geruntur (“on the current events”); a fourteenth-century version of television’s politically inspired ‘rubbery figures’ or ‘Saturday Night Live’, perhaps.

If this work commissioned by Léonid Massine had ever been performed as a ballet, the audience was to have been asked to guess the ‘Rébus’ suggested by its various scenes, ¹ writing down and submitting their answers at the end of the performance.

Thus, the full titles of each scene, omitted from the score, but strangely never deleted from the individual orchestral parts of the Schott edition published in 1933, which are still provided as performing materials today, are:

PRÉLUDE au RÉBUS
DANSE de PAUVRETÉ
GIGUE des NEZ
VARIATIONS de PAS
FUGUE des VICES
PARADE

yielding the old French proverb “Pauvreté, n’est pas vice” (“Poverty is no vice”). ²

The first performance of the work was given at the Salle Gaveau by the Orchestre symphonique de Paris on 15 December 1931. The composer is credited as conductor in the preface to the score, while this rôle is attributed to Roger Desormière in the Boosey and Hawkes catalogue of Markevitch’s works. ³ To date, I have been unable to resolve this discrepancy, though I tend —since Désormière was the conductor of the premières of others of Markevitch’s works—to ascribe greater reliability to the score in this case. Should this be the truth, it was Markevitch’s first conducting engagement of real importance, to be swiftly followed less than a year later by his début with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam directing the same work.

Barely three weeks after the Paris performance, the première of Rébus was reviewed in The New York Times by Henri Prunières, 4 and a year later the work was taken up by Serge Koussevitsky in Boston.

Such concert performances apart, the Massine-Markevitch collaboration was not having much luck, the film project of the previous year, 1930, having also fallen through. Rébus, the would-be ballet, incorporates lengthy worked-out passages of the musical material of the Cinéma-Ouverture (unperformed until 1995) that had been written for Massine’s aborted film. As well, we find in the Variations movement of Rébus a recomposition of the impressive final section of Concerto Grosso (Naxos 8.572153) in a more sophisticated orchestration and with an entirely new conclusion.

This fourth movement, Variations commences in a deceptively leisurely tempo that soon, by small degrees of multiplication of note values acquires powerful momentum. The characterisation and pulse of this “driving force” are uniquely Markevitch’s own. All the more difficult to comprehend, then, is his cadencing this movement with a direct quotation of the rising tuba motif from the close of Part One of The Rite of Spring. 5 Perhaps it was a homage: the latter work was also on the programme within which Rébus was premiered. Moreover, Markevitch’s first truly assured, adult piece is dedicated “to the memory of Serge de Diaghileff” who thirty years earlier had caused the conditions that allowed Le Sacre du printemps to come into being.

Let this necessary observation not be misleading: Stravinsky’s “influence” on the young Markevitch is minimal. The nineteen-year-old composer’s style is brilliantly individual, whether dramatic and intense as in the Danse and Fugue, or virtuosically whimsical as in the Gigue. Though contrapuntally inclined by nature, Rébus is anchored by pivotal appearances of a tonally ambiguous ‘thematic’ chord, (termed the ‘RÉBUSchord’ by Alex de Graeff), just as is L’Envol d’Icare of a year later. The ever-more intense fugue culminates in a threefold stretto on the Bach-like “wedge” motif, led by the third trombone, double-basses and timpani. This frenetic music is finally truncated by the intervention of the RÉBUS-chord, in transition to the sole passage of slow, lyrical music of the entire score. This in turn is transformed by a gradual piling-up of the full orchestra into a slow stringendo on the same harmony, leading to Parade, one of Markevitch’s most original inventions.

The striking individuality of the sound of Parade is due to two significant compositional choices: the doubling of the same lines as bowed and as plucked notes throughout the strings; and the harmonisation of the main melodic lines by adjacent tones, resulting in a “cluster” sound quality superimposed on tritone bass relationships. This singular sonic invention serves to display a disciplined, restrained, coldly poised structure that, commencing with the softest playing possible, builds relentlessly and by finely judged degrees to a powerful conclusion.

And the Parade (was this title borrowed from Rimbaud?) does indeed present the listener with a dignified procession of all of the themes of the previous movements—and more. For the music of L’Envol d’Icare, which will not be composed until the following year, is also foreshadowed here. The young composer’s mind had the sureness of touch and of artistic vision to know exactly where he was going.

 

Hymnes (Hymns) La Tour-de-Peilz, Switzerland, late 1932 / Paris, March–June 1933

Hymne à la Mort (Hymn to Death) Corsier, Switzerland July 1936

Hymnes is one of Markevitch’s most “experimental” compositions. Like Partita, 6 it was commissioned by the Princesse de Polignac, the former Winnaretta Singer, whose visionary patronage saw its opportunity to nurture the twenty-year old composer’s potential shown in the considerable success his earlier work had had in her salon. No matter that the Princess’s commission specified a work “for a small number of instruments”; 7 he set about with élan the composition of a full-scale orchestral work.

Each of the Hymnes (including the Prélude) is based around a pastiche ‘Chorale’ theme, shorn however of the slightest religious allusion. The mood of the work, and of these unifying ‘chorale’ melodies, is closer to that of the machine-age, materialistic Le Nouvel Âge (8.572152).

In the original set of four movements (Hymne à la Mort was composed later) Hymne Premier – also referred to as Hymne du Travail—was placed last. It too includes substantial quotations from L’Envol d’Icare—far more than a passing resemblance. Yet these “quotations” (primarily in the solo piano) are buried so deeply within the complex and heavily orchestrated texture that they are all but inaudible. Thus we can speak of layers of meaning like archæological relics, invisible until excavated by a close scrutiny of the score. The orchestral mass—dense with rhythms of 2 against 4 against 5 against 6—so successfully obscures this borrowed thematic material that it is more of a private note within the score, a residual skeleton inside a baroque palimpsest.

The Hymne au Printemps (Hymn to Spring) develops with leisurely grace out of an improvisatory cadenza, first for clarinet alone, then for flute and clarinet. It closes with mysterious chords combining F major and E major.

Hymne Troisième shares close thematic links with the Hymne du Travail; so much so that it is like a “mirror-image” of that music in changed metrical format. It is perhaps in this movement that Markevitch’s rhythmical experimentation is at its most sophisticated: for instance, a determined attempt by the woodwind and pizzicato strings to impose a rhythm of 12/16 against the 3/4 chorale theme in the trumpets; and percussion ostinati in periods of five, seven, eight and ten beats against the fundamental pulse.

Hymne à la Mort originally existed as an entirely separate piece. It was added to the set as an instrumentation and vocal arrangement of the last of the Trois Poèmes of 1935 for voice and piano; more than doubled in length, however, by the addition of entirely new orchestral music and a coda presciently dominated by the almost Boulezian sounds of piano, tubular bells, triangle and tam-tam. The song on which it is based was written “to the memory of Mme E. Boulanger”, 8 while the Hymne à la Mort itself was commissioned by José-Maria Sert for the obsequies of Prince Mdivani, 9 but apparently never performed for that purpose.

In seeking to integrate Hymne à la Mort into the overall scheme of Hymnes, Markevitch tried various permutations. Thus, the Hymn to Death was at one time placed first after the Prélude; then, a new transition at the end of Hymne Troisième was added in 1980 to establish its now definitive position as the concluding movement. The present performance, however, rejects that hastily-written transition as crude and by no means tonally more effective than the original. On the contrary, reverting to Markevitch’s first thoughts maintains the important thematic link of the concluding cadence on G that all four of the original movements have in common.

Since the work’s origins as a song for voice and piano are transcended by the orchestral recomposition, the present performance adopts the view that Markevitch the conductor would most likely have taken a pragmatic attitude to the limitations of his own scoring, preferring the orchestra to remain unencumbered and the text “layered” beneath. Another palimpsest, in fact.

This brief underlying text for Hymne à la Mort was attributed in the score of the 1935 Trois Poèmes to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. However, these lines cannot be located anywhere in Goethe, leading to the conclusion that they are most likely a “paraphrase” or parody written by Markevitch himself, much along the lines of the faux-Miltonic pretensions of the libretto for his oratorio Le Paradis perdu (8.570773). Indeed, in Etre et avoir été, the composer refers to Milton and Goethe in the same breath; 10 so that it is not unreasonable to conclude that he mimicked their work in a similar manner, his assertions of source notwithstanding.

Déployez vous d’un vol adorable !
Célestes messagers,
     et vous saintes cohortes!
Apportez le repos à cette âme nouvelle !
Recevez-la donc, et donnez-lui la joie,
dans le balancement de votre lent cortège.

Recevez cette âme nouvelle
et donnez-lui la Joie !
Amen.

Descend from that mystic flight
Celestial messengers,
     thou sacred hosts!
Bring rest to this new-departed soul.
Receive it and grant it joy,
joined in the swaying of your slow procession.

Receive this new-departed soul,
and grant it Joy !
Amen. 11

Definitively incorporated by Markevitch into the set only in 1980 (the same year he wrote his autobiography, Etre et avoir été), this text for Hymne à la Mort also implies a more than passing implication of salvation from that flight that took him too close to the sun in the 1930’s—and not for nothing does Goethe, too, recount the story of Icarus in the Third Act of Part II of Faust! Indeed, the present work ends with three rising tones in the tubular bells—precisely the same motif that, in the high Bassoon, opened L’Envol d’Icare.

Thus does the “Hymn to Death” bring us full circle.


© 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 “Argument: Ce ballet est la présentation théâtrale d’un Rébus: La phrase a déviner est le proverbe français: “Pauvreté n’est pas vice”.” (Preface to the 1933 printing of the score of Rébus by B. Schott’s Söhne, Mainz, edition N°33.111.)

² Re-interpreted, perhaps, by the Ricardian economist Thomas Hodgkinson in the early nineteenth century as “The distress our people suffer, and the poverty we all complain of is not caused by nature, but by some social institutions.”

³ Tempo N°133–134, September 1980, p. 16

4 Henri Prunières, in The New York Times, January 10, 1932: “Today, when, according to the phrase of Paul Dukas, «we no longer find our new talent in the list of the deceased but in the list of the births», we have had many disappointments…So 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. His accomplishments are amazing…When anyone congratulates the admirable Nadia Boulanger on having made such a splendid pupil, she laughs and says that he knew the secrets of counterpoint before he was born. I should add that on every occasion Markevitch pays homage to his teacher.”

5 Cp. orchestral score of Rébus (edition cit.), p. 55, with Le Sacre du Printemps, Boosey & Hawkes edition N°19441, pp. 74–75.

6 Naxos 8.570773.

7 Sylvia Kahan, Music’s Modern Muse, A life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac, Rochester NY, University of Rochester Press, 2003, p. 291

8 Raïssa Mychetsky, mother of Nadia and Lili, born St Petersburg 19 December 1858, here referred to by her married title as “Mrs E[rnest] Boulanger, following her marriage on 14 September 1877 and transferral to Paris soon afterwards. Ernest Boulanger, a renowned conductor and composer, was 62; she 19 at the date of their marriage. Ernest Boulanger died on 14 April 1900; Raïssa on 19 March, 1935—seventeen years and four days after the premature death of the brilliant youngest daughter, composer Lili.

9 “Prince” David Mdivani, a Georgian faux-nobleman resident in Paris, primarily remembered as the fourth husband of the actress Mae Murray (who appeared in Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow in 1925), whom he married in 1926, separating soon after the birth of their only child in 1927 and divorcing in 1934. Something of a family of career spouses, his younger brother Serge married Pola Negri; and third brother Alexis wed, in quick succession, Louise Astor van Alen and Barbara Hutton.

10 Igor Markevitch, Etre et avoir été, Paris 1980, p. 309: “Ce que j’élaborerais ensuite [dans ‘Le Paradis perdu’] ne garderait que des liens très secrets avec Milton dont, pour finir, il ne resta que le titre, la première invocation (”Salut, lumière sacrée, qui dira ta source?“) et le caractère de Satan dont j’admirais l’immensité de créateur précédant souvent Dieu, et qui domine, ô combien, le dérisoire Méphistophélès de Goethe. Cette opinion ne diminue en rien mon goût pour Goethe. Ainsi est-ce chez Goethe que, très ému par la mort de Mme Boulanger, survenue le 19 mars 1935, je pris les paroles pour un lied à sa mémoire, que j’envoyai le jour même à Nadia.”—“That which I subsequently elaborated [in Le Paradis perdu] only maintained very hidden connections with Milton of whom, in the end, only the title, the opening invocation (”Hail, blessed light, who may know thy source?“) and the character of Satan, whose grandeur, often perceived as the creator who preceded God himself, dominates in such a magnificent manner the derisory Mephistopheles of Goethe. This opinion does not diminish in the least my liking for Goethe. On the contrary, it was from Goethe that I took the words for a Lied to the memory of Mme Boulanger, whose death on the 19th of March 1935 so moved me; I sent this song the very same day to Nadia.”

11 English translation by Christopher Lyndon-Gee.


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