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Igor Stravinsky: "Symphonies of Wind Instruments"

Symphonies of Wind Instruments

Igor Stravinsky

Throughout his career, Stravinsky was occupied with memorial works, ranging from the Chant Funebre of 1908 (composed on the death of Rimsky Korsakov) to the late works, Elegy for J.F.K. and the orchestral variations Aldous Huxley in Memoriam. He was also fascinated with ritual music from the ancient, pagan rituals of The Rite of Spring and Les Noces to the later, Christian-inspired Mass, Canticum Sacrum and Requiem Canticles.

The Symphonies of Wind Instruments, one of Stravinsky’s most striking and personal compositions, embodies both memorial and ritualistic aspects. It originated with sketches for a work for harmonium inspired by the death of Claude Debussy in March 1918. Stravinsky was more than an admirer of Debussy’s art. The French musician had taken an enthusiastic interest in his early compositions, and Stravinsky remembered him as “one whose great friendship had been marked with unfailing kindness towards myself and my work.” Subsequent sketches contain notations for string quartet. The two duets for flute and clarinet (alto flute and alto clarinet in the 1920 version), for example, were originally scored for violin and viola. There originally were three duets in the Symphonies, but Stravinsky removed one—which later became the waltz variation in the second movement of the Octet.

In April 1920 Stravinsky was invited to contribute a piece for a special edition of the Revue musicale dedicated to Debussy’s memory; Stravinsky contributed a short piano piece in the form of a chorale titled Fragment des Symphonies pour instruments a vent. This chorale became the cornerstone for the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, completed in November 1920. It was first performed in London in 1921 conducted by Serge Koussevitsky, and made almost no impression on the audience. The acoustics of the room, the placement of the work in the program and the performance itself may have all played a role in the cool reception of the work. Stravinsky later made acerbic reference to the occasion as “Koussevitsky’s execution, in the literal, firing-squad sense, of my Symphonies of Winds.

In 1945, Stravinsky made a revised version (published in 1947), omitting the ‘exotic’ instruments (alto flute and alto clarinet) and reworking the music. The revised version also has some minor additions, and is completely rethought in terms of its rhythmic and metric structure. Like the Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet, the original sketch-score of the Symphonies was written without meter, and Stravinsky commented, “The phrasing of the sketch score differs strikingly from both of the published scores (1920 and 1947), which in turn are so different from each other in this respect (cf. the horns and trumpets at the return of the first motive following the flute clarinet duet) that the two versions will continue to be played as two different pieces, or, more likely, just as now, will continue not to be played.” Commenting on the piece in his autobiography, he wrote: “I did not, indeed I could not, count on any success for this work. It is devoid of all the elements which infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener and to which he is accustomed. It would be futile to look in it for any passionate impulse or dynamic brilliance.”

Stravinsky described the music at different times as, “a grand chant, an objective cry,” and “an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogenous instruments.” The concept of the piece as a funeral ritual is reinforced by passages reminiscent of religious chants and of bells.

The work is highly sectional, presenting the listener with blocks of contrasting material juxtaposed without modulation or transition. Stravinsky begins the work’s single movement by quickly presenting several ideas of importance to the work. The first, a bell-like passage in the high woodwinds punctuated by terse interjections from the brass, is followed by solemn chords from the chorale, a snatch of an energetic tune, and a more chant-like theme assigned to the flutes and clarinets.

The use of wind ensemble without strings allows the music to be scored for maximum contrast, and these sections recur rapidly and abruptly through a succession of developmental episodes. The middle portion of the work is given over largely to contrasting the chant and energetic music, but always Stravinsky returns to fragments of the chorale theme, until we are led gradually to the culminating chorale.

The form of the work baffled audiences and theorists alike until Richard Taruskin noted striking similarities between the sections of the work—their melodic content, their length and their ordering—and the sections of the Russian Orthodox funeral mass.

The two versions of the work can indeed be viewed as separate pieces, and Malcolm MacDonald in the preface to the corrected 1920 score sums up the differences perfectly, writing, “Briefly stated, the original version is the redolent of the liturgy and Russian orthodox church music; the revised version is more abstract, more a Cubist play of colors and planes.”

Although Stravinsky did not regard this as one of his religious works, he described its music in terms of “short litanies” and “liturgical dialogue.” He even once considered including the final section of the piece in a concert of his sacred music held in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. The music’s austere beauty would not have been out of place.

- Program Note by Michael Votta

Additional Resources:

Igor Stravinsky, Symphonies of Wind Instruments London Sinfonietta, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

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