Arthur Lourié: Stravinsky’s predecessor and a forgotten pioneer of Russian modernism

If you asked a music history professor to list the most influential Russian composers of the early 20th century, they would probably name Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Scriabin, and Shostakovich, with perhaps a passing mention of Glazunov, Glière, Roslavets, Myaskovsky, or Kabalevsky. However, these composers were far from the only names who were integral in the development of Russian classical music; several lesser-known Russian and Soviet composers from this period produced works of great character and originality, only to fall into obscurity because of lack of support for their music or the apparatuses of the USSR. Today, we’ll be examining one of these forgotten composers, Arthur Lourié.

Lourié (Arthur Lourié Society)

Lourié was born on May 14, 1892 into a wealthy Jewish family in what is now Belarus. Little is known about his early life, although he was at one time a schoolmate of Prokofiev in St. Petersburg; at the age of 17, he began his studies in that city’s conservatory, studying piano with Maria Barinova and composition with Glazunov. However, Lourié left the conservatory in 1913 without graduating and, from that point on, was largely self-taught.

By the time he completed his studies, Lourié had already begun developing a distinctive style. Although musically influenced by Ravel and Debussy (as you can find in the 5 Préludes fragiles below) as well as the late works of Scriabin, Lourié frequently explored new musical avenues, especially in solo piano writing – his 1914 work Synthèses presages the dodecaphonic music which would attain popularity a decade later. He was also greatly influenced by contemporary art and literature, being one of the first composers to set the poetry of Anna Akhmatova and also developing a new Picasso-inspired approach to notation in his 1915 piano work Formes En L’air.

Lourié’s growing stature in Russian music at the time was significantly magnified after the 1917 Russian Revolution – he was almost immediately appointed director of the music section of the People’s Commissariat. However, he quickly became disillusioned with the direction of the new Soviet state and, after an official visit to Berlin in 1921, left his homeland permanently.

In 1922, the composer settled in Paris, where he was introduced to Stravinsky by the latter’s mistress, the dancer Vera de Bosset. Over the next ten years, he would become one of the most important champions of Stravinsky, not only writing articles about and creating piano reductions of Stravinsky’s work but also engaging in extensive creative dialogue with his older contemporary. Several sources have noted the similarities between Lourié’s 1924 work A Little Chamber Music and Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète of 1927, while the monumental Concerto spirituale for chorus, piano, and orchestra, written by Lourié in 1929, foreshadowed Stravinsky’s much more popular 1930 Symphony of Psalms.

Of the works by Lourié I have heard so far, the Concerto spirituale is by far the most compelling for me. Despite the less-than-ideal audio quality (according to the well-known music critic Alex Ross, this recording was taken from a 1995 Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin concert conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky), the emotion and almost otherworldly character of the piece still shine through. To me, it is simply astonishing that such a brilliant and original work is so rarely played and has yet to be recorded properly in any form – if any conductor or music director with the sufficient resources for such a piece reads this, I beg you to put it on one of your programs!

Alas, we will never know how much more brilliant music this collaboration could have produced, as Lourié’s friendship with Stravinsky ended after a disagreement with de Bosset in 1932. Eight years later, as the Germans occupied Paris, he left for the United States with the help of Serge Koussevitzky.

Forgotten by Russia, his former friend Stravinsky, and much of the compositional establishment, Lourié spent much of his time in America writing film scores, receiving almost no performances for his more ambitious works. Although he spent ten years writing a Pushkin-inspired opera titled The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, it remains unperformed today. Another of his notable works from this time, which has since been performed, is his 1959 setting of T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” for tenor and ensemble, which, coincidentally, was also set by Stravinsky three years later.

Initially based in New York , Lourié moved to San Francisco and then to Princeton, living out the last years of life in virtual isolation. He passed away in Princeton on October 12, 1966, at the age of 74.

During his six-decade-long compositional career, Lourié wrote a over a hundred pieces comprising solo piano compositions, art songs, chamber works, and monumental orchestral music, yet the majority of his oeuvre is yet to be recorded or even performed. From the delicate simplicity of the 5 Préludes fragiles to the drama, rich harmonic content, and almost unbelievable anger of the Concerto spirituale, Lourié’s works deserve a far greater place in concert halls.

Thank you for reading, and as usual, please leave a like, follow, and/or comment if you enjoyed the article. Next week’s post will cover the Welsh composer Grace Williams!

(The information in this article comes from the biography on the Arthur Lourié Society website, an article on Lourié in Perspectives of New Music published shortly after his death, and a small blurb about the composer by Alex Ross.)

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