Born into a prosperous Jewish family, he converted to Catholicism while still in Russia. An admirer of van Gogh, from whom he derived the name ‘Vincent’, Lourié was partly self-taught, but also studied piano with Barinova and composition with Glazunov at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, graduating in 1913. He became friendly with the Futurist poets and particularly Anna Akhmatova, whose poetry he was among the first to set. He was also acquainted with Vladimir Mayakovsky, Nikolai Kulbin, Fyodor Sologub and Alexander Blok; and was deeply influenced by contemporary art. His early piano pieces, from 1908 onward, take on from the late works of Scriabin but evolve new kinds of discourse, arriving in 1914 at an early form of dodecaphony (the Synthèses) and in 1915 at the Formes en l’air, dedicated to Picasso, a rather Cubist conception using an innovative form of notation in which different systems are placed spatially on the page in independent blocks, with blanks instead of bars’ rest. At this stage of his career he seems a parallel figure to Nikolai Roslavets, though Lourié’s aesthetic appears more ‘decadent’. Essentially he was the first Russian Futurist in music, and in 1914 was the co-signatory, with the painter Georgy Yakulov and the poet Benedikt Livshitz, of the Petersburg Futurist Manifesto, ‘We and the West’, proclaiming principles common to all three arts.
After the Revolution of 1917 Lourié served under Lunacharsky as head of the music division of the Commissariat of Popular Enlightenment (Narkompros). For a while he shared a house with Serge Sudeikin and his wife Vera Sudeikina. Though his sympathies were initially Leftist he became increasingly disenchanted with the new order in Russia. In 1921 he went on an official visit to Berlin, where he befriended Busoni, and from which he failed to return. His works were thereafter proscribed in the USSR. In 1922 he settled in Paris, where he became friends with the philosopher Jacques Maritain and was introduced to Stravinsky by Vera Sudeykina. From 1924 to 1931 he was one of Stravinsky’s most important champions, often becoming part of the Stravinsky household as he wrote articles about his fellow composer and preparing piano reductions of his works. He and the Stravinskys eventually parted company over a feud with Vera, and Stravinsky seldom afterwards mentioned his existence. In his works of the Paris years Lourié’s early radicalism turns to an astringent form of neoclassicism and Russophile nostalgia; a dialogue with Stravinsky’s works of the same period is evident, even to the extent that Stravinsky may have taken ideas from the younger composer: Lourié’s A Little Chamber Music (1924) seems to prophesy Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète (1927), his Concerto spirituale for chorus, piano and orchestra (1929) the latter’s Symphony of Psalms (1930). Certainly in his later works Stravinsky adopted Lourié’s style of notation with blank space instead of empty bars. Lourié also composed two symphonies (No.1 subtitled Sinfonia dialectica) and an opera, The Feast in a Time of Plague. A man of very wide culture, who cultivated the image of a dandy and aesthete, he set poems of Sappho, Pushkin, Heine, Verlaine, Blok, Mayakovsky, Dante, classical Latin and medieval French poets. He was also a talented painter.
When the Germans occupied Paris in 1941, Lourié fled to the USA, assisted by Serge Koussevitzky. He settled in New York. He wrote some film scores but gained almost no performances for his more serious works, though he continued to compose. He spent over ten years writing an opera after Pushkin’s Peter the Great’s Negro, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, so far unperformed, though a lapidary orchestral suite has been recorded. He also composed a setting of sections from T. S. Eliot’s Little Gidding for tenor and instruments (1959): this could be seen as another instance of pre-Stravinsky-ing Stravinsky, who set one of the same texts as the anthem The Dove Descending in 1962.