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Arthur Vincent Lourié

Arthur Vincent Lourié was born to a Jewish family which, centuries before, had been expelled from medieval Spain. Lourié was completely self-taught as a musician. His earliest known works, dating from 1908, are late Romantic in style; however, within a year or two Lourié had absorbed full knowledge of the most advanced music of his day, in particular the work of Scriabin. By 1910, he had composed a String Quartet in microtones, and a distinctly French element, derived from Debussy, began to displace the Scriabinian influence around 1912.

The years 1914 - 1915 produced some amazing results from Lourié: the five pieces in Synthesis (1914) are built around chromatic "complexes" that superficially resemble Schoenberg's early twelve-tone experiments. In the Suite japonaise for voice and piano (1915) Lourié emerges as a miniaturist, growing his material out of tiny cells. For much of the piano part, the right hand plays on the white keys and the left on the black. Lourié's most radical departure from established genres occurs in Formes en l'air (Forms in the Air, dedicated to Picasso, 1914) where the score itself is broken up into fragmented, non-linear aggregates. While the music itself is so styled that it could've been organized on conventional staves, the graphic element is clearly designed to "open up" the music, so that it appears "suspended."

Lourié also shows considerable invention in vocal works setting texts of modern Russian poets, such as his friends Alexander Blok and Anna Akhmatova. By 1917, Lourié's reputation as a young Russian musician in the front rank of "Futurism" was such that with the establishment of the Soviet State, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin's personally appointed Commissar of Public Education, named Lourié Commissar of its Music Division. Lourié worked in this capacity for five years, setting up the Association of Contemporary Music and fostering a climate of encouragement for modernist tendencies. Lourié used his position to establish ties with powerful figures in Western avant-garde circles, including Stravinsky and Busoni. It was on a 1922 trip to visit Busoni in Berlin that Lourié elected not to return to Russia. This would prove fatal to his reputation among the Soviets, who aggressively sought to expunge Lourié from memory through their declaration of him as an "un-person."

Afterwards, Lourié settled in Paris and enjoyed the 1920s cultural scene. Lourié's personality was well suited to such an environment; he was nattily dressed, aristocratic, cynical, and perpetually bored. His musical style settled into a primarily modal, neo-classical vein reminiscent of Stravinsky's. While in Europe, Lourié enjoyed some fame and continued to compose prolifically, his most significant work from this period being the huge Concerto spirituale for voices and ensemble (1929). But without the prestige of his former political status, Lourié's relevance as a figure within the international scene began to fade. In 1931, Lourié had written a book on Sergey Koussevitzky, and a decade later Koussevitzky returned the favor by clearing the way for Lourié to emigrate to the safety of the United States. But from that point on, Lourié was viewed as a relic of modernism that was dead and gone.

With Lourié's death at age 84 in 1966, his extensive personal library of manuscripts was donated to the New York Public Library. Many of his works, including some of the important early pieces, are apparently no longer extant. The few pieces that have been revived since Lourié's death are highly original, attractive, and skillfully crafted, and suggests that the greater body of Lourié's large output deserves closer examination.