About this Recording
8.572157 - MARKEVITCH, I.: Orchestral Works (Complete), Vol. 7 - Piano Concerto / Cantate / Icare (Hoek, Arnhem Philharmonic, Lyndon-Gee)

Igor Markevitch (1912–1983)
Complete Orchestral Works • 7


This seventh volume of the complete orchestral works of Igor Markevitch includes the world première recordings of the two works commissioned by Serge Diaghilev that marked the teenage composer’s début, the Piano Concerto and Cantate, the latter still barely begun at Diaghilev’s death; bookended by the work that all but closes out his meteoric, less than fifteen-year composing career, the 1943 recasting of his signature score Icare. 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 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.



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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A further serious illness.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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


Concert pour Piano et Orchestre (Piano Concerto)

Composed in Paris, 1929–30

World Première at Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, July 15, 1929

Markevitch’s extraordinary precocity as a composer is startlingly revealed in this seventh instalment in the series of his complete orchestral works: the Piano Concerto and Cantate were written when he was sixteen and seventeen years old. Yet they display unsullied confidence of idiom and certainty of technique that are so fluent as to be unnerving and remain to this day a mystery. Years later, in the forties, his Parisian mentor and perhaps only true composition teacher, Nadia Boulanger, said of him to colleagues in the USA that already at age eight he had been “un phenomène.”¹

Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, as so many times before in the impresario’s meteoric career, was one of the first to spot this adolescent talent, and he presented the boy with challenges and an environment in which he could rapidly develop—or fail, as the case may be. The two had been introduced at a performance of Petrouchka by Diaghilev’s secretary, Alexandrine Troussevitch, and only days later Markevitch had played sections of his still incomplete Sinfonietta to this maker of lives and of reputations. An immediate commission to compose a Piano Concerto in order to present an opportunity for the young composer’s “coming out” during the following London season was the result.

The youth was whisked headlong into a different world. Markevitch knew that he was being “put to the test”, and he was not found wanting. The work is in every sense an exuberant Concerto Grosso. If the outer movements of this Concerto bear strong traces of attentive study of Bach (of Hindemith, too, whose scores he kept by his bedside), they are nonetheless harmonically and rhythmically fresh, original and powerfully present. Indeed, the displacement of metrical expectations—the shortening or lengthening of measures by an unexpected eighth- or sixteenth-note—is a Markevitch hallmark that will characterize his musical style throughout his maturity. Here, for example, is the sequence of measures from the closing pages of the first movement, where the “drive to the cadence”² is fuelled by Stravinskian rhythmic asymmetry and vigour: 3/4 – 6/8 – 7/8 – 6/16 – 5/16 – 6/8 – 6/16 – 5/16 – 5/16 – 3/8 – 5/16 – 6/16 – 6/16 – 6/8 – 6/8 – 4/8 – 3/8 – 4/8 – 4/8.

The slow movement of the Concerto is its most original, both in its delicate polytonality, and in its self-confident spareness of texture, most especially in the featuring of solo snare drum as a foil to the piano’s last restatement of the theme. In the Finale, this idea is transformed into a cadenza with the accompaniment merely of bass drum. (One thinks of the great cadenza of Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto.) The hymnlike quality of this second movement, and the grandiose wind chorales of the third look forward to the second movement of Cantate, to the Hymnes (Naxos 8.572154) and to the ‘ecstatic’ slow movement for strings alone of Lorenzo il Magnifico (8.572155). If it looks backwards at all to Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments of 1923–24, it is not in any overtly derivative sense; rather in the best kind of homage.

The première of the Concerto, with Désormière conducting, took place, not as a formal concert but, as part of an afternoon “rehearsal party” to launch the summer season, alongside Strawinsky’s Renard and the great Nijinsky creations Carnaval, L’Après-midi d’un Faune, and Les Dieux Mendiants. The invited audience was star-studded: the cream of London society and intelligentsia, Edith Sitwell and Virginia Woolf among them. Markevitch made only a fair impression, whether for his modest pianism, for the relatively conventional nature of the music, or for the inattention of the intensely networking society audience. Further performances in Frankfurt under Hans Rosbaud in 1931, however, only served to underline Markevitch’s limitations as a pianist, and he is not known to have appeared in public as pianist thereafter.

If the reception of the Concerto’s London première was lukewarm overall, Diaghilev nevertheless was rapt. “This is a music,” he rhapsodised, “that draws its vigour from the very same principles that underpin the world.” Overcome, too, was the Duchess of Portland. “My dear,” she drooled at the reception, “Beethoven il est entré in you!” Markevitch, to his credit, erupted inwardly into a “crazed laughter”³ at this aristocratic infelicity.

Very few creations of sixteen-year-olds have the potential to enter the repertoire for their merits in themselves; most are curiosities of juvenilia. The energy, invention, sure control of form and sheer explosive élan of the present work mark it out as worthy of inclusion in the composer’s catalogue of mature works.

Cantate (Cantata)

Composed in Paris, 1929, to an original French text by Jean Cocteau (English translation by Christopher Lyndon-Gee)

First Performance, Théâtre de la Pigalle, Paris, June 1930.

The intentional obscurities, non sequiturs and surreal evocations of Jean Cocteau’s writing around 1930 are no surprise; this strand of absurdist French poetry both grows in a natural progression from Rimbaud, and is a reaction against the familiar comfort of the bourgeois images immortalised by Proust. Without doubt, the “Symbolists” Stéphane Mallarmé, René Char and others contributed beyond measure to the path taken by French music between Debussy and the present day; the arts in France are perhaps more closely interlinked and interdependent than in almost any other country. Cocteau treads an already well-beaten path, no doubt encouraged to new levels of impenetrability by the work in visual media of his friend Salvador Dalí.

Cantate should have been Markevitch’s first ballet. The day immediately following the performance of Markevitch’s Piano Concerto at its London première in 1929, Diaghilev excitedly discussed with Markevitch a new commission for a ballet. The scenario would be drawn by Boris Kochno from Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, the choreography be mounted by Lifar, and the sets and costumes designed by Picasso. Heady stuff for a boy still a few days shy of his seventeenth birthday. The work was to be called L’Habit du Roi, and Diaghilev conceived of it being “full of researches and of new for Ms ” Klemperer early on agreed to conduct, subject only to schedule considerations, and the other creative collaborators on the project were to convene for a meeting in Venice in September.

The composer set to work immediately. Nor was he overawed by Diaghilev’s expectations; he caused consternation by proposing a fugue, no less, for the moment of the score where the king is discovered to be naked, “Mais le roi est nu!” “Why such a severe form?” asked Diaghilev. “To tame disorder with an element of precision,” replied Markevitch; and in response to a searching look: “don’t be afraid—it will be a ‘crazy’ fugue.” One thinks, perhaps, of the scene in the tavern in Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust as the ultimate inspiration behind this youthful idea. Other elements of the music—highlighted in the complex polyrhythmic combinations already beloved of Markevitch—were to anticipate the controlled disorder of aleatoricism, described in its essence by Markevitch in the 1930s, though not brought into general practice until the Darmstadt school hallowed its practice in the 1950s. Both ideas are carried forward into Cantate.

Events moved fast during the remainder of this summer. Twelve days after the London première of Piano Concerto, on the youthful composer’s seventeenth birthday (July 27), Diaghilev and Markevitch were staying in rooms overlooking the Rhine at the famous Hotel “Des Trois Rois” in Basel (where Honegger composed his Symphony Di Tre Re). A contract was signed, with the spectacular sum of ten thousand francs agreed as commissioning fee, to be paid commencing August in ten equal installments.

Only a short time later that summer, however, Diaghilev was taken ill with blood poisoning, falling into a coma and peaceful death on 19 August 1929 at his beloved Grand Hotel des Bains at the Venice Lido with Kochno, Lifar and Misia Sert4 at his side.

Thus it was that, returning to Paris by train with his mother Zoya, Markevitch conceived of salvaging his substantial body of music already sketched for L’Habit du Roi by asking his slightly older friend, the young-lion poet, Jean Cocteau, to compose a text for a Cantata. Cocteau, who already gloried in “the slavery of popularity”, lived in chaotic circumstances in an apartment on the top floor of the Hotel Madeleine, indulging in a diet of petits-fours at Fauchon in the square below, and in opium in his rooms above. “I am without doubt the most famous and the least-known poet,” declared this outrageous, brilliant genius. Journal of an Unknown and the film (with music by Georges Auric) The Blood of a Poet were already under his belt. The latter had been first screened at the Moulin Rouge, under Diaghilev’s auspices. On December 2, 1929, Cocteau would accompany Markevitch to Brussels for the Belgian première of Sinfonietta. In part stimulated by working on Cantate together, the two had become inseparable.

Cocteau’s work for the text of Cantate shows every sign of being written at a high level of poetic zeal. He took a great deal of trouble to tailor the text both to the Markevitch he knew, and, doubtless, to the pre-existing musical sketches that were played to him. It is nevertheless uncanny that, nearly three years before Markevitch worked on the defining orchestral score of his career, L’Envol d’Icare (The Flight of Icarus) Cocteau should have included, in the second section of the poem, the lines:

Voyez, voyez,
je sais voler
je sais me tenir toute seule
je sais voler
me détacher de la terre
tourner sur moi
m’élever sans ailes
et monter en l’air
comme on tombe
doucement à l’envers.

(Do you see, do you see,
I know how to fly!
all alone, I remain aloft
I know how to fly
to detach myself from the earth
spin around
raise myself without wings
rise into the air
just as one falls
gently upside down.)

C’est le système des colombes
les inventions des rêves
on croit qu’on s’élève
et on tombe
oiseau cruel de rêve
votre secret est découvert.

(This is the method of doves
the creations of dreams
one believes that one rises up
and one falls
cruel bird of dreams
your secret has been uncovered.)

This reference can hardly be incidental. Allusions to opium-reverie apart (“the creations of dreams”), the two men must have discussed the Icarus allegory, and Markevitch’s mind may already have been turning towards its music. Likewise, the Choral that ends Cantate is no accident. In London the previous summer, Markevitch had mentioned to Diaghilev that he had yet to see a staged version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. But he knew the music, and must have had the other-worldly chorales of that work in his mind for some time.

During the composition of the work, Markevitch kept Nadia Boulanger, whom he idolised, up to date with his progress on an almost daily basis. Thus, in a letter of 26 April 1930, he writes to her: “…I am waiting impatiently for the moment when I will be able to show you my Cantate. I wrote the slow movement in three days, and it is the best…”5

Cantate was premièred, at the Théâtre de la Pigalle (of all places!) not even a year after the young composer’s triumph with his Piano Concerto in London. The critics viewed the work as an indicator of a great compositional career at its dawn. “The Cantate is testimony to rare mastery and intelligence, marvelously in equilibrium with an outstanding spirit,” wrote Henri Sauguet6 in L’Europe nouvelle. Vuillermoz spoke of “premature wisdom,” and Jules Casadesus of “joie de puer”, the “joy of simply being young!”

The Cantate is written for a chorus of male voices only, with solo soprano and a standard orchestra without harps. It was published soon after its composition by B. Schott and Sons, Mainz, with an illustration by Cocteau, earlier used as a poster, for its cover.

Icare (Icarus)

Composed as L’Envol d’Icare, 1932 (see Complete Orchestral Works, vol. 3, Naxos 8.572153) Revised instrumentation, several compositional changes and re-titling 1943

The Icarus myth is the idée-fixe of Markevitch’s life: of his long and successful career as a conductor; of the complex man revealed in the autobiography Etre et avoir été; and above all of the creative artist of the early years. As Markevitch grew into the life of the mature artist, he could never shake off the sense that, as an adolescent under Diaghilev’s tutelage, he had soared too high too soon, and had inevitably fallen, wounded, to earth. It was thus prescient that, at the age of twenty, he had chosen Icare as the subject of his first major choreographic collaboration with Serge Lifar, Diaghilev’s peacock-like substitute for Nijinsky.

Lifar found the music beyond his capacities, and the ballet never came to stage realisation; but under the title L’Envol d’Icare (The Flight of Icarus, or more literally, The launching into air of Icarus) the extraordinary orchestral score had several performances and recognition that can only be described as awed. “This work…will probably mark a date in the evolution of music,” wrote Darius Milhaud8; while Cocteau commented that the work might have “fallen from the moon”, quoting Nietzsche’s remark that “the ideas which change the face of the world make their entrance on doves’ feet.”9

(For exhaustive notes on the work’s genesis and musical content, the reader is invited to refer to the liner notes for L’Envol d’Icare, Markevitch Complete Orchestral Works volume 3, Naxos 8.572153.)

Why, then, was the work rewritten in 1943–44 while the composer was living in the Villino on the grounds of Bernard Berenson’s Villa I Tatti, outside Florence? In part to blame may well have been the less than thrilling experience of its performance at the 1937 Venice Biennale, where the orchestra was so mediocre that only three sections of the work could be rehearsed to performance standard in the time available. This was the famous occasion of the rapprochement between Stravinsky and Markevitch, when L’Envol shared a program with Jeu de Cartes. The older man (Diaghilev’s first Igor) had been somewhat arch with his younger rival up to this point, but admired L’Envol enough that he softened and warmed a little.

The 1938 Brussels recording of L’Envol d’Icare on 78 rpm shellac discs was not a great deal more assured, and Markevitch may have concluded that the score could be made more accessible for orchestras unaccustomed, in particular, to playing with quarter-tone intonation.

Then again, it is possible that, during the fallow period of the Second World War, living at Settignano, he simply could not leave alone this emblem of what, by now, was a former life.

In a fascinating, unpublished letter of March 1944 (one of the first that Markevitch attempted in English), offering the dedication of the new score to Bernard Berenson, he relates how

“by and by I considered le Vol d’Icare as these sketches which painters make before a fresco, and I began to wish to make my real fresco also. Years passed, and finally, last summer I took this work in hand. But very soon I understood it was impossible to “correct” the first Icare. All my conception had evoluted [sic: evolved] with myself and a new work began to appear. It was the same as I am the same man of twelve years ago…Quite the same, and quite different. Indeed, it would be possible to give both Icare[s] in the same concert (and probably it will be interesting to try). To compare with a great example I should say there is as much difference between both, as between the first and the third Beethoven’s Leonora. I could say, besides, there is a second Icare, not written and constituted by my evolution, my sufferings, and my experiences during these last years.”10

The small refinements in some of the movement titles distance the work a little further from earlier strong echoes of some of the sections of Le Sacre du Printemps, but indicate no structural changes whatsoever: not one single measure is added or subtracted from the original composition. The large number of alterations of substance between L’Envol d’Icare and its recasting as Icare all occur on a level of musical detail that might at first be imperceptible, but which is in fact quite profound.

Most immediately noticeable is the removal of the group of solo instruments tuned a quarter-tone higher than the remainder of the orchestra. There are many changes of instrumentation: the substitution of trumpet for bassoon on the opening motif and countless other small reorchestrations. More significant are the addition of long-phrased, legato counter-melodies that are not present in the sparer textures of the original.

A troped melody for ’cello solo that is added during the six measures at Où l’on apprend la Chute d’Icare is perhaps the most obvious recomposition. Does it represent a loss of confidence in his musical vision? Is it a filling-out of a suspended thought that was more effective as a “hidden melody” à la Robert Schumann?? It “works”, but does it perhaps say too much?

Many composers have rewritten or recast earlier scores. In the present case, what results is an utterly different, completely valid, work. Though the surface distinctions are almost imperceptible, as compared, say, to the wholesale hacking out and replacement of significant passages in Bruckner’s symphonies, the internal rethinking of the work is profound.

While it would be a rank overstatement to say that courage is replaced by caution, exploration by convention, it is undoubtedly the composer’s intention to seek understanding of a work that—in the ascetic spareness of its first incarnation—was perhaps ahead of its time and outside of its audience’s æsthetic ken. And the composer remained ambiguous about the virtues of the two versions. In the same letter to Berenson, Markevitch later writes,

“Perhaps some will regret the taste of unripe fruit of Le Vol d’Icare. I think they would be in the wrong. Today we have too often the tendency to take awkwardness for genius, and inexperience for originality.”11

The Icare incarnation has had considerable success in the concert hall. It was performed at Carnegie Hall three times in April 1958 by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (the two conductor-composers had a warm mutual admiration and affection). Other than radio broadcasts of concert performances, this is its first recording under studio conditions.

© 2003 & 2010 Christopher Lyndon-Gee


¹ Reported in Ms Letter of Olga Loesser to Bernard Berenson, Boston, October 29, 1941; Archivio Villa I Tatti, Settignano: Corresp. Berenson. (Olga Loesser was a German-born pianist and frequent collaborator of Nadia Boulanger; at the time of this letter, recently widowed from Charles Alexandre Loesser.)
² A term borrowed from the study of late mediæval and renaissance polyphony, elegantly defined in Edgar H Sparks Cantus Firmus in Mass and Motet 1420–1520, Berkeley 1963.
³ Etre et avoir été, Paris 1980, p. 184: “Ceci me donna un fou rire …”
4 Misia © 1952 Gallimard, Paris; cit. from Dutch edition ed. Joop van Helmond, Amsterdam 1994 (Uitgeverij het Arbeidespers), pp.158–161.
5 Ms Letter from Igor Markevitch to Nadia Boulanger; Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Fonds Nadia Boulanger: BnF / N.L.a 83 / 190; “…C’est avec impatience que j’attends le moment ou je vous montrerai ma Cantate. J’ai écrit le mouvement lent en trois jours et c’est le meilleur.”
6 cit. in Igor Markevitch Etre et avoir été, p. 204, Paris 1980.
7 Jean Cocteau, 1889–1963, poet, novelist, dramatist, filmmaker, painter; an important exponent of Surrealism, a term coined c. 1903 by his friend the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
8 Darius Milhaud, Le Rempart, June 28, 1933; cit in Tempo, N° 133/134, Boosey & Hawkes, London, September 1980, p. 11.
9 Etre et avoir été, p. 247: “Les idées qui changent la face du monde approchent sur les pattes de colombes.”
10 Ms letter, Settignano, March 1, 1944, page 3; Igor Markevitch to Bernard Berenson; Archivio Villa I Tatti, Settignano: Corresp. Markevitch.
11 Ms Letter ibid., page 4.

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