Armand Marsick (September 20, 1877 — April 30, 1959) was a Belgian composer and a major violinist of the 20th century, the nephew of Martin Pierre Joseph Marsick (1847 – 1924), also a Belgian violin player, composer, and teacher whose violin was made by Antonio Stradivari in 1705 and has since become known as the Ex Marsick Stradivarius. Armand was born on September 20, 1877, in Liege, Belgium, the son of Martin Pierre’s brother Louis François Marsick (1843-1901). His grandfather Pierre-Joseph (1819-1888) was a lamp-maker but also a good violinist. Louis and Martin-Pierre had 16 brothers and sisters, born from two marriages. They were both to become musicians, but Louis sacrificed his career to allow Martin-Pierre to succeed in his. He was, however, as gifted as Martin-Pierre. Armand, therefore, lived in a very special environment, all the more so as his mother, before her marriage, was a wardrobe mistress at the Liège Royal Opera House. His birth was quite an event. His parents Louis and Marie already had four daughters and his birth gave them everything they could wish for – all the more so when other daughters were born later.
When Armand was five years old, his father gave him his first quarter violin and a bow which he immediately hung on the study wall. It was only when he was aged seven and after two years of music theory that the instrument was taken down and he had his first lesson with his father. From then on he made fast progress and started composing at the age of nine or ten. At the age of ten, he joined the class of Desiré Heynberg at the Liège Royal Conservatoire. He also studied the piano with J. Lebert and chamber music with R. Massart, and had his first composition lessons with Sylvain Dupuis. At the same period he composed a romance for violin and soprano. His first “official” composition was “Religious Thought” in 1894, dedicated to his sister, Berthe, the middle daughter of the family. Then in 1895, he wrote an “Adagio Pathétique” for violin and orchestra and, in 1896, a Cantata in two voices for boys and girls entitled “To science.” In 1897 at the age of nineteen, he won the silver-gilt medal at the higher violin competition, the same as his father had won.
In 1897, Marsick left Liège for Nancy, France, where he was appointed first violin with the Theatre and the Conservatoire Orchestra. He joined the composition class of Guy Ropartz, but he also performed as a soloist, particularly at Le Havre where a fine career as an instrumentalist was predicted for him. Then he arrived in Paris where he was to stay for ten years. Thanks to his uncle, Armand came onto the Parisian musical scene. While attending lessons with Leneveu and Vincent d’Indy at the Conservatoire, he immediately became first violin at the Concerts Colonne and the Opéra Comique, a function that was rarely entrusted to a foreigner. It was in this position that he performed “La Mer” with Claude Debussy himself. This period was also his most creative, and Armand then composed the sonata for violin and piano in 1900; “Stèle Funéraire” in memory of his father (1902); “La Jane,” his first lyrical work; the passionate “Improvisation et Final” for cello and orchestra; “La Source” (1908); and “Les Scènes de Montagne,” which he finished later in Greece.
Marsick unsuccessfully attempted the Prix de Rome competition in 1906 and was terribly disappointed at what he felt was an unfair result. Therefore, at the end of 1908 he embarked for Athens, Greece, where, on the recommendation of Edouard Colonne, he was appointed conductor of the symphony orchestra and professor at the Odeon (the Conservatoire). Everything in the musical field needed to be set up in Athens. G. Nazos had already undertaken great reforms. Armand Marsick skilfully completed them in the theory, harmony and counterpoint classes taking as inspiration the organization of the Paris and Brussels Conservatoires. In 1909, he was appointed “Ephor” of higher studies at the Odeon. Among his more notable students were G. Sklavos and, above all, Dimitri Mitropoulos, the future conductor. Meanwhile, he married Paola Sampieri in Rome on October 7 1910. For her and for this ceremony he composed a very moving work for the organ: “Poème Nuptial.” In 1913, he also studied the organization of the Conservatoires of Italy and Germany.
It was in Athens, in particular, that the talents of Marsick were able to blossom fully. He was revealed as a teacher, a reformer of studies at the Conservatoire, as the creator and conductor of the Symphony Orchestra, as a composer wishing to take his inspiration from Greek, musical folklore and above all noting down the tunes with methods akin to those of an archaeologist and innovator, in particular when transcribing the oriental modulations of this popular music. Soon foreign reinforcements allowed comparison with the best European orchestras. He gave many concerts and not only in Athens – which enabled Greek music-lovers to hear the essential part of the repertoire, even though it was dominated by Saint-Saëns, the followers of Franck and Wagner. He also conducted many compositions of Greek musicians who were totally unknown in the rest of the world. In this field, he was always looking for composers who were little known or unknown to the public. Thus it would seem that he was the first to have conducted the symphonies of Gustave Mahler in Belgium.
Even though Marsick was very taken up with his occupations at the conservatoire and with the orchestra, he composed several great works such as the composition he completed known as Mountain Scenes. Marsick began to explore Greek musical folklore by participating in several expeditions to the Peloponnese and Aegean Islands. He noted all these folklore airs which were later published in Athens. A number of folklore themes inspired the composer that he was, particularly in the prelude of the second act of his opera Lara, completed in 1914, and in the Greek Tableaux composed during a night crossing between Piraeus and Brindisi. In 1915 he began “The Nuptial Ring,” his last lyrical drama. His last noteworthy event at Athens was the Saint-Saens festival in 1920. Aged 85, Saint Saëns came to the festival which took place at the Municipal Theatre and the Herod Atticus Theatre at the foot of the Acropolis.
However, the Turkish-Greek war was making the political climate very unhealthy. The Marsick family left Greece (their son, Paul-Louis, had been born in 1916). The cosmopolitan nature of the family was all the more accentuated by its taking root in Spain. Armand had just been appointed as the first Director of the new conservatoire in Bilbao. He took up his post on February 25, 1922, and on March 8 conducted the newly-formed orchestra’s first concert. It became the “Orquestra Sinfónica de Bilbao” of today. Armand devoted himself entirely to the conservatoire and the orchestra. He revealed French music to the Spaniards. Concerts were sold out on subscription. Many artists came to perform in Bilbao at the time. The family remained in Bilbao until 1927.
After exactly thirty years of absence, Marsick returned to Belgium where he was immediately appointed professor of harmony at the Royal Conservatory of Liège (1927-1942). He created the “Liège Association for Popular Concerts,” better known by the name “the Marsick Concerts” (1927-1939). His return to Belgium had also been marked by new compositions such as “Oriental Pace and Dance” (1929). In 1933 a great event took place in Jupille (a locality in the suburbs of Liège) when a commemorative plate was inaugurated at the birthplace of Martin-Pierre Marsick. Armand conducted the concert with, in particular, the Triple Concerto by Vivaldi, performed by Carl Flesch, Thibaud, and Enesco. “Tableaux of a Journey” was composed in 1937. In 1938, he had great pleasure in returning to Greece where he conducted “his” orchestra at the Olympia Theatre, for an evening performance in homage. The Water Exhibition in Liège, in 1939, marked the end of the Liège concerts. “Loustics en fête” was composed in 1939. Ten years later he wrote his last works: a “Quatuor for horns” and “Three Symphonic Pieces.” He conducted the “Marsick Concerts” in Brussels from 1942 to 1945.
From then on, after the war, Marsick shared his time between chairing panels and his new vocation as a grandfather. He was an indefatigable walker and took his grandchildren into the Soignes Forest (to the south-east of Brussels where he had lived from 1927) and on rainy days took them to museums, especially the 50th Anniversary Art and History Museum, near his home. But he also went with them to the theatre, concerts, opera. From this blessed time onwards there remained one of the last concerts of Jacques Thibaud in Belgium under his leadership and the festivities organized in Brussels for his 80th birthday in 1957. On the night of his death, he sang all his operas for the last time and took his last breath at 81 years old in the early morning of April 30, 1959, at his home in Haine-Saint-Paul, Belgium. On May 1, his son, Paul-Louis, performed “The Grecian Tableaux” with the Belgian National Orchestra. Ten years later, to the day, Paul-Louis died.
The following works by Armand Marsick are contained in my CD collection:
La Source (symphonic poem).
Scenes de Montagne (symphonic poem).
Stele (symphonic poem).