About this Recording
GP750 - LOURIÉ, A.: Piano Works (Complete), Vol. 2 (Koukl)
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ARTHUR VINCENT LOURIÉ (1891–1966)
COMPLETE PIANO WORKS • 2

 

The fortunes of the Russian-born composer Arthur Lourie were mixed. For several decades after his death, and indeed throughout the later part of his life, he was all but forgotten. He seemed destined to remain little more than a footnote in musical history, a shadowy figure with little or no individual voice. In recent years, however, his work has enjoyed a significant revival. No longer is it judged simply on how it relates to the music of better-known peers such as his one-time friend, Igor Stravinsky.

Many uncertainties cloud our knowledge of Lourie’s early years. These include material facts, such as the year and place of his birth, and even his actual name. Lourie himself was responsible for some of these enigmas. He was not above resorting to a certain easy-mannered fibbing, especially if such behaviour might advance his career prospects, postpone his military service or prove beneficial in furthering his amatory designs – he was an inveterate libertine. (Coincidentally, one of his more serious lovers, the poet Anna Akhmatova, also adopted a creative approach to the question of age.) Depending on whom we choose to believe, Lourie was born in 1891, 1892 or 1893. Evidence strongly supports the view that his place of birth was the former iron-producing town of Propoysk (now Slawharad in Belarus), but Lourie, eager to be accepted in Russian high society, allowed it to be put about that he was born in St Petersburg. The sundry attractions of the imperial capital afforded him far greater scope for artistic and epicurean gratification than he could ever hope to find in the arid provinciality of his native town. Although history records his name as Arthur Vincent Lourie, he started life as Naum Israilevich Luria. For social and cultural reasons he adopted the name Arthur in homage to Arthur Schopenhauer. He also chose to reflect his admiration for Vincent van Gogh by rejecting his patronymic and substituting it with Vincent.

In his younger days, Lourie was preoccupied with revolutionary nihilism and showed little interest in organised religion. He did, however, nominally convert from Judaism to Catholicism in 1912, but this was solely to enable him to marry a Polish woman at a time when mixed marriages were still not permitted in Russia. Many years later, after forming a close and lasting friendship with the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, he ardently embraced Catholicism. In 1959 he jotted down a series of thoughts that attest to his faith while simultaneously referring directly to the troubled period in Russian history of four decades earlier: ‘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.’

Lourie’s composition teachers at the St Petersburg Conservatoire included Alexander Glazunov, but his main musical influence at that time was the emphatically eccentric Alexander Scriabin, whose sanity was, on occasion, called into question by Rimsky-Korsakov. The young Lourie also found inspiration in the Russian Futurists’ repudiation of the ‘static’ nature of past art. Their artistic credo is encapsulated in the title of their manifesto, A Slap in the Face of Public Taste. Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Blok affected him profoundly through the eloquence of their writing and the allure of their political views, which appealed to Lourie’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.

In the extraordinarily fervid atmosphere of artistic optimism that briefly thrived in post-Revolutionary Russia, aspiring artists such as Lourie came under the enlightened spell of Anatoly Lunacharsky, the chief Commissar for Education, but by 1921 the dark clouds of repression were rolling in, and Lourie had become thoroughly disillusioned. He made the irrevocable decision to defect, and settled in Paris, where he became a firm and loyal advocate of Igor Stravinsky (until a personal feud separated them). Following the formal establishment of the Soviet Union in 1922, his music was proscribed in Russia.

The German occupation of Paris in 1940 again forced Lourie to flee westwards, this time to the United States, where he received a warm welcome from the Russian emigre conductor Serge Koussevitzky. (Lourie later wrote a book about his friend entitled Sergei Koussevitzky and his Epoch.) Although he continued composing, Lourie 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 greatgrandfather, who was Peter’s godson.

The piano was central to Lourie’s output, but his solo pieces were all composed before he left Europe. The earliest numbers on this disc, Deux Poèmes, Op. 8, date from 1912, a time when Lourie was experimenting with extended tonality, albeit in a manner that had not fully dispensed with key signatures. When he came to compose Synthèses, Op. 16, in 1914, his developing personal style manifested itself in the form of huge, Scriabinesque chords that render conventional harmonic analysis superfluous. Such elusive music sits in stark contrast to the Menuett nach Gluck, which was also written in 1914 and is strongly redolent of the salon.

Dnevnoj uzor (also known as L’Ordre du jour), dating from 1915, was first published in a Russian edition featuring a contemporary Futurist design on its cover. Its general title can be translated as ‘Daytime Routine’, but individual movements bear tantalisingly enigmatic headings such as ‘Sorcellerie’ (Sorcery) and ‘Polissonerie’ (Mischievousness). The suite Rojal’ v detskoj (also known as Piano gosse), from 1917, is published in English editions as ‘Eight Scenes of Russian Childhood’. The collection concerns itself with topics pertaining to a child’s perception of the world. The last scene is noteworthy for actually being a mazurka with the Polish title ‘Wlazł kotek na płotek’ (The Kitten Climbed on the Fence). Also composed in 1917 was the harmonically astringent single-movement Sonatina No. 3, which is dedicated to Alexander Borovsky, a pianist strongly associated with the music of Scriabin.

After settling in Paris, Lourie composed a number of short pieces for his friends and professional acquaintances. The Toccata, from 1924, is dedicated to Boris de Schloezer, a Russian emigre musicologist and translator. The Valse, from 1926, was written for Countess Marianna Zarnekau, who was implicated in the murder of Rasputin before going on to enjoy a celebrated acting career under the stage name Mariana Fiory. In 1927, Lourie wrote the Gigue for his friend Jacques Maritain, and he also produced the short Marche for Vladimir Horowitz, who had recently defected from the Soviet Union while on a concert tour. The following year, Lourie composed two more piano miniatures. The first of these, the Nocturne, is dedicated to Alfred Cortot, while the Intermezzo honours Denise Molie, a renowned interpreter of Debussy.

Lourie’s last two solo piano pieces, the Berceuse de la chevrette (Lullaby for the Little Doe) and Phoenix Park Nocturne were composed in 1936 and 1938 respectively. The Berceuse was written for the French historian and Christian humanist Henri-Irenee Marrou to mark the birth of his daughter Catherine. The Nocturne, inscribed ‘To the memory of James Joyce’, is an evocation of an evening perambulation through Dublin’s most famous park. It appeared in print in 1942, and presumably only received its literary dedication upon publication as Joyce did not die until 1941.

Anthony Short


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