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GP737 - LOURIÉ, A.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 1 (Koukl)
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Arthur Vincent Lourié (1891–1966)
Complete Piano Works • 1


Tired and hackneyed though it undoubtedly is, the well-worn saying that life is one long journey through an ever-changing landscape is sometimes apposite. In the world of twentieth-century music, for example, the phrase accurately summarises the extraordinarily chequered life of the composer Arthur Lourié, a man who was both radical and conservative. As a Musical Commissar of the Department of Education in post-Revolutionary Russia, he was regarded in the West with deep suspicion by many critics, who were inclined to be wary of his politics. Their cautiousness was further compounded by Lourié’s association with Futurism and his experiments with microtonality. In his home country, however, his enemies would soon be labelling him as ‘formalist’ and ‘decadent’—it was noted, for instance, that he would appear in public wearing a very un-proletarian velvet jacket and bow tie.

Arthur Vincent Lourié was born into a Jewish family in Propoysk (now Slawharad, Belarus) in 1892, or possibly 1891, and was originally called Naum Israilevich Luria. He changed his first name to Arthur in homage to Arthur Schopenhauer, and he also jettisoned his patronymic, replacing it with Vincent in order to reflect his admiration for Vincent van Gogh. In 1912 he nominally converted to Catholicism so that he could marry a Polish woman—mixed marriages were not then permitted in Russia—but some years later, after forming a close friendship with the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, he genuinely exchanged his youthful revolutionary nihilism for ardent Catholicism.

Although Lourié studied at the St Petersburg Conservatoire, where his composition teachers included Alexander Glazunov, his main musical influence in his youth was Alexander Scriabin, whose late piano works fascinated him. He was also greatly inspired by the Futurists, and he made musical settings of verses by poets such as Anna Akhmatova (with whom he conducted a passionate affair). Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Blok affected him profoundly through the eloquence of their writing and the allure of their political views, which appealed to Lourié’s own radical disposition. He fully espoused the idea of transforming human consciousness through the kind of spiritual revolution that was the hallmark of the Russian Symbolists.

The heady atmosphere of artistic optimism that existed in post-Revolutionary Russia under the enlightened guidance of Anatoly Lunacharsky, the chief Commissar for Education, was a tonic to aspiring artists like Lourié. It was, however, to be but a brief sunny interlude, and by 1921 Lourié had become thoroughly disillusioned. While visiting Ferruccio Busoni in Berlin he made the irrevocable decision to defect. His music was consequently proscribed in Russia after the formal establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922. He settled in Paris, where he became a firm and loyal advocate of Igor Stravinsky (until a personal feud separated them). Following the German occupation of Paris in 1940, Lourié again fled westwards, this time to the United States, where he was offered welcome assistance from the Russian émigré conductor Serge Koussevitzky. Although he continued composing, he never regained the recognition he had formerly enjoyed, partly because his ‘red past’ made him an obvious target of the McCarthyite anti-Communist purges of the early 1950s. He died in comparative obscurity in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1966, having worked for many years on his magnum opus, the huge (and still unperformed) Symbolist opera, Le Maure de Pierre le Grand (‘The Blackamoor of Peter the Great’). Dedicated to ‘Russian culture, the Russian people and Russian history’, this opera is based on the story of Pushkin’s own dashing African great-grandfather, who was Peter’s godson.

In 1959 Lourié jotted down a series of pithy thoughts that refer directly to the troubled period in Russian history of four decades earlier, but they simultaneously attest to his continuing religious faith: ‘The spiritual revolution of which we dreamt from the earliest days of the political revolution. Blok infected me precisely with this and “seduced” me at that time. This was what the left socialist revolutionaries dreamt of. Return to the truths of Christianity. Socialism must be realised on Christian foundations. Rectification and purification of the historical line. It will be so, it will be! The historical church should be liberated from ties to the capitalist world.’

Testifying to the young Lourié’s abundant talent, the musicologist Calum MacDonald observes that the early piano pieces, beginning with the Cinq Préludes fragiles, Op. 1, written at the age of sixteen, ‘graphically illustrate how Lourié moved from Debussian Impressionism in his earliest Préludes and Estampes, Op. 2, to a cogent and effective development of Scriabin’s fevered chromaticism, resulting in a disturbed, fragmented idiom all of his own, most perfectly achieved in the eerie Masques (Tentations) (1913) and the near-Cubist aesthetic of the Formes en l’air (1915), dedicated to Picasso.’ Formes is an unconventionally presented work. Fragments of staves are scattered across the page in an apparently arbitrary manner that superficially prefigures later composers like Boulez or Stockhausen, except that vestigial elements of tonality and metre remain. The intervening works—the Mazurkas, Op. 7 (1911–12) and the Quatre poèmes, Op. 10 (1912–13)—clearly demonstrate Lourié’s progression towards his later and more individualistic Russian style. The first of the Poèmes, entitled ‘Spleen’, bears the intriguing musical direction ‘Empoisonnée’ (Poisoned).

In the years immediately preceding the Russian Revolution, musical Impressionism was still in the air and the influence of Debussy on Lourié’s piano writing remained potent, particularly in Upmann, a smoking sketch (1917). This engaging divertissement is an overt celebration of the famous Upmann cigars from Cuba. Essentially a tiny ballet sequence for two dancers (a Dandy and a typical ‘Chinaman’ of the time), Upmann also employs the kind of strongly marked rhythms that characterise many of Ravel’s pieces. The original score is decorated with Pavel Mansurov’s Cubist-inspired drawings of both characters, and is a work of art in its own right.

The Petite Suite en Fa (1926) is representative of the Neo-Classical style that Lourié embraced after he had moved to France and rejected his former Futurist approach to composing. Although harmonically astringent and in the mould of his friend Stravinsky, this work is noteworthy for its air of nostalgia. It also embraces something of the specifically French period flavour of Les Six—the blitheness of his younger contemporary Francis Poulenc is readily apparent. The final work on this disc, Dialogue, a free fantasia of contrasting thematic ideas, was not published in Lourié’s lifetime. Curiously, the manuscript (held at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basle) appears to begin with the rehearsal number 8—a quirky gesture worthy of that great musical jester, Erik Satie.

Anthony Short

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