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ClassicsOnline Home » MARKEVITCH: Orchestral Music, Vol. 2 - Cantique d'Amour / L'Envol d'Icare / Concerto Grosso
Orchestral Music Vol. 2
Amour (World premiere recording)
(World premiere recording)
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.
Unless we include
the precedent of Rossini, who retired from opera at 38, but continued to write
salon music and sacred works, 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." The eclipse during his lifetime of his reputation as a composer
appears on the surface, more than any other single factor, due 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 I the creative endeavours that had brought him such renown
and adulation I 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 Etre et avoir ete,
published in 1980, obfuscates and misleads, even as it makes a show of
revealing the writer's inner life.
Markevitch is in
no sense a "conductor-composer", as were 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, who turned to
conducting almost reluctantly when required by his own work. Yet, after
changing course to a 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 [rankly, 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. Born in Kiev on 27th July, 1912, his family moved 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'apres-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 began work on a major ballet-score, L 'Habit
du Roi (The Emperor's New Clothes), to be choreographed by Lifar with decor
by Picasso. In short, he was at seventeen launched by Dyagilev on a path that
brought world-wide 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 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 war-time 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" 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 Cantata of
1930, written on a text of Cocteau (and including music rescued from the
sketches for L 'Habjt du Roj), 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 premiere 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 protege 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 are a
succession of masterpieces in constantly changing languages. Ribus and Le
Nouvel Age 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 Ravelian essay in evocative colour, yet curiously
emotionally detached. Psaume and the cantata-symphony Lorenzo n
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.
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 aesthetic 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 nineties 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.
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 .
1912 Born in Kiev, 27th July, to the pianist Boris
Markevitch (a student of Eugene d' Albert) and to Zola Pokitonova.
Markevitch family flees Russia for Paris.
Markevitch grows up speaking primarily French, and will eventually
write his autobiography Etre et avoir ete 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
1926-28 Studies piano with Cortot,
and harmony and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger at the Ecole Normale de
Musique in Paris.
1929 Markevitch completes his
diplomas at the Ecole 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 premiere 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 19th August, Markevitch
accompanies him to Baden-Baden for the world premiere 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 Cantata with
a new text specially written by Jean Cocteau.
1930 Roger Desormiere (who
conducted Markevitch in his Piano Concerto the previous year) presents
the enormously successful premiere of Cantata in Paris on 4th June.
In August, the publishing house of Schott (Mainz)
accepts the Sinfonietta, the Piano Concerto and Cantata for
8th December: World premiere in Paris of Concerto Grosso, reviewed
as follows by no less than Darius Milhaud in L'Europe of 13th December:
Markevitch' 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 Markevitch has a formidable technique and a
truly unique invention.
the Serenade (January -March), perhaps his most "Stravinskian"
On 24th April, Hans Rosbaud conducts the German premieres of Concerto
Grosso and Piano Concerto with the orchestra of Frankfurt Radio (the
latter work with the composer as soloist). The world premiere of Re'bus in
Paris on 15th December is hailed as a major triumph for the
composer. Writing in the New York Times for 10th January, 1932, Henri
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 to
conduct the Dutch premiere of Rebus 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 premiere of Rebus follows in April, given by Serge
Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony.
On 26th June, Desormiere conducts the tumultuous premiere 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 premiere 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 premiere of his oratorio Le Paradis
perdu (Paradise Lost) at Queen's Hall, London
on 20th 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 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 premiere in Warsaw on January 21st of Le Nouvel Age 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
Performed at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in April, Le Nouvel Age is acclaimed by an audience of two
thousand. In response to this performance, Leon 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 I'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 I'Homme.
1940 Visits Florence with Kyra, where he composes the 'vocal symphony' Lorenzo
II Magnifico on texts by Lorenzo 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 a
cottage provided by the art historian Bernard Berenson on his Villa I Tatti
estate at Settignano. Dallapiccola is among his circle of friends. In October 1941,
he completes Variations, Fugue and Envoi on a Theme of Händel, for
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 7th 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 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. He recomposes L 'Envol
d'Icare as Icare, abandoning the quarter-tones of the original work
and re-orchestrating in a less "astringent" manner.
further serious illness.
1946 During are turn visit to
Switzerland, writes Made in Italy, a political
study 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. His international conducting career over this
thirty-year period will take Markevitch to music directorships in Stockholm, Paris, Montreal, Madrid, Monte
Carlo, Havana and 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 Herve 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
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, started
eighteen years later, in December 1995, are the first recordings of all but a
handful of works which are preserved from 1930'5 radio broadcasts, and a
technically poor recording on 785 of L 'Envol d'Icare dating from 1938.
1980 Publication by Gallimard
of the composer's autobiography, Etre et avoir ete (Being and having been). To
some extent a roman a clef, the book reveals much even as it hides or
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 visit to Kiev, his city of birth, Markevitch suddenly
falls ill, dying in Antibes on 7th March.
updated and revised from research by David Drew, Bernard Jacobson and David
Pickett, originally published in Tempo vol. 133/134, London, September 1980.]
Amour (Hymn to Love)
- 4th December, 1936)
When, after an
interval of nearly forty years, Markevitch heard Cantique d' Amour again
towards the end of his life, he gently rebuked it for having too much
"magic" and for sounding "too good". This short
composition, orchestrated with a luxuriant vocabulary worthy of Ravel,
feather-bedded with harmony redolent of Scriabin, is unique in his output. Its
rich language was , soon rejected for the astringent, almost violently
energetic classicism of Le Nouvel Age as he prepared to enter his own
New Age, an age of performing the music of others, untrammelled by the burden
of his own creativity .
Amour was commissioned,
like Partita and Hymnes, by the Princesse de Polignac and first
performed in Rome in May 1937 by the Augusteo Orchestra
under Mario Rossi. Subsequently, it was not heard again until1980. It is a
simple arch with coda, beginning and ending in a meandering forest of bird-song
within an evocation of wind and filtered light. The apex of the arch, a
violently energetic storm of passion full of rushing scales in the strings and
soaring melodies in the trumpets, soon subsides into the languour of the
opening. It is the coda that looks forward to Le Nouvel Age; chords in
harmonics in the violas and cellos, doubled by celesta and glockenspiel, locked
on the same unresolved dominant seventh that will conclude the later work. This
is an ending that subsumes the lushness of the music that preceded it into a
conclusion that is both exquisitely poised and infinitely "cold".
Cold is a word
that often comes to mind in listening to the music of this man; the same man
who in 1972 would tell the famous dance critic John Gruen "No, , I don't
want to talk about my life, or my music - I don't want the world to
know!". The same man who quelled the passion of his "love-song"
within a work which remains essentially detached.
L 'Envol d'Icare
July - September 1932)
(Eveil de la
deux colombes... il etudie
lcare se fait
fixer des ailles aux epaules:
iI essaye a voler
Ou l' on apprend
la chiite d'Icare
La mort d'Icare
The Flight of
Games of the
two doves and studies their flight
wings fixed to his
The Flight of
Where news of
Icarus' s fall is
tuning of five instruments of the orchestra of L 'Envol d'Icare yields
harmonies like those in no other work, whose effect was heard in advance by the
composer with an imaginative acuity that make this an unforgettable
sound-world. The Flight of Icarus was undoubtedly the single work in which
Igor Markevitch saw himself most vividly reflected. The period of 1932-33, when
he planned the work with Serge Lifar, sketched initial musical ideas, and
assembled the fair copy of the score became for Markevitch an odyssey of
profound self-examination, above all centering on the motifs of the fall and
death of Icarus. Some quotations from the composer’s autobiography, Etre et avoir
ete, published in 1980, illuminate his state of mind:
...the subject of lcarus caused me with a jolt [to ask]
Why? My existence has never ceased to draw from me responses to this question,
each destiny being a reliving of some myth in which the human spirit finds
meaning or identification.
...the myth of Icarus seemed rich in spiritual
elements well capable of being assimilated within the architecture to which they gave birth.
personally revealing of all, particularly in the light of Markevitch's
mystifying abandonment of composition after 1941, are these remarks:
...I was led to discern in the myth of Icarus one of
the most modern and dramatic meanings of which I know, the arrival consumed
by fire [author's italics]. ...Pressed onwards by ambition, the subject is
devoured during his path; he attains his goa lonly in the realisation that his
wings will no longer carry him.
it was an incident most uncharacteristic of the composer, when he was prevailed
upon (probably by Cocteau) to share an opium pipe, that led to heightened
perceptions about time, the unity of physical and spiritual perceptions, and
the nature of sound itself.
[In this state] the characteristic of sounds was that
of never disappearing entirely. Like these bells or crystals that seemed to resonate for an
eternity, chords were prolonged, mingling with each other, and forming
pure and abstract melodic lines. ... [I became] aware of the rhythm of death,
of the movement within its seemingly immobile appearance.
courage, shame, or simply the ignorance of a twenty-year- old, he sought no
medical help, but merely spent an extended summer holiday at Cap Ferrat getting
over the ill effects of the drug, bolstered by the company of his friends the Szigetis
and the Piatigorskys. This was also the time when the sketches of The Flight
of Icarus were written. He persisted in searching deeply for a music that
would recapture the purity and resonance of his recent experience, placing into
question for him the most fundamental concepts of music itself. Anticipating,
if anyone, that most dissimilar composer John Cage, he remarks on the
extraordinary richness of the sympathetic vibrations heard within the piano,
...each sound being an entire world with an infinity
of different harmonics, hearing each single note can be compared to
[witnessing] a comet which illuminates the sky along its own trajectory.
and compel1ing unity of the resulting score were immediately recognised by
Markevitch's contemporaries, who spoke of its “magic” sonorities; Cocteau,
comparing lcarus to Le Sacre du Printemps, called it a work which
might have “fallen from the moon”, and quoted Nietzsche's phrase about “the
ideas which change the face of the world make their entrance on doves' feet.”
These doves' feet, of course, refer neatly to the section of the music
where Icarus studies the flight of doves -something which Markevitch himself
did “with passion” while composing the score. In an article in La Revue
Musicale of July 1932, which curiously pre-dates the appearance of The
Flight of Icarus but was enthusiastical1y endorsed by Markevitch as
evidence of its progress, Pierre Souvtchinsky comments that Markevitch's
manner of creating proceeds directly from the auditory inspiration of the “heard
object”, without any preliminary interference of psychological or formal elements.
that he believed he had indeed discovered ...truly new effects. ..and a
truly new sensibility. - by which he doubtless meant an innovative language
that threw off the ubiquitous influences of Stravinsky.
Thus the most
singular features of the startlingly original Flight of Icarus, above
all, its use of quarter-tone scordature in one flute, two solo violins
and two solo cel1os within the orchestra, and the pervasive presence of complex
polyrhythms. It is not hard to imagine that the microtonal retunings resulted
in some way from the 'orienta1' experience of the opium pipe, though Markevitch
is at pains to describe that “certain chords could not be perceived in an exact
manner”, and that the sole function of the re-tuned instruments was to “correct
that which tricked the ear". The polyrhythms are the most singularly
personal stylistic trait of the work, both for the manner in which Markevitch
draws multiple cross accents within 'simple' metrical structures - such as the
6/4 against 3/2 against 4/4 = 12/8 in the 'Flight' passage- and for the stil1
more novel use of irrational values of four against nine, creating random cross
rhythms in the music for 'Icarus traps two doves’.
Why then was this
extraordinary score never performed as a ballet? There is no evidence that
there was any serious falling-out with Serge Lifar, more a parting of the aesthetic
ways. Lifar had reacted with enthusiasm when the composer played him the score
towards the end of 1932, and had initiated a collaboration with Brancusi on the
designs. Lifar's ideas "evolved ceaselessly" in the succeeding
months, and, although holding exclusive rights to the work, early in 1933 he
readily accepted a proposal for a concert performance of the orchestral score
under Roger Desormiere at Salle Gaveau, which took place 26th June that year .
Then, the impetus
seems to have dried up. Markevitch alludes to Lifar's wish to "liberate
choreography as far as possible from the constraints of music" . Lifar
must have found the concert performance of the orchestral Icarus unnerving
or intimidating; he may perhaps have retained vivid recollections of the
choreographic disaster that was Nijinsky's world premiere of Le Sacre du Prjntemps
twenty years earlier. He doubtless feared similar ignominy, and commenced a
search for alternative ways of mounting his subject, creating a complete
choreography without music. Once this was finished, he approached first
Honegger, then the Belgian conductor-composer Zyfer to supply a score for
percussion alone, following his dictated rhythms. None of these attempts
succeeded, but finally, in 1943, the great Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso
reproduced in Havana Lifar's choreography that she had learnt while with the Ballets
Russes to a fine new score ICARO, for seven percussionists and piano,
written in fifteen days by her compatriot Harold Gramatges.
sensing his own inadequacy to cope with Markevitch's music, or genuinely
convinced that either the dance or the music was "condemned" by the
impossibility of their synthesis, explained in July 1935, in his Manifesto
of a Choreographer that the music was admirable, the idea of its union with
dance seductive, but I had a c/ear sense that it would be impossible for me to
bring my rhythm into accord with that of Markevitch.
became the centre of a lively (and unresolved) debate in the pages of the Revue
Musicale and elsewhere about the nature of the relationship between music
and dance. Many (as testified by John Gruen in The Private World of Ballet) simply
felt that "the symbol" Lifar had a grossly inf1ated view of himself
as Nijinsky's successor, to which role he was woefully inadequate.
Markevitch did not
let go of L 'Envol. In 1933 he commenced aversion for two pianos and
three percussion (completed by Christopher Lyndon-Gee for publication by Boosey
& Hawkes, and recorded for Largo in 1993). Bartok paid homage to this
trail-blazing score when composing his own Sonata for Two Pianos and
Percussion six years later. In the midst of the war, in 1943, Markevitch
re-orchestrated the work entirely, abbreviating its title to the simple Icare.
This version, however, represents a loss of faith in his startling ideas of
1932, as it abandons the visionary quarter-tones, simplifies many of the rhythmic
counterpoints, and ruins the suspended drama of the Chute d'Icare with
the addition of a plangent, but rather obvious melody in the ce1los.
The sections of The
Flight of lcarus are as fo1lows:
Prelude / Prelude
A short slow
introduction, featuring the quarter-tone re-tuned instruments: the resulting
complex harmonies (the 'ICARUS' chord from the fourth measure onwards) are
calculated with remarkable acuteness of effect. The composer introduces the
important r6le that is to be played by untuned membrane percussion instruments
- indeed, sounds which are indistinct as to pitch form the principal thematic
material of the work.
Jeux des Adolescents (Eveil de la Connaissance) /
ringing four-note chords in the tuned percussion, this is rhythmically
highly-charged, based around a motoric ostinato. Despite the obvious a1lusion
of the title, the intersections of numerous countermelodies give this a most
deux colombes; il etudje leur Vol /
two doves; he studies their flight
Begins and ends
with music, largely for xylophone and timpani, of a tentative character,
featuring unpredictable accelerandi and ritardandi that clearly portray avian
behaviour. The lengthy central 'a11egro' section features a highly complex
interplay, of four quaver beats against six against nine, with additional
frequent semiquavers, and superimposed triplets. The rhythmic counterpoint of
these irrational rhythms is given focus by a refrain melody in the piccolo. Not
forgetting that Scriabin included birdsong in his Second Symphony (but Markevitch was essentially un-Russian,
having left Kiev when he was three), the vivid depiction of
bird-calls intriguingly anticipates Messiaen.
description vividly evokes the music itself:
...these foot-scratchings, these bird-stampings, these
wing-strokes, this pigeon-house of impatient slaps. ...
Icare se fait
fixer des ailes aux epaules et s’essaye a voler l
lcarus has wings
affixed to his shoulders, and attempts flight
recapitulation of the Prelude, pivoting on the quarter-tone tuned
'ICARUS' chord, and leading with an air of mystery into the 'Flight'.
l The Flight of Icarus
In 6/4 throughout,
marked allegramente, this
is an incandescent invention of enormous driving force. The music is in three
main sections; the first alternates relatively straightforward 6/4 and 3/2
metres, with strong accents given by the xylophone to a simple motif constantly
rising in register.
Great energy is
unleashed in the second section (con impeto, ma a rigore deI tempo), by
rhythmic devices of considerable contrapuntal complexity; the ear can with
reasonable ease focus separately on four main stands: a melody of four beats to
the bar played by the trumpets against a treading bass of six beats; and
running counterpoints of twelve and eighteen beats each measure. Further
subdivisions feature in the timpani and untuned percussion.
The third section
is a sheer outburst of joy: clear, bright, triadic music in first- inversion B
major, the trumpet melody now modulated by the addition of the scordatura violins.
Timpani and growling bass-register chords signal Icarus' fate.
Ou /' on apprend la chute d'Icare /
News of Icarus' fall
only, but a shattering moment of suspended tension: Markevitch calls for the
extraordinary (for the time) effect of air blown loosely through trumpet
mouth-pieces together with scordatura chords in flutes and violins. (In the 1943 revision of
this passage, its ethereal, suspendu quality is badly compromised by the
addition of a wholly alien, "plaintive" cello melody.)
d'Icare/ Icarus' death
A slow 'moto
perpetuo' with an air of suppressed energy , fun of obsessively repeated melodic
cells in constantly varying semiquaver metres, all the more affecting because
of its restraint. Through the ending is purified by chords from which the
scordatura instruments are
now absent, it is perhaps denied finality by a tonally ambiguous timpani stroke
reminiscent of Also sprach Zarathustra.
scornfully dismissed those who believed they heard "an evocation of
Java" in the modal melodies and detached repetitiveness of this magical
conclusion. Rather, it was for him a personal response to the transcendence of
the Adagio of Beethoven's C minor Piano Sonata, Opus 111:
"Icarus's arrival at [self-1knowledge can be
considered as a paraphrase of the Adagio of this last sonata, which, ever since
my adolescence had represented for me one of the most perfect creations in
sound."... "...for those who understand this page, the Death of
Icarus becomes transparent."
In Etre et avoir
ete, Markevitch, comparing his subject to Faust, speaks of Icarus observing
his own death:
The fall takes place only when the absurd is no longer
considered as such. In Icarus the wings are in some sense found again, like the
cast-off skin of a serpent. They are the signs of renewal.
And he quotes the
reaction of his wife, Kyra, to the music of L 'Envol, following its triumphant
world premiere on 26th June, 1933:
You have taken the elements of transient existence and
made them into the components of an eternal music.
August - October 1930)
musical style was never overtly influenced by the neoclassicism of Les Six or
of Stravinsky. In this youthful work there are however occassional glimpses of
the Hindemith whose Concerto for Orchestra, Opus 38 (which Nadia
Boulanger had analysed in her composition class) made such an impression that
the then sixteen-year-old composer
"slept with the score, and many times each night [I]
would put on the light to re-read it and remind myself of what his music was
But these are
shadings more than 'influence' , for the word in this case means no more than
saying that a young artist was growing up within a certain environment,
absorbed everything that was happening within it, and reflected pluralistic
aspects of his surroundings as might a camera interpret the temperature of light
through a variety of filters. Indeed, the Concerto Grosso is more of a challenge
to the styles of his contemporaries than an extension of their own endeavours;
its innovations and daring rhythmic play are tantamount to a glove or
handkerchief cast down by a supremely confident new entrant to the lists.
Creation du Monde of the previous year, for instance, introduces the
saxophone to the instrumental lexicon of European art music, yet gives it
nowhere near as much prominence as does Concerto Grosso. Whereas Milhaud
'buries' his alto saxophone within the strings in slow-moving 'cantabile'
melody, Markevitch uses the dominating soprano instrument in agile, whirligig
The initial concertino
episode of the work’s first movement, for example, is set for the grouping
of saxophone, bassoon, trombone and solo violin. It is the saxophone that first
introduces the rhythmically clashing triplet-across-the-bar that is to become
such a hallmark of Markevitch's style.
In later concertino
sections, contrasting orchestral groups are presented in turn, with the
triplet rhythmic counterpoint next heard in the horns against an 8/8 unison
bass-line in bass clarinet and cellos. Later again, the saxophone is heard once
more, doubling tutti violins against basses, tuba, trombone and trumpet.
The Andante of
Concerto Grosso grows directly out of a short meno mosso section
of the first movement; the one moment in the work that distantly recalls the
music for Es sungen drei Engel in Hindemith's Mathis der Maler. The
triadic nature of this theme is designed to upset any sense of tonality created
by the sforzando close of the Allegro con brio on G. At the same
time, its strong F major implications are constantly upset by an attraction to tritone
relationships, which feature most prominently in a striking solo for piccolo
towards the end.
The Finale is
thematically a direct extension of the first movement, beginning with a boldly
original scurrying fugato for pizzicato strings. The entry of the brass
powerfully develops the 'wedge' motif, culled from Bach's famous E minor organ
fugue, of which Markevitch will make such dramatic use in Rebus in the
following year. The structure of this movement is masterly, culminating in a
set of variations by way of a lengthy coda. Immediately reminiscent of the
opening of the Andante, the variations commence unassumingly with the
solo flute, illustrating just how closely the principal melodic motifs of the
entire piece are tied together. Moreover, this magnificent passage, gathering
momentum by inexorable small degrees, is also a premonition of Rebus; in
the following year, the identical compositional idea will reappear as a separate
movement in the latter work, subtly re-orchestrated and with an entirely new
conclusion. Even in its first manifestation, however, the characterisation and
"driving force" of this music are uniquely Markevitch's own.
performance of the work was given at the Salle de la Conservatoire, Paris on 8th December, 1930, by the Orchestre symphonique
de Paris under its -- dedicatee, Roger Desormiere.
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