Program Notes

By Jason Sundram

Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947 version)

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Igor Feodorovich Stravinsky (June 17, 1882–April 6, 1971)

Stravinsky’s father sung bass at the major opera house of St. Petersburg. Through his father, Stravinsky learned music, absorbed Italian, French and Russian opera; he also studied piano, score-reading, and improvisation. He was not expected to be a musician; he studied law at the University of St. Petersburg. He didn’t study very hard, however, and through the friendship of Rimsky-Korsakov’s son, he obtained an apprenticeship which lasted from 1903 until Rimsky’s death in 1908. Stravinsky’s early success with Petrushka, The Rite of Spring and Firebird allowed him to be a professional composer: he played and conducted only his own music.

In 1920, the Revue Musicale published a suite of piano pieces in memory of Debussy, who had passed away two years earlier. They commissioned Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which was published in the memorial anthology as a chorale for solo piano. Though it was dedicated to the memory of Debussy, there is no trace of Debussy’s style in this music. Rimsky-Korsakov warned Stravinsky about Debussy: “Better not to listen to him; one runs the risk of getting accustomed to him, and one would end by liking him.” By 1959, Stravinsky had far outgrown Rimsky’s influence. He said: “The musicians of my generation and I myself owe the most to Debussy."

The title “Symphonies” is deceptive. Rather than symphonic form per se, the title reflects a need for a structuring principle akin to that of the symphony, a new form for abstract instrumental works. Most of Stravinsky’s orchestral work to this point had been suites and rearrangements from stage works, not “pure” or “abstract” music. Symphonies typifies Stravinsky’s “Russian” phase, though there is a very slight foreshadowing of neoclassical idioms; a “classicising tendency” that is not yet doctrine. The work uses modes to replace traditional tonality and contrasts mobile articulated eighth notes with haltingly abrupt chords. It is also notable for its use of tone color to make shapes and lines stand out.

In the 1940s, Stravinsky began to revise his earlier works. The revisions allowed him to use new methods to solve the musical problems at the heart of the works. The 1947 revision of Symphonies brought substantial differences. The changes tended to improve resonance, rather than intensify dissonance, they also improved articulation of successive chords. Stravinsky chose to strengthen, rather than alter, the “color” differences that are characteristic of his early work. In the revision, the only change in the orchestration was to substitute flute and clarinet for the outmoded alto flute and basset horn. However, he overhauled the scoring to produce a “reedier” and more incisive sound, diminishing the presence of the French horn, while increasing that of the oboes, English horn and contrabassoon. In Stravinsky’s words, Symphonies “has the character of ritual, but is abstracted from any context.”