By Bernard Jacobson
Written for the concert Nadia Boulager: Teacher of the Century, performed on May 13, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Was Igor Markevitch himself Icarus? Irresistibly evoking the legend of the young pioneer who flew too near the sun, Markevitch’s composing career looks in hindsight very much like a prematurely concluded flight, bold in conception and dazzling in achievement, after which everything else in his life ranks as anticlimax. The parallel can be continued, however, only if we imagine Icarus managing an emergency landing and devoting himself thereafter to airport management or air traffic control.
Born in Kiev in 1912, Markevitch was taken to live in Paris in 1914 and in Switzerland two years later. Returning to Paris in 1926 to join Alfred Cortot’s piano class at the École Normale, he also studied with Nadia Boulanger, though by her own testimony “he knew the secrets of counterpoint before he was born.” He graduated at sixteen, and was soon taken under Serge Diaghilev’s wing–”I was his last discovery,” he recalled years later.
The last original composition in an output of over twenty works was completed when Markevitch was 29. (The 1943 Icare is a recomposition of L’Envol d’Icare, written eleven years before.) Emerging from World War II service with the Italian Resistance, he seems to have concluded that music had moved in directions that no longer stimulated the composer in him. Suppressing his output, he turned thereafter to conducting and musicology. Only a few isolated performances, such as Leonard Bernstein’s 1958 Icare with the New York Philharmonic, bridge the gap until 1979, when he decided to allow publication of his oeuvre by Boosey & Hawkes. In recent months the first three discs in a Marco Polo series of the complete orchestral music, conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee, have made a considerable impact, the first volume actually garnering a Grammy nomination for “Best Orchestral Performance.” Finally, it seems, Markevitch’s time has come.
It is hard to imagine how a composer in his twenties–known as a composer to a mere handful of music-lovers today–could have been a dominant figure in a decade like the 1930s: other such Boulangerie alumni as Copland, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and Jean Françaix were getting into their creative stride, while Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokofiev, Hindemith, and Schoenberg were already in their prime. Yet Bartók himself, three decades Markevitch’s senior and hardly a man given to extravagant praise of colleagues, wrote to the 20-year-old composer after the premiere of L’Envol d’Icare: “You are the most striking personality in contemporary music, and I am delighted, Sir, to profit from your influence.”
What, then, is Markevitch’s long-disregarded music actually like? The sheer sound of it is unique. He uses the orchestra with thrilling virtuosity,treating all its instruments with a freedom and imagination that place him among the greatest orchestrators in the history of the craft. Trumpets are as likely to carry a Markevitch melody as horns; the percussion section is used, notas a mechanism, but like the heartbeat in a natural organism. A 1930s critic described him as “un mystique sec.” Certainly his art is mystical, and certainly its vigor and clarity are diametrically opposed to mysticism’s usually vague and wispy image.
Like many great artists Markevitch the composer is a creature of contradictions. So was Markevitch the man. Working for Boosey & Hawkes in the early 1980s, I got to know him well. I have known musicians who were monsters of egotism and others who were marvels of sensitivity to other people’s feelings and needs. He, in perhaps unique measure, was both. The combination made for a fascinating human being. And the blend of passion and asceticism–of fire and ice–is another combination of opposites that stands at the root of his equally fascinating music.