Arthur Lourié, Chant funèbre sur la mort d’un poète

By Klara Moricz, Amherst College

Written for the concert Russian Futurists, performed on Jan 25, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Chant funèbre sur la mort d’un poète [Funeral Song on the Death of a Poet] by Arthur Lourié (1891-1966), a setting of Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Today is the nameday of Our Lady of Smolensk,” commemorates the death on August 7, 1921 of the symbolist poet Alexander Blok (1880-1921). Blok’s death marked the end of an exceptionally creative period in Russian poetry frequently referred to as the “Silver Age,” in contradistinction to the “Golden Age” of Pushkin’s time. Toward the end of his life Lourié could still clearly recall the trauma caused by the poet’s death. Like other artists, Lourié stayed at the three-day vigil at Blok’s apartment. The poet was buried on August 10 in the Smolensk Cemetery, on the feast day of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God.

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), a poet who grew up in the shadow of Blok, was among the mourners. At the time of Blok’s death, Akhmatova lived with Lourié and Olga Glebova-Sudeikina in a complicated ménage à trios; she was working on a libretto for Lourié based on Blok’s Snowmask. Seeing the extent of Lourié’s grief she understood that the composer’s only real passion was his unconditional adoration of Blok whom he considered to be the epitome of the perfect artist.

Akhmatova wrote her farewell poem shortly after Blok’s funeral. She played tribute to the poet by basing her poem on word stress alone, a technique famously used by Blok in his Verses on a Beautiful Lady (1901-2). Akhmatova’s images also reflect Blok’s spiritual poetry. Her poem is framed by references to the feast of the Smolensk Icon, a religious equivalent of the “Beautiful Lady.” The description of the graveyard in the middle section of the poem purposefully mixes visual and aural effects.

Lourié set Akhmatova’s poem for chorus reinforced by oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. The sacred number of the Trinity, central in Orthodox theology and expressed by Akhmatova’s three-part division of her poem, is further emphasized by Lourié’s use of distinct musical textures for Akhmatova’s three parts, his division of woodwinds into three groups, and the threefold declaration of the first and last lines of the poem. Lourié’s slowly moving, strictly syllabic chorus recalls the sound of Orthodox church singing. His radiantly beautiful harmonies, moving in archaic parallel fifths and dissonant seconds and sevenths, provide a specifically Russian twentieth-century sound to Lourié’s music. In sections in which the recitation of the text is surrounded with parallel fifths that create the effect of ear-splitting bell ringing, the dissonance is more prominent. In the middle section, embellished short melodic fragments remind the listener of Russian folk music, familiar from Stravinsky’s music. But although some of these sounds recall Stravinsky’s The Wedding (completed 1921-23) and Symphony of Psalms (1930), Lourié’s music has its own unmistakable identity, which may have inspired Stravinsky’s better known works.

Lourié’s tribute to Blok was performed only once during the composer’s lifetime (in New York on March 16, 1929), and only in a piano/choral version. In fact, tonight’s performance marks the U.S. premiere of the full version of the work. Soon after Blok’s death, Lourié abandonded Soviet Russia and traveled to Berlin. From Berlin he went to Paris where for more than a decade he was Stravinsky’s advisor and best friend. With the help of conductor Sergei Koussevitzky, whose escape he had facilitated from Soviet Russia in 1920, the ethnically Jewish Lourié fled to New York in 1941. Unlike Stravinsky, Lourié never adjusted to the West. His music, especially his last opera The Blackamoor of Peter the Great (1949-1963), remained paradigmatic of Silver Age Russia. That epoch, represented most perfectly, according to Akhmatova, by Alexander Blok, lost one of its last ambassadors with Lourié’s death in 1966.