Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

Inspired by a Roman Catholic requiem mass, Stravinsky dedicated this piece to the memory of Helen Buchanan Seeger, a benefactor of Princeton University, where it was first performed in 1966. The conductor was Stravinsky’s friend and artistic collaborator, Robert Craft. The last major work written in his life, the piece is full of echoes of earlier works by Stravinsky.

In an interview with the composer which took place shortly after this work’s completion, Stravinsky said,

“The idea of the triangular instrumental frame—string prelude, wind-instrumental interlude, percussion postlude—came quickly, and then I began to compose the . . . formal lament. The prelude puzzled its first audience. Some thought it too light, while others said it was like Bartók and even the beginning of Mozart’s ‘Dissonant’ Quartet. I think, nevertheless that its ‘preluding’ manner is precisely suited to the musical matter to be expounded. But some people professed to hear curious echoes in other sections of the work as well, of Oedipus Rex in the ‘Tuba mirum,’ The Wedding in the ‘Postlude,’ . . . Still, most listeners seemed to find it the easiest to take home of my last period—or last-ditch period—music, and though I know of no universal decision as to whether it is to be thought of as compressed or merely brief, I think the opus may safely be called the first mini- or pocket-Requiem.”

It was played at his funeral in Venice in 1971 with, again, Craft conducting. According to his wife, Vera, “He and we knew he was writing it for himself.” Craft described the closing Postlude as “the chord of Death, followed by silence, the tolling of bells, and again silence, all thrice repeated, then the three final chords of Death alone.”

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

Stravinsky composed this piece in the memory of his mentor and fellow composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who passed away in 1908. It was premiered at a concert in St. Petersburg shortly after Rimsky’s death. In the 1960 book Memories and Commentaries, Stravinsky said:

“. . . I remember the piece as the best of my works before The Firebird, and the most advanced in chromatic harmony. The orchestral parts must have been preserved in one of the St. Petersburg orchestra libraries; I wish someone in Leningrad would look for the parts, for I would be curious myself to see what I was composing just before The Firebird.”

The parts, which were considered lost and thought to have been destroyed in a fire, were finally recovered in 2015 by Natalia Braginskaya, dean of the musicology department at the St. Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory. The piece received its second-ever performance on December 2, 2016 in St. Petersburg, with Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra, and was premiered in New York by the New York Philharmonic on April 27, 2017.

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms

Notes by Steve V. Sinclair

This piece was quite interestingly orchestrated, calling for four wind instruments per part (but no clarinets), a string section with only cello and double bass, and a four-part mixed chorus comprised entirely of children. While Stravinsky wrote in the score that “the choir should contain children’s voices,” he also added that they “may be replaced by female voices (soprano and alto).” As a result, most performances of this piece usually include an adult chorus. He also insisted that the piece always be performed in Latin, never in translation.

It was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1930, alongside new works by Sergei Prokofiev, Arthur Honneger, Albert Roussel, and Aaron Copland. Two factors were responsible for the form of this piece; first, Stravinsky had long contemplated composing “a work of considerable scope,” and second, he had recently returned to the Russian Orthodox faith of his youth. Koussevitzky had suggested that he write something “popular,” but Stravinsky was set on his Symphony of Psalms, responding only by choosing Psalm 150 because of its popularity.

For the commission, Stravinsky wrote a clause into his contract, mandating that if Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony didn’t give the premiere of Symphony of Psalms by late November of 1930, an orchestra in Europe could give the premiere instead. So while the piece premiered in Brussels, the Boston Symphony played it for the first time six days later. The critics were reserved but positive about Stravinsky’s new piece. One wrote, “Its originality is too great for it to have instant popular appeal.” Another critic liked only the ending and the beginning, writing “at the outset Stravinsky’s so-called symphony arrested and gripped the listener. There was a semi-barbaric wildness in the opening measures.”