The Symphonies of Wind Instruments, composed in 1920--seven years after The Rite of Spring--is one of Igor Stravinsky's most original and influential compositions. A poor premiere performance (Stravinsky later referred to it as the "execution of my Symphonies in the literal, firing-squad sense") and the work's austere effect meant that it was not greeted with the rioting of The Rite of Spring's premiere. Nevertheless, later composers have been fascinated and influenced by the work and it has left an indelible mark on twentieth- and twenty-first century music.
It began as a chorale for piano composed in honor of Debussy (who had died not long before), and Stravinsky expanded the chorale into the Symphonies very shortly thereafter.
Stravinsky intended the title to refer to "sounding together" rather than to symphonic music--the work stands at a distance from traditionally "symphonic" music, presenting the listener with a mosaic of related fragments that juxtaposed, rather than developed. The most tranquil and extended passage, the memorial chorale, is used as a finale, ending the work with an air of quiet meditation.
Stravinsky's unorthodox approach to form baffled audiences, critics, theorists, and fellow composers for decades until the musicologist Richard Taruskin demonstrated that the form of the piece follows that of the Russian Orthodox panikhida--the service for the dead. The panikhida contains hymns and litanies with choral responses as well as ritual bells and chanting, and all of these elements can be heard as the work unfolds. The Symphonies, therefore, are connected both with Stravinsky's "Russian" pieces and with his lifelong fascination with rituals and memorials--from early works like Les Noces and The Rite of Spring to later memorials such as In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, Elegy for JFK, and Monumentum pro Gesualdo.
The pankhida service begins with bells and a reading of Psalm 118 followed by a litany with choral responses, all of which can be heard in the opening passage of Stravinsky's work. The sections that follow are references to chant, litanies, and choral refrains, and the final choral sublimates an eclectic wealth of material into the mass's "Eternal Remembrance."
The ensemble eschews strings in favor of austere yet colorful winds. The work is performed this evening in its original version from 1920. Stravinsky revised it in 1947, simplifying both the instrumentation and the problems for the conductor (perhaps because he was often conducting his own works at that time--most available evidence indicates that the revision was made for practical rather than artistic reasons). The 1947 version was the only one known until recently, but a modern edition of the 1920 version makes it possible for us now to hear Stravinsky's original.
According to Stravinsky, in 1936: "I did not, and indeed I could not, count on any immediate success for this work. It lacks all those elements that infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener, or to which he is accustomed...It is an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies...This music is not meant to 'please' and audience, not to arouse its passions."
Panikhida [Eastern Orthodox Service for the Dead]
I. Psalm 118
II. Velikaya ykteniya (Great litany; with choral response)
III. Tropar'o usopshikh (Strophic choral anthem, with refrain)
IV. Ekteniya (Small litany)
VI. Vechnaya panjat (Eternal Remembrance)
Igor Stravinsky, Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920 version)
Eastman Wind Ensemble, Frederick Fennell, conductor