About this Recording
8.572158 - MARKEVITCH, I.: Orchestral Works (Complete), Vol. 8 - The Musical Offering (Arnhem Philharmonic, Lyndon-Gee)
English 

Igor Markevitch (1912–1983)
Complete Orchestral Works • 8

 

This eighth and final volume of the complete orchestral works of Igor Markevitch completes a portrait of a master orchestrator, albeit here in a rôle subservient to the contrapuntal mastery of Johann Sebastian Bach. Yet Markevitch’s contribution is more than that of mere colourist, for his solution to the “puzzles” posed by Bach’s canonic incipits ranks with the most imaginative and convincing of the hundreds attempted since 1747; the notes below explain the success of his approach in greater detail.

Markevitch was very attached to this realisation, featuring it in many of his programmes as conductor after 1950 (including that for his U.S. début), whereas he scrupulously avoided programming his own original scores. Indeed, after 1938, when he recorded (on poorly preserved 78 rpm shellac discs) the ballet score L’Envol d’Icare, he avoided his own music as if it represented a diseased earlier life that he wished to forget. Until the present Naxos series, that sole recording from the composer’s lifetime, and a handful of radio broadcasts, remained the only documentation of a composer who had been hailed in the 1930s as one of the most challenging voices of his time. Thus the seventeen world première recordings, and two absolute world premières presented on these eight 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 a 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 one-third of its duration.

The series of large-scale works that followed over the following brief eight years is a succession of masterpieces in constantly changing languages. Rébus and Le Nouvel Âge both embody a Prokofiev-like grittiness married to that motoric “moto perpetuo” quality that so typifies the music of Albert Roussel, but in a more pointed harmonic framework, and continuing the exploration of multiple simultaneous polyrhythms that are Markevitch’s trademark. The all-too-brief Cantique d’Amour is a ravishing Skryabinesque essay in evocative color, yet curiously emotionally detached. Psaume and the cantata-symphony Lorenzo Il Magnifico are massive and bold. The early works Sinfonietta, Concerto Grosso and Partita are memorable for far more than merely their youthful assurance of execution; their harmonic language 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, 27th July, to the pianist Boris Markevitch (a student of Eugene d’Albert) and to Zola Pokitonova.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only briefly before Dyagilev’s death on 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

 

Das Musikalisches Opfer (The Musical Offering)

Realisation and instrumentation for Three Orchestral Groups and solo Quartet

Composed primarily in London, 1949–50

ARS MUSICA SCIENTIA EST

Johann Sebastian Bach’s ideal—that the perfection of Art in Music is most nearly achieved when its search for truth, approaching the nature of a scientific investigation of musical materials, is at its most disciplined—fascinated Igor Markevitch, as it had challenged many minds before him. Markevitch’s resolutions of the “puzzles” left behind in Bach’s Musical Offering are among the most convincing realisations in the long tradition stretching forwards from Johann Christoph Oley in 1763, Alexander Agricola, Johann Philipp Kirnberger, Augustus Frederic Kollmann, Johann Gottfried Fischer, Joseph Klauss, Alfred Dörfell; through to Ferruccio Busoni, Anton von Webern and many others.

The origins of Das Musikalische Opfer are well known, but the charming, eyewitness account of Johann Nikolaus Forkel, whose biography of Bach was originally published in Leipzig in 1802¹, bears repetition here:

“Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel, entered the service of [the Emperor] Frederick the Great in 1740. The reputation of the all-surpassing skill of Johann Sebastian was at this time so extended, that the King often heard it mentioned and praised. This made him curious to hear so great an artist. At first he distantly hinted to the son his wish, that his father would one day come to Potsdam. But by degrees he began to ask him directly, why his father did not come?…The King’s expressions being repeated in several of his son’s letters, he at length, in 1747, prepared to make this journey, in company of his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. At this time the King had every evening a private Concert, in which he himself generally performed some concertos on the flute. One evening, just as he was getting his flute ready, and his musicians were assembled, an officer brought him the list of the strangers who had arrived. With his flute in his hand he ran over the list, but immediately turned to the assembled musicians, and said, with a kind of agitation, “Gentlemen, old Bach is come.” The flute was now laid aside,…the King gave up his concert for this evening, and invited Bach, then already called ‘the Old Bach’, to try his fortepianos, made by Silbermann, which stood in several rooms of the palace.…Bach was invited everywhere to try [them] and to play unpremeditated compositions. After he had gone on for some time, he asked the King to give him the subject for a Fugue, in order to execute it immediately without any preparation. The King admired the learned manner in which his subject was thus executed extempore; and, probably to see how far such art could be carried, expressed a wish to hear a Fugue with six Obbligato parts. But, as it is not every subject that is fit for such full harmony, Bach chose one himself, and immediately executed it to the astonishment of all present in the same magnificent and learned manner as he had done that of the King.…After his return to Leipzig, he composed the subject, which he had received from the King, in three and six parts, added several passages in strict canon to it, and had it engraved, under the title of “Musikalisches Opfer.

What is clear is that these events of May 7, 1747—almost immediately reported in the Potsdam newspaper of May 11—were of far more than incidental significance for the great musician, for he immediately set to work upon elaborating the “royal theme”, had the resulting set of pieces engraved and printed at his own expense, and, less than two months later, on July 7th of the same year sent it to the King with a dedicatory preface. We shall never know with precision what was the exact “theme” given by Frederick the Great to Bach for his elaboration, and to what extent Bach adapted or “improved” it. But we do know that Frederick was no mean musician—his flute teacher was no less than Joachim Quantz, and his own surviving compositions are of merit—and we may surmise from Bach’s reaction that the essence contained within the royal idea piqued his interest not a little.

There is every reason to believe that the Ricercar a 3 represents a fairly literal, immediate writing down of the first Fugue improvised on the evening of May 7th on the King’s theme, for in the first engraving supervised by Bach, it is rendered as a keyboard work. So too, written out on two staves, is the earliest, manuscript version of the Ricercar a 6, though this thorough working out of so complex a structure is unlikely to have been the same music that was played extempore on the evening at the palace. Indeed, Bach specifically recalls in his dedicatory remarks that he had promised the King “to work out this Royal theme more fully, and then make it known to the world”. It seems that on the evening in question, he asked to be allowed to play a fugue in six parts on a theme of his own choosing, taking away the complex royal theme, rich in potential for development, for later elaboration.

The great work of his last year, The Art of Fugue, may, too, already have been in his mind when he visited the Emperor Frederick on that May evening three years earlier. Just as the Kunst der Fuge could not be complete without the inclusion of its four canons in diverse configurations, so, setting to work on exploring every angle of the magnificently constructed royal alla breve melody, Bach saw that its contrapuntal vindication would be most eloquently expressed in a series of canons. For, fine though the theme is, it does not allow of simple canonic or stretto imitation, but requires modification. In all, therefore, he appends ten canons to the work; interposing a Trio Sonata for flute, violin and continuo; a perfect homage to the King’s own executant abilities as flautist.

The canons are among the most diverse and resourceful ever written, including canons by inversion (mirror canons), one of these by augmentation (doubling of note values); in Epidiapente, that is, at the fifth; and two entitled Perpetuus, that could hypothetically keep regenerating their material endlessly. The majority are not written out in full: the heading alone will enable a resourceful composer to realize their working out. One, indeed, is entitled Quaerendo invenietis, that is, “Seek and ye shall find”. The solution to this “puzzle” canon is singular: at the second, by inversion, at a distance of ten beats!

Bach’s inscription, on the page preceding the canons, of the famous acrostic R.I.C.E.R.C.A.R. (“Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta”—“By the King’s Command, the Song and the Remainder Resolved by Canonic Art”) is one of the most intriguing clues to the nature of the composition as a whole. Undoubtedly, Bach was an assiduous student of the music of his precursors (we know, for instance, that he studied Palestrina whilst composing the B Minor Mass), and did not lack for a refined appreciation of the shades of meaning attaching to appellations such as Canzona, Ricercar, and the ancient meaning of Fuga, all antecedents of the form he made his own, the Fugue. He had, however, never once used the term Ricercar (“researching” or “seeking”) until this late stage of his career, and it seems likely that he attached the term to the Musical Offering as a whole, the entire composition being a kind of “searching for” the essence of the Emperor’s theme in all possible aspects.

While the Ricercar a 3 and the Ricercar a 6 are masterful examples of fugue in their own right, the placing of the acrostic in the engraved score guides us to understand that the Canons, too, are an essential facet of the search for meaning of the theme overall. In the same way, in The Art of Fugue, Bach will use the term Contrapunctus, emphasizing and elevating the contrapuntalist’s art, for the fugues in which he sums up his life’s work.

Without doubt, the four movements of the Trio Sonata for flute and violin were intended for performance (“royal” performance, indeed), and the two Ricercars are also fully realizable as keyboard compositions. The Ricercar a 6, very difficult for two hands, however, was subsequently published in open score, without instrumental prescription. In fact, except for the Sonata and one perpetual canon, the music of the original is not scored and has the appearance on the page of being somewhat hypothetical; considerably more so, perhaps, than the open score presentation of the Kunst der Fuge.

Thus arises the question: was the Musical Offering as a whole ever intended for performance as an integral composition? It is to this, more fundamental puzzle that Igor Markevitch, continuing a long tradition, has proposed a solution in the present realisation.

First, he reorders the movements, reasoning that a satisfying structure will emerge from casting the somewhat random sequence of canons into a single, continuous movement. Bach’s work was originally published as 1. Two Fugues, 2. a Sonata, and 3. various Canons. Markevitch interpolates one of the two Canons Perpetuus (number 8) within the Sonata, as a fourth movement prior to the Gigue, since it is scored in the engraving for ‘Traversa’ (transverse flute) and ‘Violino’. Then, he arranges the realised versions of the remaining nine Canons into a continuous sequence, which he terms Theme with Variations, doubling one of them (the Quaerendo invenietis) in linked versions that are inversions of each other—just as Bach himself had done with the trio fugues in The Art of Fugue. Markevitch’s choices superbly create an ascending curve of tempo, that yields to contrast of mood and momentum at the right moment, before building again. In relation to the first engraved version of the original work, Markevitch’s order results 1, 7, 3, 2, 9, 9 (inversion), 6, 4, 5, 10.

This “Variation movement” of Markevitch’s invention is perhaps his most brilliant stroke in persuading us that the Musical Offering functions perfectly well as a self-standing, integral concert work. What results, then, presents now as a four-part work:

The Ricercar a 3
The “Variations” (i.e. the sequence of Canons)
The Sonata
The Ricercar a 6 (for some reason, Markevitch
entitles this Fuga a 6).

Second to these overall formal decisions, Markevitch casts the work for three orchestral groups, stereophonically disposed on stage; within the central group are the instruments that will play the Sonata. Orchestras one and two, to the conductor’s left and right, are composed purely of strings. Orchestra three, in the centre, includes the continuo group, the flute who will play the Trio Sonata, as well as Oboe, Cor Anglais, and Bassoon. The presence of these four wind instruments provides rich opportunity for textural contrast and organ-like reinforcement of, particularly, the bass lines. Indeed, the first entry of the solo Oboe, in Variation V (Quaerendo invenietis) is little short of shocking, and at least ear-sharpening; the cor anglais and bassoon follow in the inverted version, Variation VI.

Without a doubt, the thematic structure of the work is clarified by the resourceful use of Markevitch’s stereophonically disposed forces, and by the judicious contrasts afforded by wind tone colours. Whilst aiming at clarity and separation in the sequence of Canons, in his strikingly dignified version of the great, concluding Ricercar a 6, he achieves instead an organ-like massiveness of tone through discreet octave doubling and superb use of the bassoon and double-bass as pedaliter partners, reserved until the very final entry of the theme.

Finally, Markevitch cleverly integrates the Sonata into the composition as a whole by engaging the strings of both orchestral groups to amplify the tonic and dominant statements of the theme in the Allegro second movement. This orchestral “participation” in the chamber music texture is both discreet and satisfying. It does indeed “unify” the various components of the work in a concert situation, just as does the logical framing of the whole between the two Ricercari.

Markevitch’s interest in making this version of Bach’s masterpiece was aroused by his former teacher, Nadia Boulanger, to whom his score is dedicated. Indeed, Boulanger herself completed the keyboard continuo part, which had been assigned to Dinu Lipatti, but left incomplete at the latter’s death. By today’s standards, this continuo realisation is somewhat “dated”—highly pianistic in manner, and little suited to the harpsichord!—but we have in this performance retained the part as it stands in Markevitch’s score, since the entire composition is in some sense a document on the faltering road towards reconstruction of a historically aware performance practice of the eighteenth century.

Markevitch’s version of Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer was written for, and premiered at the 1950 Strasbourg Bach Festival. It remained one of his favourite productions, which he recorded (in mono) in 1956 in Paris with the ORTF Orchestra, and chose for his New York debut at Carnegie Hall with the Symphony of the Air in January 1957, alongside Verdi and Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Even as his conducting career blossomed, in other words, he remained determined, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, to keep his identity as a composer before the public.

© 2003 & 2010 Christopher Lyndon-Gee

 

¹ Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Über J.S. Bachs Leben, Kunst und Kunstwerke, Leipzig 1802; reprinted, ed. J.M. Müller-Blattau, Augsburg 1925


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