[July 27 ushered in the birth of three classical musicians of note – in 1867 the Spaniard Enrique Granados, who died on January 24, 1916; in 1872 the Hungarian Ernst von Dohnanyi, who died on February 9, 1960; and in 1912 the Russian Igor Markevich, who died on March 7, 1983. The last-named might cause the raising of an eyebrow, even amongst the classical music cognoscenti, but because of that I thought it was appropriate on this date of the calendar to recognize his birth anniversary – rather than the other two far better known stalwarts – with his biography and some of his accomplishments in composition and on the podium as a famous conductor.]
Igor Borisovitch Markevitch (b. July 27, 1912 – d. March 7, 1983) was a Russian composer and conductor who studied and worked in Paris, was naturalized Italian in 1947 and French in 1982. He was commissioned in 1929 for a piano concerto by impresario Serge Diaghilev of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
Markevitch settled in Italy during World War II, becoming a citizen of that country. After the war, he moved to Switzerland. He had an international conducting career stating there. He was married twice and had three sons and two daughters.
Markevitch was born in Kiev, Ukraine, at that time a part of the Russian Empire, to an old family of Cossack starshyna (military elite) who were ennobled in the 18th century. His great-grandfather Andrey Markevitch was a Secretary of State at the time of Alexander II of Russia and Actual Privy Councilor in St. Petersburg. Andrey Markevitch was also one of the founders of the Russian Musical Society.
Igor Markevitch was a son of pianist Boris Markevitch and Zoia Pokhitonova (daughter of painter Ivan Pokhitonov). The family moved to Paris in 1914 when Igor was two. They moved again to neutral Switzerland in 1916 during World War I, because of his father Boris’s health problems (he later died of tuberculosis). Pianist Alfred Cortot, perhaps the greatest French pianist of his time, recognized the boy’s talent. He 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 choreographer-impresario Serge Diaghilev discovered him and commissioned a piano concerto from him. In addition, Diaghilev invited him to collaborate on a ballet with Boris Kochno, a dancer and librettist. 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’. The ballet project came to an end with Diaghilev’s death on 19 August 1929, but Markevitch’s compositions were accepted by the publisher Schott.
Igor 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. Markevitch collaborated on the ballet score Rébus with Leonid Massine in 1931; and L’envol d’Icare in 1932 with Serge Lifar. Neither was staged, but both scores were performed in concert. L’envol d’Icare, based on the legend of the fall of Icarus, which Markevitch recorded in 1938 conducting the Belgian National Orchestra, was especially radical, introducing quarter-tones in both woodwinds and strings. (In 1943 he revised the work under the title Icare, eliminating the quarter tones and simplifying the rhythms and orchestration.)
Béla Bartók once described Markevitch as “…the most striking personality in contemporary music…” and claimed him as an influence on his own creative work. An independent 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 continued composing as war approached, but in October 1941, not long after completing his last original work, the Variations, Fugue and Envoi on a Theme of Handel for piano, he 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. His version of J. S. Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer (Musical Offering) is especially notable.
He had débuted as a conductor at age 18 with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. After presiding at the Dutch premiere of Rébus, Markevitch had studied conducting with Pierre Monteux. As a conductor, he was much admired for his interpretations of the French, Russian and Austro-German repertory, and of twentieth-century music in general.
He settled in Italy, and during the Second World War was active in the partisan movement.
He married and settled in Switzerland in 1947 following the war. He pursued his
conducting career worldwide. He became permanent conductor of the Orchestre Lamoureux in Paris in the 1950s, conducted the Spanish RTVE Orchestra in 1965, and was also permanent conductor of the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1970, after ignoring his own compositions for nearly 30 years, Markevitch began to conduct his own music frequently, triggering its slow revival. His last concert was in Kiev, his birthplace. He died suddenly from a heart attack in the Antibes on March 7, 1983, after a concert tour in Japan and Russia.
Markevitch married Kyra Nijinsky (1913-1998), daughter of the great ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and his wife Romola de Pulszky; they had a son Vaslav Markevitch (b. 1936) before they divorced.
Secondly, Markevitch married Donna Topazia Caetani (1921-1990), the only child of Don Michelangelo Caetani dei Duchi di Sermoneta and his wife, the former Cora Antinori. Cora Caetani ran the boutique of Jansen, the Paris decorating firm. Their son, Oleg Caetani Markevitch, became chief conductor and artistic director of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia. They also had two daughters together: Allegra (b. 1950) and Nathalie (b. 1951), and another son, Timour Markevitch (1960-1962).
Toward the end of his life, Markevitch and the Spanish pianist Carlota Garriga became companions.
New York Times Obituary of March 8, 1983: The conductor Igor Markevitch died in Antibes, France, yesterday following a heart attack. He was 70 years old. Over his long conducting career, Mr. Markevitch led orchestras in Stockholm, Havana, Paris, Montreal, Madrid and Monte Carlo. He returned to France last week after a tour of Japan, the Soviet Union and Spain, and entered the hospital on Friday.
Mr. Markevitch began his career as a composing prodigy. He was born in his family’s manor in Kiev (where Glinka, a distant relative, composed ”A Life for the Czar”).
The concluding 6 minute movement of The Flight of Icarus is The Death of Icarus, which can be heard here on YouTube with Pianists Mischa Cheung and Yulia Miloslaskaya along with Percussionists Alexander Ponet, Volker Schlierenzauer and Michael Juen performing live at Zürcher Hochschule der Künste in February 2014. You may also listen on YouTube to the performance of his last work (played by 21-year old Japanese pianist, Masuda Yukina) by clicking right here – Variations, Fugue and Envoi on a Theme of Handel.
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