Friday, May 26, 2017

Igor Markevitch (1912-1983)

No. 248 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

In recent months, we have shared lots of music that featured Ukranian-Italian--French conductor Igor Markevitch (Haydn’s Creation, a pair of Franz Berwald symphonies, only to name those). Today’s Blog and Podcast not only provide a few more selections of modern music with Maestro Markevitch, but also a few pieces showcase him as a composer.

Igor Markevitch was born in Kiev. His great-grandfather Andrey Markevitch, a nobleman and Secretary of State for the Tsar, was also one of founders of the Russian Musical Society. The family moved to Paris in 1914 and again to neutral Switzerland in 1916 during the World War I. Pianist Alfred Cortot, perhaps the greatest French pianist of his time, recognized the boy's talent and advised him at age 14 in 1926 to go to Paris for training in both composition and piano at the École Normale. There Markevitch studied under both Cortot and Nadia Boulanger.

Markevitch gained important recognition in 1929 when Serge Diaghilev discovered him and commissioned a piano concerto from him. In a letter to the London Times, Diaghilev hailed Markevitch as the composer who would put an end to 'a scandalous period of music ... of cynical-sentimental simplicity'. He produced at least one major work per year during the 1930s. He was rated among the leading contemporary composers of the time, even to the extent of being hailed as "the second Igor", after Igor Stravinsky.

In the period immediately following the death of Diaghilev in 1929, Paris was awash in choreographic projects, each clamouring to fill the sudden void. One of these was an idea conceived by Leonid Massine for a film starring Brigitte Helm, for which Markevitch would write a ballet score. The project was never realized, however some of the music survived in the form of the Cinéma-Ouverture, which lay unperformed until given its delayed world première in Harderwijk, in The Netherlands, on 30 November 1995, by the Arnhem Philharmonic Orchestra under Christopher Lyndon-Gee.

The music Markevitch composed for a ballet that was never staged, L'envol d'Icare (based on the legend of the fall of Icarus) was especially radical; Béla Bartók once described Markevitch as "...the most striking personality in contemporary music..." and claimed him as an influence on his own creative work. A chamber version of L'envol d'Icare for two pianos and percussion, which Bartók heard, is believed to have influenced the latter's own Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion.
Markevitch later revised the work in 1943 under the title Icare, simplifying the rhythms and orchestration. Icare is one of the main works in today’s podcast, in a live concert performance by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

In October 1941, Matkevitch fell seriously ill. After recovering, he decided to give up composition and focus exclusively on conducting. His last compositional projects were the revision of L'envol d'Icare and arrangements of other composers' music (including an orchestration of Bach’s Musical Offering). He had débuted as a conductor at age 18 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, perfecting his craft with Pierre Monteux and Hermann Scherchen. He became permanent conductor of the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris in the 1950s, and had a short tenure with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra around that time.

As a conductor, he was much admired for his interpretations of classical and romantic repertoire (French, Russian and Austro-German) and twentieth-century music in general. The two works I retained to complete the montage are vintage recordings of Markevitch and the Lamoureux orchestra in works of contemporary French composer Albert Roussel and Swiss composer Arthur Honnegger.

I think you will love this music too.