Igor Markevitch

Russian-born conductor and composer, naturalised Italian then French (born 1912 in Kiev – died 1983 in Antibes)

Despite having originally intended to become a composer, Igor Markevitch ended up becoming one of the greatest conductors of his time. This discreet but determined artist is known for his rigorous work, precise gestures and his vision of the works.

Igor Markevitch is descended from a princely line. His father was a pianist and, from infancy, Igor was immersed in music and literature. When he was only two years old, his family emigrated to Paris. In 1915, his father's health obliged them to move to Switzerland, where Igor began the piano. After his father's death in 1922, he took lessons from Paul Loyonnet then Emile-Robert Blanchet, a pupil of Busoni, who shortly afterwards introduced him to Alfred Cortot. The latter was very impressed by Igor's talent, not only as a pianist but also as a composer. In 1926, he paid for Igor to go to Paris and enrolled him in the Ecole Normale he had recently established there. Igor Markevitch studied with Cortot himself and Nadia Boulanger. The following year, his first composition, Noces, was published. In 1928, he met Serge Diaghilev who, in view of possibly engaging him to compose his ballets, commissioned him to write a Piano Concerto as a demonstration piece (it was first performed in 1929 in London with Désormière conducting). Diaghilev's death that year put an end to the project, but Markevitch's career as a composer was launched and his works were regularly premiered under the baton of Roger Désormière, including the Sinfonietta on 3 November 1929, the Cantata to a text by Cocteau on 4 June 1930, and the Partita, with Marcelle Meyer at the piano on 13 May 1932.

During the 1930s, Igor Markevitch concentrated on conducting, which he studied first with Pierre Monteux. His first concert at the head of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra was the Dutch premiere of his work Rébus (which had had its first performance in Paris the year before). He also sought advice from Hermann Scherchen. In 1935, he premiered Le Paradis perdu at the BBC, then Le Nouvel âge in Warsaw, to an enthusiastic response. World War II put a damper on his musical career. He settled in Italy in 1941, but joined the Italian Resistance after the German invasion of Italy in 1943. After the Liberation, he was naturalised as an Italian citizen in 1947. His sole career focus was then on conducting, and his career soon gained an international reach. Igor Markevitch held a succession of resident conductor positions with major symphony orchestras. In 1948, he was appointed to lead the Mozarteum Salzburg, then in 1952 he became principal conductor of the Stockholm Orchestra. In 1957, he was appointed conductor of one of the leading French orchestras of the time, the Orchestre Lamoureux. In the 1960s, he was conductor of the Spanish Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra, then of the Orchestre National de l'Opéra de Monte-Carlo. In 1982, he became a naturalised French citizen. He died of a heart attack the following year, the day after his last tour, which had concluded with a final concert in Kiev, his home town.

Six landmark dates in the life of Igor Markevitch:
• 1926: entered the Ecole Normale founded by Alfred Cortot
• 1928: death of Diaghilev and beginning of his conducting career
• 1935: premiered his work Le Paradis perdu
• 1947: became a naturalised Italian citizen
• 1957: appointed principle conductor of the Orchestre Lamoureux
• 1982: became a naturalised French citizen

Six key recordings by Igor Markevitch:
La Damnation de Faust, by Berlioz, Orchestre Lamoureux (1956)
• Hommage à Lili Boulanger, Orchestre Lamoureux (1958)
• Le Sacre du printemps, by Stravinsky, Philharmonia Orchestra (1959)
• Suites de Carmen et de l’Arlésienne, by Bizet, Orchestre Lamoureux (1959)
• Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 24, by Mozart, with Clara Haskil and Orchestre Lamoureux (1960)
• L’Histoire du soldat, by Stravinsky, with Jean Cocteau and Peter Ustinov (1962)

Biography compiled from Radio France Documentation, December 2015