About this Recording
8.572152 - MARKEVITCH, I.: Orchestral Works (Complete), Vol. 2 - Le Nouvel Age / Sinfonietta / Cinema-Ouverture (Arnhem Philharmonic, Lyndon-Gee)
English 

Igor Markevitch (1912–1983)
Complete Orchestral Works • 2

 

This second volume of the complete orchestral works of Igor Markevitch includes the first recordings of Le Nouvel Âge, the Sinfonietta in F and the Cinéma-Ouverture. Apart from one work preserved on 78 r.p.m. discs, and a handful of radio broadcasts, the present series of recordings is the first ever made of the arrestingly original orchestral music of a composer hailed in the 1930s as one of the singular 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 sole 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 great 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 nine-year 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 Scriabinesque 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 explores beyond the conventional, and their polytonal and rhythmic ideas are searchingly original.

L’Envol d’Icare remains the singular work among these masterpieces, whether for its ascetic, pointillistic scoring; its visionary use of quarter-tone tuning, harmonically so precisely calculated; its brilliant exploitation of complex rhythmic simultaneities; or the sheer unique sound-world that it evokes from the orchestra. Above all, for the poise and emotional charge of its hypnotic “Death”.

The achievement of Igor Markevitch bridges important gaps in our understanding of the period between the wars. His language is aggressively individual. Not neo-classical, it has classical restraint and a poise that is almost frigidly disciplined. In an æsthetic distant from the transmuted romanticism that propels the music of Berg and Schoenberg, he initiated an exploration of dissonance (through polytonality) that the perspective of the 1990s can readily identify as a fertile harmonic path. Dissatisfied with what he seems to have perceived as the indulgent prettiness of impressionism, he sought a purity and detachment of style which were rare in this interbellum period of excess.

Igor Markevitch has so recently begun to emerge from the shadows in his “first incarnation” as a composer that an outline of the major events of this early phase of his life will be illuminating; not least, because it shows him in constant, intimate contact with innumerable other, and hitherto better-known major figures of the century.

 

Chronology

1912

Born in Ki’ev, 27 July, to the pianist Boris Markevitch (a student of Eugene d’Albert) and to Zola Pokitonova.

1914

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

1916

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

1921–23

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

1925

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

1926–28

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

1929

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

Only briefly before Dyagilev’s death on 19 August, Markevitch accompanies him to Baden-Baden for the world première of Hindemith and Brecht’s Lehrstück; and to Munich for performances of Tristan und Isolde and Die Zauberflöte conducted by Richard Strauss. With Dyagilev dead, L’Habit du Roi is abandoned, but some of its music is incorporated into Cantate with a new text specially written by Jean Cocteau.

1930

Roger Désormière (who conducted Markevitch in his Piano Concerto the previous year) presents the enormously successful première of Cantate in Paris on 4 June.

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

8 December: world première in Paris of Concerto Grosso, reviewed as follows by no less than Darius Milhaud in ‘L’Europe’ of 13 December: “Markévitch’s Concerto Grosso was one of those great rendings of the musical skies, a door suddenly opening on the future which allows an as yet unknown climate to enter. Igor Markévitch has a formidable technique and a truly unique invention.”

1931

Composes the Sérénade (January–March), perhaps his most “Stravinskian” work, for the newly-formed Parisian ensemble ‘Sérénade’.

On 24 April Hans Rosbaud conducts the German premières of Concerto Grosso and Piano Concerto with the orchestra of Frankfurt Radio (the latter work with the composer as soloist).

The world première of Rébus in Paris on 15 December is hailed as a major triumph for the composer. Writing in The New York Times for 10 January 1932, Henri Prunières declares: “I am in no particular hurry to proclaim the genius of even the most gifted musicians. But in the case of Markevitch, after the new work he has just given us, doubt is no longer permissible … his music is not young. He is a little like Menuhin, who, when he was ten, played like a master and not like a child prodigy.” Hailed by many as the “second Igor”, Markevitch is now persona non grata with Stravinsky.

1933

After being asked by Mengelberg to conduct the Dutch première of Rébus with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in February, Markevitch takes conducting lessons from Pierre Monteux (who directs the remainder of this concert). At this stage he sees conducting as a task purely in relation to his own music. The American première of Rébus follows in April, given by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.

On 26 June Désormière conducts the tumultuous première in Paris of L’Envol d’Icare (The Flight of Icarus), declared by Milhaud to be “a date in the evolution of music”. Le Corbusier and Cocteau, as well as many musicians of importance are among the audience.

1934

Psaume is greeted by a riot at its Italian première in Florence.

1934–36

Markevitch undertakes occasional conducting study with Hermann Scherchen in Switzerland; Scherchen becomes one of the principal advocates of his music.

1935

Substituting for Scherchen, Markevitch conducts the world première of his oratorio Le Paradis perdu (Paradise Lost) at Queen’s Hall, London on 20 December.

1936

Marries Kyra, daughter of Vaslav Nijinsky, in April. They decide to live in Corsier, Switzerland.

1937

Conducts L’Envol d’Icare at the Venice Biennale in September, remarking to fellow-composer Alex de Graeff : “I rejoice to hear it again, but I am nervous to conduct it for the first time…it is so terribly difficult.” Stravinsky (whose Jeu de Cartes is on the same programme) is in the audience, and retreats from his earlier hostility to Markevitch, expressing admiration for the score.

1938

Contriving a commission fee as a New Year’s Day gift, Piatigorsky requests a cello concerto.

The world première in Warsaw on 21 January of Le Nouvel Âge marks a new triumph for the composer. On his way back from Poland, Markevitch visits Nijinsky for the first time in the sanatorium at Kreuzlingen; Kyra describes this meeting, and its effect on her father as “a marvel”. Performed at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in April, Le Nouvel Âge is acclaimed by an audience of two thousand. In response to this performance, Léon Kochnitsky writes in the May issue of La Revue Musicale:

“It is often said that a gulf exists between contemporary composers and the masses who are avid for music. For Markevitch this gulf does not exist; in that lies true genius.”

In June Markevitch begins a collaboration with Stravinsky’s one-time librettist C.-F. Ramuz on La Taille de l’Homme, a ‘concert’ for soprano and ensemble designed to last an entire evening. Owing to worsening conditions in Europe, and the end of his publishing contract in Germany, he supplements his income by giving lectures, piano recitals and radio broadcasts in Switzerland and abroad.

1939

Between the outbreak in September of World War II, and Christmas, completes fifty minutes (the first, and only “half” ever finished) of La Taille de l’Homme.

1940

Visits Florence with Kyra, where he composes the ‘vocal symphony’ Lorenzo Il Magnifico on texts by Lorenzo de’ Medici himself. Markevitch has failed to comply with Swiss residency laws, and is thus technically stateless upon Mussolini’s declaration of war. He therefore remains in Italy, where Kyra teaches dance.

1941–47

The Markevitches live in the “villino” (little Villa), provided by the art historian Bernard Berenson—who describes the house as a “cottage in my grounds”—on his Villa I Tatti estate at Settignano, three miles outside Florence. Dallapiccola is among his circle of friends. In October 1941 he completes for the pianist Nikita Magaloff, another Florence resident, his Variations, Fugue and Envoi on a Theme of Handel for solo piano, destined to be his last original composition.

1942

He falls seriously ill towards the end of a “hard, hard winter” (as he describes it to Alex de Graeff in a letter of 7 April 1942). The composer senses himself to be “dead between two lives” during his recuperation in Fiesole; indeed, during the coming year he embarks on a serious activity as conductor, giving a number of concerts in Florence.

1943

In October, Germany invades Italy. Markevitch renounces his conducting commitments to join the Partisans, becoming a member of the Committee of Liberation of the Italian Resistance (the ‘Partigiani’). He recomposes L’Envol d’Icare as Icare, abandoning the quarter-tones of the original work and re-orchestrating in a less “astringent” manner.

1944

A further serious illness.

1946

During a return visit to Switzerland writes Made in Italy, a political study inspired in part by his experiences with the Florentine Partigiani which meets with considerable success on its publication in Italy, France and Britain.

1947–77

Is naturalised as an Italian citizen in 1947. Following the dissolution of his first marriage, he marries Topazia Caetani, descendant of a distinguished Roman artistocratic line.

His international conducting career over this thirty-year period will take Markevitch to music directorships in Stockholm (1952–55), Montreal (1956–60), Havana (1957–58), Paris (the Concerts Lamoureux, 1957–61), Madrid (1965–69), Monte Carlo, and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome. He also holds conducting courses in Salzburg, Mexico, Moscow, Madrid, Monte Carlo and Weimar.

1978

Markevitch has effectively suppressed his music for 35 years when he receives an invitation from Hervé Thys to conduct Icare and Le Paradis perdu for the Royal Philharmonic Society in Brussels. The concert is a success, and leads to over one hundred performances in fifteen countries during the following three years. In connection with the Brussels performances (which Markevitch conducts himself), David Drew, then Director of New Music at Boosey and Hawkes music publishers, London, makes contact with Markevitch. Progressively over the next few years, Drew persuades Markevitch to unearth his entire oeuvre, for which Boosey and Hawkes offer a new and comprehensive publication contract.

Nevertheless, the present series of recordings, commenced eighteen years later in December 1995, are the première recordings of all but a handful of works which are preserved from 1930s radio broadcasts, and a technically poor recording on 78s of L’Envol d’Icare dating from 1938.

1980

Publication by Gallimard of the composer’s autobiography, Être et avoir été (Being and having been). To some extent a roman à clef, the book reveals much even as it hides or obfuscates more. In this year Markevitch undertakes revision of some of his 1930s compositions, in preparation for a series of performances in Brussels.

1983

Only a short time after his first, triumphant return visit to Ki’ev, his city of birth, Markevitch suddenly falls ill, dying in Antibes on 7 March.

© 1996 and 2009 Christopher Lyndon-Gee

 

Le Nouvel Âge

(Corsier / London, March–November 1937) Originally conceived in a collaboration with the American poet Edward James, Le Nouvel Âge was intended to become a sort of opera-oratorio, a companion piece to Le Paradis perdu of three years before. The joint project had not advanced far when James, taking advantage of the composer’s absence in Paris for a few days, attempted to seduce his wife, Kyra Nijinska. Scandalised, Kyra demanded that James be stripped of his status as god-father to their son Vaslav, and banished from their lives. “My poor Nouvel Âge remained afloat as best it could in the midst of these storms”, relates Markevitch. Completed in this overwrought emotional atmosphere (“the matter dragged on for several months”), Le Nouvel Âge became perhaps Markevitch’s most intense, most tightly constructed and most enduring work.

The first performance by the Warsaw Philharmonic in January 1938 was the most spectacular success to date for Markevitch’s music. A fellow-student from Nadia Boulanger’s class, Sigmund Mycielski, had amply “prepared the ground” in his home town, guaranteeing a full hall for the composer’s discussion of his music prior to the concert, and a well-informed, receptive public. On this occasion, Markevitch for the first time conducted from memory a world première of his own music, to great acclaim, “despite my technical inexperience”, the composer tells us.

Flushed with this success, and with the promise of further engagements for the work in Florence and Belgium, Markevitch interrupted the return journey from Warsaw to join his wife and still baby son in a visit to Kyra’s father, the great Nijinsky, at the sanatorium at Kreuzlingen, where the latter was to spend the rest of his life. Among the few lights in the shadows of the great dancer’s declining years were these visits from his grandson and namesake Vaslav, known in the family as “Funtyki”. “My son ... could at times be left alone with him. Nijinsky was charming with his little grandson.”

Lacking James’s completed libretto, Le Nouvel Âge turned into a symphonic poem whose sub-text, drafted by Markevitch himself, is provided in the composer’s autobiography:

Ouverture:
Une jeune colère fière de son éclat prépare le Nouvel Âge dans un paysage de colonnes d’air qu’ eIle traverse avec grande difficulté mais un irrésistible élan.

Esprit du Nouvel Âge [Adagio]:
On arrive dans d’étranges cIartés fécondées par les grâces du Nouvel Âge.

Hymne:
Alors se fait entendre I’Hymne du Nouvel Âge. Il traverse un pays entièrement nouveau où les colonnes primitives s’epanouissent comme des dâmes libres et le saluent dans des éclats de douceur. Présence sous-jacente de la vulgarité.”

Overture:
A ‘child of wrath’, exultant in her youthful radiance, prepares for the New Age amidst a landscape of columns of air across which she journeys with great hardship but irresistible momentum.

The Spirit of the New Age [Adagio]:
The observer finds himself in the midst of mystic luminescences, offspring of the Graces who have given birth to the New Age.

Hymn:
Thus is heard the Hymn of the New Age. It traverses an utterly new environment, in which primitive columns flower into free spirits, saluting it in brilliant explosions of tenderness. Underlying all, however, is a vulgar presence.”

This reads like nothing so much as a secular gloss on the literary language of Messiaen, who, only four years older, was indeed composing his own earliest works at the same time (the mystic Le Banquet Céleste, for example). This decidedly a-religious, strongly Zoroastrian text is Markevitch’s own, provided to Edward James as a synopsis and stimulus for the intended libretto. A reading of some of James’s rather pedantic sonnets, with their constantly half-fulfilled, blocked metaphors and deadened images, leads this writer to the opinion that Markevitch’s vision would have been ill-realised by such a prosaic mind. The work succeeds ideally in its symphonic garb, without the distraction of text or scenario. The hidden text that underlies the work could hardly be more evocative of that peculiar idealistic world of the mind inhabited between the wars by the painters and writers of Russian and Italian Futurism, and by the few composers who followed this aesthetic: Mossolov (Stal), Prokofiev (Le Pas d’ Acier), Shostakovich (The Golden Age), Polovinkin, Roslavets and others. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of 1909 proposed an art that would celebrate technology, dynamism and power—exactly those qualities that Markevitch, still excited by his 1930 encounter with Eisenstein, perceived as most admirable in the USSR of that time. “In general, [the work] evokes a world of machines,” wrote the composer in 1980.

The Overture of Le Nouvel Âge is nothing if not a pæan to unsentimental strength, while the slow movement is indeed a highly evocative “journey through a landscape”, much of it suspended and “timeless”. Moments like flutes in minor thirds (towards the end of the Adagio) recall the harmonic world of Szymanowski (also an habitué of Paris at this epoch). The jazz-like, virtuosic trumpet writing that decorates and dominates the Hymne (as secular and “vulgar” a music as befits the materialistic early twentieth century) leads to an unforgettable cadence on an unresolved dominant seventh.

Sinfonietta in F (Paris, November 1928–February 1929)

On 27 December 1928, Markevitch was invited by Alexandrine Troussevitch to a performance at the Opéra during what was to be, events would dictate, the final Paris season of the Ballets Russes. Though Markevitch had already seen the Ballets Russes the previous spring, in company with his fellow-student, the English composer Lennox Berkeley, this December evening was for ever imprinted on his memory as one of the crucial dates in his evolution as an artist. For it was in the intermission following a performance of Petrushka that Alexandrine, then a lowly assistant in the Dyagilev company, introduced the sixteen-year-old Igor Markevitch to his future father-in-law Vaslav Nijinsky, already but a “ghost” of his former self; to the great dancer Tamara Karsavina; to his future collaborators Serge Lifar and Alexandre Benois; but above all to his future mentor, Sergey Pavlovich Dyagilev.

Alexandrine had prepared the ground well; Dyagilev cast his eye over the youth with practised judgement:

So this is your protégé, is it? He seems a little young to have been troubled to leave his nursery. Let him bring himself and his music to the Grand Hotel at five o’clock tomorrow.

Thus it was that (in due course, following a missed appointment—Dyagilev playing with the mouse) Markevitch came to show a completed movement of his Sinfonietta to the impresario who, thirty years earlier, had discovered Stravinsky, and whose ballet company had altered for ever the artistic landscape of Europe.

At his first formal “audience” with Dyagilev, the youthful Igor played a few non-descript songs to poems by Apollinaire, and a clutch of early piano pieces. “Yes, in two or three years...”, began Dyagilev, looking at his watch. “But…I would dearly love to play you my latest work which I wrote expressly for you”, essayed the disappointed composer.

That single movement of the Sinfonietta—destined to become its Finale—transformed Dyagilev. He requested its repeat, then a third hearing. “I believe that the language of music has the ability to re-create the material world in the domain of sound”, said the young Markevitch, trying to explain his creative impulses. A discussion lasting several hours ensued; a suddenly fascinated Dyagilev overlooked an appointment with Coco Chanel, who came to the Grand Hotel in search of him. “My dear Coco, here is a child who will have quite a few surprises for us”, he said, by way of introducing the by now somewhat overwhelmed young composer. The next morning, a messenger delivered to Markevitch a score of Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla, inscribed by Dyagilev: “Do not mistake this little work for a curiosity. It is one of the gospels of our art, whose every measure will enrich you.”

Following this decisive encounter, Markevitch completed the first three movements of the Sinfonietta rapidly; indeed, the first movement in particular shows signs of haste—its ideas are worked out at a fairly simple level, almost always in the tonic key. Nevertheless, this is his first work of real assurance, distinctly not juvenilia. The polytonality of the Trio: Andantino section of the second movement, and throughout the slow movement, whilst somewhat reminiscent of Milhaud, is exploited with flair and individuality. The Finale that so impressed Dyagilev is full of syncopated rhythmic verve and a well judged sense of climax.

At the time of the composition of the Sinfonietta, Markevitch was powerfully under the influence of his teacher, the great Nadia Boulanger, who had recently excited him with a lengthy analysis of Hindemith’s Concerto for Orchestra, Opus 38. Traits of the latter work were to emerge even more strongly in the younger composer’s Cantata and Concerto Grosso in the following year, but the classicism and attention to form and technique of Sinfonietta are already noteworthy indicators of what was to come.

Cinéma-Ouverture (Paris and London, 1931)

In the period immediately following the death of Dyagilev on 19 August 1929, Paris was awash in choreographic projects, each clamouring to fill the sudden void. One of these was an idea conceived by Leonid Massine for a film starring Brigitte Helm, for which Markevitch would write a ballet score. He was ripe for such a suggestion, having in February 1930 spent much time in the company of his countryman Sergey Eisenstein, who was on a lecture-tour to London and Paris. Eisenstein, indeed, had invited Markevitch to accompany him back to the Soviet Union to write cinema scores, an invitation which the composer declined with great reluctance following the horrified reactions of his mother, who had barely escaped the Revolution of 1917. Her irrational fears of the USSR apart, Markevitch saw clearly that the “seventh art form” of cinema embodied the most dynamic creative force in the USSR of the day.

Two Markevitch movements survive from the ballet score for Massine’s uncompleted film: Grande Valse de Concert—Le Bleu Danube, a barely altered arrangement of Johann Strauss; and an original overture written in London in 1931, at first entitled Ouverture Symphonique. Owing to the abandonment of the film project, the latter, renamed in the score Cinéma-Ouverture, lay unperformed until given its delayed world première in Harderwijk, in The Netherlands, on 30 November 1995, by the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra under Christopher Lyndon-Gee, with subsequent performances in Arnhem and Nijmegen prior to the recording sessions. The abandoned film planned by Massine and Markevitch would itself have been called Le Bleu Danube; presumably, then centering its attention on the Waltz, as does the thematic material of the Overture. Perhaps the most surprising passage of this short Overture is a section that vividly recalls the Satie of Parade, suddenly introducing the rude absurdity of klaxons, sirens, and whistles knowingly combined with the ‘academicism’ of a rather precise fugato. Nor was Markevitch immune from Stravinsky, whose taste for the evocative Eastern-European (peasant?) sound of the cymbalom is reflected in the Cinéma-Ouverture in idiomatic writing around a simple six-note formula.

Following the recapitulation of the “cymbalom theme” is one of those passages that makes Markevitch’s music remarkable for its time: a five-fold repetition of a nine-measure ostinato employing the polyrhythmic explorations (already a feature of Concerto Grosso of the year before) that would become the composer’s trademark. Here the ostinato matches a treading bass of four beats in the bar against eight in the horns, and a swirling counterpoint of twelve in strings and flute. Pitted against all of this is a determined trumpet melody of three beats to each measure, accented, however, on each second beat. This passage is destined to be reproduced almost exactly in Rébus in the following year. The composer was nineteen, but all the essential components of his musical style are complete.


© 1996 Christopher Lyndon-Gee


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