How often does one get a chance to hear a major new work by Stravinsky? I am at least elementarily familiar with every known work of his; I was present in 1959 for the world premiere of the Double Canon in memoriam Raoul Dufy; ten years later I heard the first performances of the incomplete abandoned scorings of what eventually became Les noces (Russian title, Svádebka, or, sometimes in English, The Wedding); like everybody else, I watched the 1962 premiere on CBS television of The Flood, with its silly choreography by Balanchine and offensive Breck shampoo commercials. But on Friday afternoon, on Medici.tv, on my own 23-inch computer screen, I watched and listened to Stravinsky’s Pogrebal’naya pesnya,op. 5. (The composer referred to it in his writings by a French title, Chant funèbre, but the English Funeral Song is likely to become standard.) This was streamed live from the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, with the Maryinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. It was billed as a world premiere, but it wasn’t. In this the same hall, the Funeral Song had been performed just once before, on January 17, 1909, in memory of Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, as part of Byelayev’s Russian Symphony Concerts, conducted by Felix Blumenfeld.
The Funeral Song has a curious history. The manuscript score was lost after the premiere, the victim of two German invasions of Ustilug in Volhynia (Ukraine) where Stravinsky had a summer home until 1914, and of official Soviet disregard after 1945. He wrote in his Chroniques de ma vie (Autobiography, 1936):
I can no longer remember the music, but I can remember the idea at the root of its conception, which was that all the solo instruments of the orchestra filed past the tomb of the master in succession, each laying down its own melody as its wreath against a deep background of tremolo murmurings simulating the vibrations of bass voices singing in chorus.
At age 78, he wrote in Memories and Commentaries (1960):
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’.
In fact, a set of professionally-copied orchestra parts, beautifully calligraphed, but no copy of the score, did turn up exactly where Stravinsky had surmised they would be, in 2015, after a careful search by the musicologist Natalia Braginskaya, who led a team that reconstructed the score that will be the basis for an eventual publication by Boosey & Hawkes. Pogrebal’naya pesnya is 107 measures long, perhaps entirely in 6/4 meter, lasting 12 minutes. The Medici-TV link will be available for another 88 days here.
Stravinsky’s own memory of his Funeral Song was partly flawed. In 1960 he spoke of it as for wind instruments, but in fact it is for full orchestra, with woodwinds by threes. (Stravinsky’s own Symphonies of Wind Instruments, composed 1919-1920 in memory of Debussy, might have been at the back of his mind.) As for “most advanced in chromatic harmony,” my impression is that Funeral Song is hardly more chromatic, though less firmly anchored in a single key (mostly A minor), than either Scherzo fantastique or Fireworks; I was reminded of Liszt’s late symphonic poems and little piano pieces, Lyadov’s Enchanted Lake, and even some of the rich Tristanesque harmony of the slow movement of Chausson’s Symphony. The dark low-register textures at the beginning of Funeral Song are gloomier than those at the beginning of Firebird, where the tonality is more certain. The piece develops slowly but convincingly, and its expression is direct and smooth, though not very procession-like, in three main sections. The woodwind figure marking the beginning and near the end calls to mind the wedge chromaticism of Boris Godunov’s nightmare visions in Act II of that opera (it influenced Debussy as well), but this was less important than principal melodic motif of the middle section, recurring many times between different parts of the orchestra.
These intense statements might be the different instrumental “wreaths” that Stravinsky remembered in 1936. Wind sound does indeed predominate, with the strings mostly in the background, and near the end there is some luminous harmony in full winds, alternating triads in A minor, C minor, and E-flat minor, similar to what one hears in the beginning of Part II of The Rite of Spring and in Zvyezdoliki .
In all, the Funeral Song, by a then-unknown composer just 26 years old, reveals not only the confidence of maturity but also suggestions of a genius soon to be blazingly apparent. It is beautiful in expression and orchestral sound, and is well worth admission to the permanent concert repertory; orchestras that can afford the rental fee will surely take it up because it is, after all, an unknown work by a great 20th-century master.
The concert, beginning at about 2:15 Boston time, took place in a rebuilt Maryinsky Theater, now constructed as a more or less a theater-in-the-round with maybe 60 seats directly behind the orchestra in each of two balconies; this is very different from what Stravinsky enjoyed during the years when his father sang there and Rimsky-Korsakov conducted his operas, but probably not much bigger. A brief address preceded from some official whose name I didn’t get (I think he represented the St. Petersburg International Cultural Forum, which sponsored the concert), and who then introduced Natalia Braginskaya; she described the rediscovery of the lost work, and offered thanks and praise for the team that brought it to light; all this was translated on the spot paragraph by paragraph into English. Gergiev then appeared at 2:34, and conducted a 25-minute-long Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov’s next-to-last opera, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maid Fevronia, which I had seen staged by Sarah Caldwell in Boston in I think 1983 or 1984. It was especially interesting to realize how much of this music, some of it very attractive, and some of it too prolonged, provided inspiration for Firebird. Stravinsky’s Funeral Song then followed.
For a final item, with no intermission, Gergiev led the orchestra in the complete Firebird ballet (Zhar-ptitsa in Russian). I admired his conducting throughout the concert, notwithstanding that he was delicately unshaven (very becoming, really) and without a necktie (I approve even more), and used no baton (I figured that was up to him, but I still disapprove of the teacup fingers). What was most admirable was the attention paid by the players at every instant, and there was a good deal of first-rate solo playing, too, in a work that abounds in instrumental virtuosity and rich solo opportunities. The first oboe was especially good; likewise, the principal horn; but everybody played well. There were some things that puzzled me. Firebird calls for three trumpets in B flat and A, plus three additional trumpets offstage for the Daybreak scene; I saw three ordinary piston-valved trumpets that could have been B flat or C, but also a rotary-valved instrument that could have been the tromba contralta that Rimsky-Korsakov claimed to have invented. When the orchestra came on stage I distinctly saw a tenor tuba sit down next to the contrabass tuba; but I never saw it again in any of the three works played; it might have been in lieu of the offstage Wagner tubas called for, but seldom used, at the entrance Kashchei the Immortal. As for Gergiev’s directing, I couldn’t help noticing that he treated the Khorovod (round dance) and Berceuse with exaggerated rubato and swelly < > dynamics, which to my mind made these pieces sound sentimental; and at no. 116, plainly marked stringendo, he gave us a big rit. On the other hand, the eight bars of 3/4 at no. 178, almost invariably taken at half tempo by every conductor including Stravinsky himself, Gergiev pushed ahead at the notated (and almost impossibly difficult) speed—and that was an exciting surprise.