Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Symphonies of Wind Instruments

Among the pieces written in response to Henry Prunière's call for contributions to a supplement to the Revue Musicale in 1920 to commemorate Debussy, who had died in 1918, one stuck out: where most of the contributing composers (including Falla, Bartók and Ravel) responded with conventionally threnodic or wistful miniatures, Igor Stravinsky offered a cool, austere chorale, bearing the title: "Fragment des Symphonies pour instruments à vent à la mémoire de Claude Achille Debussy".

The complete work, to which this fragment forms the conclusion, in fact has its origins in sketches Stravinsky had made in 1919, while the opening motif was noted down on March 26th, 1918, just after he had learned of the death of Debussy the day before. Most of these sketches indicate that Stravinsky's original intention was to score this music for strings and harmonium, and it seems that they did not find their final form as wind music until much later on, the unrefusable request for a memorial to Debussy providing the final push Stravinsky needed to realise the work's definitive form. As the pluralisation implies, "Symphonies" is not used to denote anything like a conventional classical symphony, but rather harks back to the word's earlier meaning as a generic term for ensemble music (from the Greek "syn" [together] and "phone" [sound]).

The dedication is at least partly ironic; while Stravinsky and Debussy were friends, their relationship was characterised by a certain friction, attributable on Debussy's part to jealousy at the greater fame Stravinsky had achieved, and on Stravinsky's side to resentment at the older composer's occasionally condescending attitude. Debussy did not approve of the more cosmopolitan style that the Russian had been experimenting with, writing to him in 1915 to say;" Cher Stravinsky, you are a great artist! Be, with all your energy, a great Russian artist! It is a good thing to be from one's country, to be attached to the earth like the humblest peasant!"

Stravinsky, however, was by the time of Debussy's death determined to put as much space as possible between himself and his roots. Any hopes he may have entertained about returning to Russia were destroyed after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, after which his modernist style made him persona non grata with the new regime, and it is surely not coincidental that within 2 years he composed Pulcinella, the work which effected a seismic shift in his career, rejecting the Russian folkloristic style that had characterised his greatest successes (not least the Rite of Spring) in favour of the ironic, distanced world of what would become known as neo-classicism. The Symphonies of Winds therefore stands as the last recognisably "Russian" work he produced until the Requiem Canticles some 50 years later - shortly after he visited Russia for the first time since the First World War.

This all goes deeper than mere stylistic turns, though. The structure of the Symphonies, hailed in its early years as something radical, in fact is related very closely to the Russian Orthodox burial service, to the point that one can virtually superimpose the prayers of the service onto the melodic lines that weave their way through the work's short, but intense path. It may be that this work is intended as a burial, not only of Debussy, but also of Stravinsky's own identity as a Russian composer.

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