|About this Recording
8.572156 - MARKEVITCH, I.: Orchestral Works (Complete), Vol. 6 - La Taille de l'Homme (Shelton, Arnhem Philharmonic, Lyndon-Gee)
Igor Markevitch (1912–1983)
This sixth volume of the complete orchestral works of Igor Markevitch includes the world première recording of his Oraison Musicale, composed in 1939 to a specially-written text by the peerless Swiss poet and novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, and given the title La Taille de l’Homme for its long-delayed first performance in 1982, shortly before the composer’s death. 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 “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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In this year Markevitch undertakes revision of some of his 1930s compositions, in preparation for a series of performances in Brussels.
© 1996 and 2009 Christopher Lyndon-Gee
La Taille de l’Homme (The Measure of Man)
The title given this work, La Taille de l’Homme, dates only from 1982, when the composer was preparing a recently relocated lost manuscript for performance. Disliking the ecclesiastical connotations of the music’s working title from forty-two years earlier, Oraison Musicale – Musical Oration, or Prayer – Markevitch turned to his erstwhile librettist’s long list of novels and other writings for a suitable title, choosing that of Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz’s 1933 novel La Taille de l’Homme. The great writer of the French-speaking Swiss canton of the Vaud, a humanist of peerless eloquence, was long dead and could hardly object.
The Oraison Musicale had thus languished not only without a definitive title, but unperformed until it was presented at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, by the Schoenberg Ensemble and soprano Wendela Bronsgeest, under the direction of Reinbert de Leeuw on February 13, 1982.
Barely a year before his death, the composer was present at this premiere performance, and addressed the audience (in English) about this episode in the life of what now seemed to him a remote personage, an inhabitant of a long-disappeared epoch. Indeed, his manuscript for L’Oraison Musicale had long been believed lost; but, thanks to the efforts of David Drew, the composer’s tireless advocate and “rediscoverer” at Boosey and Hawkes, it was found among the papers of Markevitch’s one-time teacher, Nadia Boulanger who had died in Paris in 1979, by her long-time assistant, Annette Dieudonné.
The completed music of the Oraison Musicale project, however, constitutes only the first part of the musical work’s original plan. Part Two, though vividly described in the composer’s autobiography, Etre et avoir été, never went beyond the sketch stage : La Taille de l’Homme is thus described by the composer himself as a “Concert inachevé.” Not merely was Markevitch’s ambition for a full-evening “Concert in Two Parts” destined to remain unfulfilled, but its completed first half had to wait forty-three years to be performed.
Substantial sketches relating to the Second Part exist among Markevitch’s unpublished (and still largely sealed) papers at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris ², outlining a massive set of orchestral variations, a complete string quartet, and ending with an ambitious double fugue, also for orchestra. The order intended for the various movements in the completed evening’s “Concert” remains unspecified. Markevitch refers wistfully to a Symphonie inachevée ³—an Unfinished Symphony—whose plan would present a full evening’s concert traversing a logical path from chamber music through concerto to symphony from the pen of a single composer, thus unified by internal thematic references and transformations.
The intervention of the Second World War, which Markevitch spent in Italy as a stateless person and resistance activist, may bear some responsibility for the interruption and eventual abandonment of this compositional project; but so does the reluctance of his literary collaborator. It may be that Ramuz was peculiarly sensitive to the manner in which Markevitch, exactly thirty years junior to his close friend Igor Stravinsky, had seemed perhaps to be seeking to usurp the older man’s compositional mantle. Irksome to the older composer, glamorous to the younger was the title conferred by some members of the press of “le deuxième Igor.” Stravinsky is known to have bristled at Markevitch’s launch by Diaghilev; his touring for performances of his Psaume with the soprano Vera Janacopoulos (creator of Stravinsky’s Pribaoutki and recipient of the score of Pastorale and other original manuscripts); his latter-day friendship with Coco Chanel; his insertion into the circle of Ramuz, Cingria, Élie Gagnebin (the first narrator of The Soldier’s Tale) and others; his cultivation of Nadia Boulanger; and countless other “trespasses” of the younger composer upon both private and professional territories of the older.
As early as 1932 (when he was a precocious twenty years old), Markevitch had been anxious to gain an introduction to Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, the famous Swiss writer who, during the First World War had built up a warm relationship of deep mutual respect with Stravinsky, following their creation (financed by Werner Reinhart) of the unprecedented “pocket entertainment” L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale). The “vastly cultured” Reinhart was to play a rôle in Markevitch’s life, too, through the latter’s conducting teacher Hermann Scherchen, leading to the composition in 1935 of his oratorio Le Paradis perdu (available on Naxos 8.570773)—well before Ramuz took any serious professional interest in him.
Though Markevitch had early sought out the Ramuz circle at Pully, centre of an extraordinary community of artists and intellectuals, it was not until after the composer’s wide success with Psaume (available on Naxos 8.572155) that Ramuz agreed to a collaboration. Initially, the writer wished Markevitch to write the music for a film based on his 1927 novel La Beauté sur la Terre (Earthly Beauty), whose premise—woven around the almost unearthly presence in a village of the Vaudois of a young woman, Juliette, born in Cuba—is that Beauty cannot exist in society because mankind is incapable of looking it in the face without discomfort or outright madness. This film project came to nothing, as had the young composer’s earlier contact with Sergei Eisenstein. Only in 1997 would the Swiss film-maker Pierre-André Thiébaud4 complete such a vision.
Markevitch pressed Ramuz for several years, but it was not until early 1939 that ideas for the Oraison Musicale crystallized around a new manifestation of Ramuz’s idée fixe: an evocation of the human condition having its roots in the humanistic sociology and morality already treated in his novels, essays and other writings. The entire trajectory of a human life was to constitute the weft of the work’s structure, with the stages of life linked to the unrolling of the seasons. What emerged—with war-clouds now gathering throughout Europe—is a tightly-woven text whose wealth of images emphasize the stark, dispassionate neutrality of man’s situation within the universe, contrasting his essential helplessness with the incomprehensible vastness of the terrestrial and cosmic environments.
The picture painted in this work is thus one of the insignificance of the individual within an unfeeling universe. In his novel La Taille de l’Homme, Ramuz devotes much attention, firstly, to his thoughts on the aftermath of the Russian Revolution; and secondly, to the re-evaluation of himself that Mankind has been forced to undertake as a result of recent scientific discoveries that place his species in a universe unimaginably more vast than previously conceived. (Ramuz’s scientific references are, perhaps, above all to Einstein, whose Theory of Relativity took shape whilst the latter was working at the Swiss patent office.) Can Mankind now definitively abandon all forms of religion? Can he desist from anthropomorphising features of the natural world? How can he view his very existence in a context of materialistic communism; or, on the other hand, face-to-face with the very science that has indelibly altered his sense of self within the cosmos? As events would turn out, this shrinking of the individual is an uncannily appropriate premonition, too, of the Holocaust about to be unleashed in Hitler’s Europe; indeed,
Markevitch’s response to Ramuz’s magnificent text is more astringent in musical language than the immediately preceding Rébus (available on 8.572154) or Psaume, partly because he restricts himself to tightly-knit chamber and chamber orchestral forces of four winds, horn, trumpet, piano and strings. Reflecting the composer’s desire that the “Concert” represent the full gamut of musical genres, the forces called for in these richly varied musical essays range from fast and furious movements featuring highly demanding, virtuosic solo writing to more pastoral, chamber orchestral textures.
Many Markevitch stylistic constants are in evidence, such as complex polyrhythms: 4/4 pitted relentlessly against 6/8 for much of the duration of the first movement of the Sonate, together with demanding display required of the solo violin. The Choral orné (Ornamented Chorale)—which with its relentless moto perpetuo of strings seems to neutralize and submerge the human dimension of the soprano voice by persistent doubling at the unison with solo trumpet—bears strong musical parallels to the rondo-like form of the second movement of the composer’s much earlier Cantate, whose text by Jean Cocteau shares a not coincidentally similar humanistic impulse. The second Rondo within the present work (Sonate, fourth movement) is similarly dispassionate, relentless, brutal even, not least in the fiendish difficulties of the long Cadenza for solo piano that separates the final two episodes. And the work ends, as does Le Nouvel Âge (available on 8.572152), with a Markevitch trademark, the interrogatory dominant seventh.
In July 1941, writing from exile in Florence, Markevitch sought to persuade Ramuz to take up their collaboration again, only to find that the writer was disinclined to undertake another project, especially now that he felt his days were coming to a close. He penned a few initial ideas for a new text, that included the following lines :
Ramuz’s letter9—he was already unwell, and had barely five years to live—closes on an elegiac note. Markevitch put away his sketches and let the project drop.
In Markevitch’s composing career, which traversed such a significant stylistic trajectory despite its brevity, La Taille de l’Homme must be considered a “late period” work. Though the project that it was supposed to initiate remained unfulfilled, the work has satisfying completeness in the resourceful integration of thematic ideas that binds its disparate movements and textures, and in its elegant form.
But it is in the supremely compassionate and richly nuanced writing of C.-F. Ramuz that the work truly soars. According to his friend Paul Claudel, writing soon after Ramuz’s death,
© 2010 Christopher Lyndon-Gee
¹ Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, cit. from the novel La Taille de l’Homme, Lausanne 1933.
² The writer would like to express his thanks to Markevitch’s four children—Vaslav, Allegra and Nathalie Markevitch and Oleg Caetani—for granting access to these papers; and to Mme. Elisabeth Villatte and Mme. Catherine Massip of the BnF for facilitating his study of the manuscripts.
³ Igor Markevitch, Etre et avoir été, Paris 1980, p. 465 : “Ainsi, l’oeuvre enterprise avec Ramuz en resta là, la partie réalisée représentant une demi-soirée musicale. Ce qui devait donner une forme au concert rejoindrait la Symphonie inachevée. Je tiens aujourd’hui à la designation de “Concert inachevé” pour affirmer son identité et son droit d’existence à cette forme nouvelle qui peut attirer d’autres créateurs.”
4 Pierre-André Thiébaud, director, Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, la beauté sur la terre; co-writer François Baumberger; co-produced by Télévision Suisse-Romande, France 3 and others; released 1997, 60 minutes; EAN 7640139360687.
5 C.-F. Ramuz, text for Oraison Musicale movement VI (Sonate, fourth movement).
7 Jean-Charles Chessex [nephew of Ramuz], Note sur C.-F. Ramuz, in The French Review vol. XXI No. 5, Washington DC March 1948, p. 354 : “Une grande partie des livres de Ramuz est écrite sous la signe de la Mort.”
8 Chessex, op. cit., p. 354 : “Présence de la Mort est un hymne magnifique où il atteint presque à la sérénité.”
9 C.-F. Ramuz, Letter of 16 July 1941, to Igor Markevitch; cit. in Markevitch, Etre et avoir été p. 465.
10 Paul Claudel, Du Côté de chez Ramuz, Neuchatel & Paris (Ides et Calandes) 1947, pp. 45–46: “Il est plein de génie et d’imagination et le style connaît par lui un renouvellement. Il n’est à l’aise que dans la mise en oeuvre des plus grands thèmes. Il a le sens du vrai tragique humain…Tout livre de Ramuz apporte à l’âme un enrichissement…”
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