About this Recording
8.572155 - MARKEVITCH, I.: Orchestral Works (Complete), Vol. 5 - Lorenzo il Magnifico / Psaume (Arnhem Philharmonic, Lyndon-Gee)
English 

Igor Markevitch (1912–1983)
Complete Orchestral Works • 5

 

This fifth volume of the complete orchestral works of Igor Markevitch includes the première recordings of the vocal works Lorenzo il Magnifico and Psaume. The ballet score L’Envol d’Icare had been the sole work recorded in the composer’s lifetime, as early as 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 “conductorcomposer” 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

 

Lorenzo il Magnifico (Lorenzo the Magnificent)

Sinfonia concertante for Soprano and Orchestra
Florence, Spring 1940
First performance: 12 January 1941, Orchestra del Teatro Comunale, Florence, conducted by the composer; Maria Fiorenza, soprano.

The two vocal works featured on this recording encompass virtually the entire span of Markevitch’s compositional life, and the whole range of his style, from the gripping immediacy of Psaume, written at the age of 21 to the polished sophistication of Lorenzo, a bare decade later, yet almost marking the close of his brief output of original creative work.

Only the Variations, Fugue and Envoi on a theme of Händel, for piano solo, were written later than Lorenzo. The present work is thus (apart from the remarkable orchestration —amounting virtually to a recomposition—of Bach’s Das musikalisches Opfer of 1949–50) Markevitch’s adieu as composer to the colours of the orchestra.

Like Markevitch, the Russian pianist Nikita Magaloff had become trapped in Florence by the closure of the Swiss borders early in the Second World War. Spending much time together at the composer’s studio in Via Panicale during the composition of Lorenzo, Magaloff did his friend the compliment of making the piano reduction of the score of the ‘Cantata-Symphony’; the dedication of those concluding piano Variations was his reward the following year.

Florence breathes through this music; the waters of the Arno flow through it, the aromas of Tuscan olive groves and vineyards give it life. And that life is above all the life of Lorenzo de’ Medici, greatest scion of the rulers of the city that gave the world the Renaissance. While it was merely customary for political leaders of the day to receive a variety of exalted appellations—Lorenzo variously addressed his own father, Piero di Cosimo, as ‘most illustrious’ and ‘magnificent’—only Lorenzo’s own personality and achievements had such vivid force that his aura persisted through succeeding generations as ‘il Magnifico’—the Magnificent. For it was not only Lorenzo’s political genius in gaining the co-operation of the previously hostile Ferdinand I, King of Naples and of Pope Sixtus IV after surviving the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478, thus ensuring the growth and prosperity of the city of Florence, that commended him to the reverence of his contemporaries. Nor was it solely his patronage of the fine arts; his establishment of the Medicean-Laurentian Library and commissioning its architecture by Michelangelo; nor gathering around himself the greatest poets, painters, sculptors and architects of the day—a list that included, at Lorenzo’s death, the then fifteen-year old Leonardo, plucked from the tiny village of Vinci on the outskirts of the town of Empoli, thirty kilometres from Florence.

This short life of 43 years also found time for poetry that, far from being dilettante in nature, has endured as one of the monuments of Italian literature. His principal achievement as poet was in cementing the abandonment of Latin as the preferred language of literature in favour of the Tuscan dialect. In this, he affirmed the bold innovations of Dante nearly two hundred years earlier; but it is from the time of Lorenzo’s verse that the shift becomes cemented as a norm; particularly in his adoption and development of the Petrarcan sonnet.

Lorenzo’s poetry flowered following his marriage at nineteen to Clarice Orsini, a union that cemented an alliance with one of the great Roman patrician families and thus peace with the Pope, but which on a personal level also led to genuine love and private happiness. Thus, at least until her early death in 1488, most of his work has a lilting, gentle softness of imagery born of the Platonic conviction that “the more a good can be communicated, the more it is divine.”

Markevitch conceived his setting of Lorenzo’s work before ever having travelled to Italy. It was while he was still living in Corsier that he read Philippe Monnier’s Quattrocento in preparation for his never-realized book L’Inspiration, dignité de l’Homme [‘Inspiration, dignity of Man’]. Instead, himself inspired by Monnier’s account of the Renaissance, he “embarked on the path to Lorenzo.” Shortly afterwards, he visited, and stayed.

Still new to the Florentine environment, his music softened and became more fluent. Its orchestration is lighter, and its structure more economical. Particularly in the harmonic language, there is an unmistakeable flavour of the music of the composer’s Florentine friend Luigi Dallapiccola; most vividly of the latter’s Liriche greche. (Markevitch and Dallapiccola had first met at the Florence performance of Psaume eight years earlier.)

Markevitch is aware of the work’s transparency and immediacy: he writes

“…this delicacy of existence and the possibility of giving myself totally to my work played a major part in the happy outlook and transparency of Lorenzo the Magnificent. During my walks through the swarming streets of my neighbourhood, I breathed my [new] work, and I have never written anything more spontaneous.” ¹

The first movement builds a fluid, brief, dramatic scena of Rachmaninov-like fluidity of melody on a recurrent pulse of five beats; while the second is a delicate, humorous Gavotte and Trio, marked Allegretto. The central Adagio, for strings alone, aspires to a Mahlerian intensity; while it is the fourth movement (“in a tragic manner”) that is closest in manner to the Dallapiccola of the latter’s almost contemporaneous Tre Laudi and Canti di Prigionia, both of which Markevitch conducted on numerous occasions.

It is three-quarters of the way through the finale that the listener is brought starkly face to face with the changes and inner conflict that were facing the young composer at this time.

The lines Quant’è bella giovinezza, che si fugge tuttavia—‘How beauteous is youth, that is yet so fleeting!’—are some of the most famous in all of Italian poetry, and are certainly one of Lorenzo’s most felicitous creations. Within the gossamer-light gigue of this finale Markevitch places these great lines into high relief in a subtle and fascinating manner, as a slow interpolation, whose music is highly reminiscent of the Hymne à la Mort of 1936: its texture, pulse of movement and thematic motifs are closely derived from the earlier work.

How many composers would directly juxtapose the music of a Hymn to Death with Lorenzo de’ Medici’s seemingly lightweight pæan to youth, with its exhortation to indulge the pleasures of the flesh while one may (it is taken, after all, from the Canzoni di Bacco – Songs of Bacchus)? These lines that at first glance seem simple, direct and light-hearted, contain an undercurrent that is almost certainly, in part, a response to the murder of Lorenzo’s four-years-younger, much-loved brother Giuliano at the Pazzi conspiracy of 26 April 1478; an attack during the High Mass at Santa Maria del Fiore from which Lorenzo himself barely escaped with his life. Markevitch understands the double layers of meaning. Moreover, he specifically described himself during his early Florentine years as feeling “dead between two lives”. As he bade goodbye to his youth and singular ‘first life’ as a composer, he wrote:

‘…in July [1941], while the Wehrmacht was invading Russia …”after having finished Lorenzo, I experienced the presentiment of dying at thirty years of age. Was this dying, or dying to myself? Certainly, I also experienced the first-fruits of a transformation in some ways as beautiful as “hatching” out of an egg. Perhaps my feeling of an impending death emerged from the fact of no longer having any past, merely the feeling of the weight of one, and of belonging to a future of which I knew nothing. If such is the case, I would need to be reborn at some point, because I do not wish merely to survive. I wish to live.”’ ²

The sources of the texts by Lorenzo de’ Medici are:

I. A sonnet published in Comento del Magnificho Lorenzo de’ Medici sopra alcuni de’suoi sonetti.

II. Stanzas selected from ‘Selva prima’ and ‘Selva seconda’ of Selve d’Amore.

IV. Amante sventurato (‘Ill-fated lover’) from Canzoni a ballo.

V. N° XVI from Canzoni a ballo; four lines from Canzoni di Bacco; and N° VII from Canti Carnascialeschi.

The translations required the resolution of particular problems, so that a brief note is called for. Lorenzo’s texts for the first and second movements are in blank verse of eleven syllables using terza rima. Allowing an additional syllable for the feminine ending of the Italian line, this has been rendered in ten-syllable lines in English, and the rhyme-scheme precisely followed. Modern principles of translation have been adhered to, aiming for clarity and exactness of meaning in preference to excessively “literary” language—an accessible language, avoiding the cultivation of excessive archaisms, yet still evocative of the flavour of the fifteenth-century original.

The fourth and fifth movements are settings of Canzoni with the shorter, dancing line of eight syllables, equating to seven in English poetry. In a single instance only, the sequence of ideas in consecutive lines has been reversed, more easily to allow a suitable rhyme without repetition of a word or disruption of the rhythm.

The famous couplet Quant’è bella giovinezza, che si fugge tuttavia occupied the translators for many hours, and many weeks of exchanged faxes thereafter. In Italian, it is a felicitous invention of exceptional verbal sleight-of-hand and fluent progression of ideas. No ‘literal’ translation in English comes anywhere close to the easy elegance of Lorenzo’s phrase. Abandonment of the consecutive rhyme was not considered an option, and the extraneous formula “in truth” was adopted early as a pleasing solution, as was an exceptional eightsyllable line-pair. The version finally offered as part of the translation that follows is but one of several that might have been both æsthetically admissible and correct as to meaning.

Performance questions regarding word underlay arose during preparation and were resolved in preparatory rehearsals and discussion. As a newcomer to Italy in 1940, Markevitch had an as yet hazy idea of correct syllabification in Italian, particularly the very distinct rules that apply to the sung, as opposed to spoken language. His setting makes errors especially as regards the elision of consecutive equivalent vowels, and the joining of final and initial vowels in adjacent words. Whether to leave these ‘errors’ in place, or modestly alter some rhythms in order to correct them (often no more than inserting a tie between repeated notes) is the kind of question that exercises the conscience of a performing artist more than any other challenge. After much debate, it was concluded that the “wrongness” to an Italian ear was so extreme in a few cases that the changes must be instituted. It is intended that these practical alterations will be reproduced in future editions of the published score.

Poetry by Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492)

 

Psaume (Psalm)

Chésières-sur-Ollon, August–October 1933
First performance: 3 December, 1933, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam, conducted by the composer; Vera Janacopoulos, soprano.
For soprano solo and large orchestra, with small chorus of six sopranos ad libitum
Text assembled (and frequently paraphrased) by the composer from Psalms 8, 9, 59, 65, 102, 148 and 150.

Psaume is a raw, primæval composition; a “bleeding chunk” dense with wave upon wave of almost unprocessed inspiration of the twenty-one-year-old composer. Yet it is far from unfinished; on the contrary, on standing back from the sheer impact of this powerful music, its most astounding characteristics are seen to lie in its sure control of form and clarity of structure, in the certainty with which a multiplicity of subtle thematic links are handled.

Let us cite a single example: the innocuous dotted rhythm that characterises the flute solo in the Lentamente ‘second movement’, “Éternel, écoute ma prière, et que mon cri parvienne à toi!” This same dotted rhythm is transformed into the singular motif (for full orchestra, dominated by brass) that becomes the driving force of the resplendent central section “Louez l’Éternel!”—elevenand- one-half minutes of unstoppable, exuberant invention. Not for nothing is this pivotal explosion of sound reminiscent of the “Flight” music of L’Envol d’Icare of the previous year; a similar moto perpetuo, also in a 6/4 time signature, of rhythmic originality and irresistible momentum.

All the burning enthusiasms of idealistic youth went into Markevitch’s aspirations for this work. Following the Concertgebouw premiere of Rébus, he had initiated what was to become a fifty-year correspondence with the Dutch pianist Alex de Graeff, to whom he spoke of his vision of a work that would be

“sung…in four languages at the same time; hence, a feeling of ‘the great world’, an idea much purer and more universal than Stravinsky’s Latin, which no-one understands, and which lays a dead hand on his music …” ³

His youthful affectation of disdain for Stravinsky’s Symphonie de Psaumes of 1930 apart, these ideals for a ‘universal’ text proved too difficult to be realized. He contented himself with a highly personal (and sometimes controversial) selection and re-arrangement of passages and fragments from seven Psalms, entirely in French. In one case, he goes beyond paraphrase and adds a line of his own —Soldiers and Workers, Praise Him!—to the biblical text. Perhaps the impulse to “update” scripture in this way derived from his admiration for the Soviet cinematographer Eisenstein, whom he had met the preceding year.

His conception of the work as somehow universal persisted. 49 years later in 1982, we find Markevitch in correspondence with the librarian of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Mr Yehuda Fickler, regarding the composer’s wish for the work to be sung in Hebrew at a forthcoming performance. But the adapted vocal line that he has sent still contains insurmountable difficulties of accentuation, stress and even wording at variance with the canon of the Hebrew text:

“…we do not think that a change in the biblical original of the Psalm would be admissible…on the other hand, this Hebrew text is measured absolutely differently than the French original of your composition…the canto line [would have] to be changed absolutely because of the rhythmical differences [between] the French and Hebrew texts.” 4

But Markevitch’s sensibility and skill in setting what was, after, his native French are such that there is nothing to regret in the ‘loss’ of the symbolic presence of multiple languages. On the contrary, the universality is in the music itself; in a manner of setting that owes nothing to conventional ecclesiastical stylistic gestures, and that enshrines an energy and raw spirituality that transcend place and religious observance. Indeed, Markevitch fully kept his

“already old vow to come to grips with the potent lyricism of the Psalms.” 5

The period of the composition of Psaume, at Villars (near Vevey, Switzerland) was a mixture of difficulties and charmed felicity. It was at this time that Markevitch began his long affair with Marie-Laure de Noailles, who had followed him there from Paris. He had however come to Villars for treatment for suspected tuberculosis, which in turn led him powerfully to identify with Thomas Mann’s singular hero of The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp. What Markevitch did not know was that his Parisian friends Alexandrine Troussevitch and Roger Faure, equally mindful of his need for this cure as of his inability to finance it, had contrived a commission fee from one “Monsieur Therbès”, a suitably fictitious figure whose request would not embarrass the young composer into refusing their help. Though described by Alexandrine as a “reclusive bear” who did not wish to meet his protegé, Markevitch for some years believed M. Therbès sufficiently real that he dedicated the score of Psaume to him.

At any rate, the heightened senses brought about by this “first nervous illness”, his reading of Aristotle, the isolation and mountain air, and his growing attachment to Marie-Laure were recalled years later as provoking a frame of mind uniquely conducive to composition.

“Of all my works, none seized me [the French word used is “kidnapped me”] during its composition in such a way as [Psaume]. I emphasise this word, because I had the sensation so much more of being ordered by the work than of constructing it.” 6

It was doubtless the very spontaneity of the work that was perceived as a confronting ‘rawness’, causing a near-riot at its premiere in Florence. Markevitch, not without charm, speaks of the “chahut indescriptible” (“indescribable rowdyism,” or “uproar”) that it provoked; and Nicholas Slonimsky, referring to this same performance on April 4th, 1934, describes the work’s “strident neo-diatonic idiom” as “shocking the audience into shouts of æsthetic indignation.” Years later, the composer still vividly recalled the whistles and shouts of protest that began in the first moments of the piece, degenerating into physical threats, closed fists and obscene gestures as he and his courageous and admiring soloist, Vera Janacopoulos,7 returned to the hall. Unlike the events at the infamous première of Le Sacre du Printemps twenty years earlier at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, it was the music alone, unaccompanied by any overlay of a perhaps illsynchronised choreography that was fully designed to highlight the “primitive”, that caused the objections of the provincial audience. But the work had had a successful premiere at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, on December 3rd, 1933, as well as being acclaimed in Rome and Paris. In Florence there were other compensations, for Markevitch had the company and sympathy of Marie-Laure, who at this period accompanied him everywhere; the loyal esteem of his soloist; and the greatest solace of all, the approbation of his new-found friend Dallapiccola, who declared that

Psaume is one of those works that might be believed marginal until it is [suddenly] seen that its true place is at the centre of [what characterises] our time.” 8

The harmonic ground upon which the work is built is, if anything, moderated from that employed a year earlier in L’Envol d’Icare. Markevitch shows a fondness for major-minor opposition in the manner of Stravinsky’s Le Roi des Étoiles (‘Zvyezdoliki’), as well as for highly coloured harmonies pivoted around an ambiguous seventh. In its simplest form, the PSAUME-chord (related obliquely to the REBUS-chord and the ICAREchord before it) is B major with an added B-flat.

He sensed that he was resolving musical questions that had occupied him for several years, writing to Alex de Graeff in January 1934, only shortly after Psaume was completed:

“I’m discovering a true harmonic system; it may sound silly put like that, but the truth is, it’s true! And everything written within its framework produces such a feeling of Wisdom that one is enlivened, expanded, touched by it.” 9

With sweep and self-confidence, Markevitch chooses and arranges his fragments of text in a way that purely serves the structural needs of his formal scheme, discarding any hint of religious observance. He is free in altering words to suit musical values: retentissant -resounding, in place of magnifique—excellent, for instance; (this writer could find retentissant in no French version of the Psalms between the sixteenth century and today). He structures phrases and verses in an order that suits his own sequence of thought. Everything is devoted to setting into high relief the Laudate passage, resplendent like the sun at the centre of the work.

After an interval of 45 years, this youthful work was revived in Brussels in 1978, when Jacques Mairel wrote that it

“…[remains] one of Markevitch’s most powerful and original works, forty years after its creation.” 10

 

¹ Igor Markevitch, Etre et avoir été, Paris 1980, p. 447: “Cette douceur d’exister et la possibilité de me donner totalement à mon travail ont une part majeure dans le bonheur et la transparence de Laurent le Magnifique. Pendant mes promenades dans les rues grouillantes de mon quartier, je respirais mon oeuvre et n’ai rien écrit de plus spontané.”

² Igor Markevitch, Etre et avoir été, Paris 1980, p. 455 (citing from his own diary of 1941): “…en juillet, tandis que la Wehrmacht envahissait la Russie,…‘Depuis que j’ai achevé Laurent apparaît le pressentiment de mourir à trente ans. Mourir ou me mourir à moi-même? Certes, j’éprouve aussi les prémices d’une mutation parfois belle comme une éclosion. Peut-être mon impression d’une mort prochaine provient-elle du fait de ne plus avoir du passé que le poids, et d’appartenir à un avenir dont nous ne savons rien. Si tel est le cas, je devrais un jour renaître, car je ne veux pas survivre. Je veux vivre.’

³ Quoted in Tempo, N°133–134, September 1980; ed. David Drew.

4 Letter to Igor Markevitch from Mr Yehuda Fickler, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, 14 March 1982; Bibliothèque Nationale Française, Paris.

5 Igor Markevitch, Etre et avoir été, Paris 1980, p. 277: “…le voeu déjà ancien de me voir aux prises avec le lyrisme puissant des Psaumes.”

6 Igor Markevitch, Etre et avoir été, Paris 1980, p. 300: “De toutes mes oeuvres, aucune ne fut comme elle composée dans une sorte de rapt. J’insiste sur le mot car j’eus davantage le sentiment d’être commandé par l’ouvrage que de le construire.”

7 The beautiful Russian-speaking Brazilian soprano and violin pupil of Enescu, who from 1914 had been Stravinsky’s lover for several years; Markevitch’s devotion to her in the 1930s was yet another thorn in the side of his relationship with the lessthan admiring older composer. [See Craft, Robert Down a Path of Wonder, London 2006, Naxos Books, pp. 267–269.]

8 Luigi Dallapiccola, letter to Igor Markevitch, 6 April, 1934; Dallapiccola Archive at Gabinetto Vieusseux, Firenze.

9 Quoted in Tempo, N°133–134, September 1980; ed. David Drew.

10 Quoted in Tempo, N°133–134, September 1980; ed. David Drew.


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