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.”