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A Boisterous Little Wedding

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June 23rd marks the centenary of the premiere of one of the greatest masterpieces of the past 100 years: Stravinsky’s Svádebka, better known by its French title, Les noces, or (in England) The Wedding. Stravinsky said that the Russian diminutive really should be “Peasant Wedding” rather than “Little Wedding,” but that’s what Les noces is: a boisterous occasion for bride, groom, parents, and friends. When you hear Les noces, you may feel as though you were right there, and you never forget it.

Some references call it a “dance cantata,” others call it “Russian choreographic scenes,” but we know Les noces today as 20 uninterrupted, motoric minutes of singing, shouting, pounding, wailing, and rejoicing, for four vocal soloists, SATB chorus, four pianos, and 16 percussion instruments. Stravinsky wrote about it (in “Expositions and Developments,” 1962): “Les noces is a suite of typical wedding episodes told through quotations of typical talk. The latter, whether the bride’s, the groom’s, the parents,’ or the guests,’ is always ritualistic. As a collection of clichés and quotations of typical wedding sayings it might be compared to one of those scenes in Ulysses in which the reader seems to be overhearing scraps of conversation without the connecting thread of discourse. But Les noces might also be compared to Ulysses in the larger sense that both works are trying to present rather than to describe.” Which is why the choral portions especially of Les noces are a constant meet-and-greet succession of motivic ideas, rhythmic, melodic, and percussive, one after the other; the soli (the bride’s tresses, the sorrowing mothers) are more like a 19th-century Russian folksong, with one melodic idea repeated and varied.

Stravinsky began writing the music about 1915, after thinking about it for at least three years and gradually assembling texts from Kireyevsky’s folk anthology; other compositions intervened, notably Renard and l’Histoire du soldat, and much sketching and different attempts at instrumentation (including cimbaloms, which were difficult to find, and pianolas, which proved impossible to coordinate). But the final version of Les noces (“perfectly homogeneous, perfectly impersonal, perfectly mechanical”) was complete shortly before the 1923 premiere, which Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes presented in Paris with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska  (Stravinsky’s favorite ), and with décor and costumes by Natalia Goncharova; Ernest Ansermet conducted.

Eugene Goossens conducted the London premiere in 1926 with pianists Georges Auric (who had also played in the Paris premiere), Francis Poulenc, Vittorio Rieti, and Vladimir Dukelsky (“Vernon Duke”). It baffled much of the press, but it evoked an admiring review by H. G. Wells, of all people, which has been widely reprinted. I heard my first live Les noces at Town Hall in New York in December 1959; the pianists were Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, Samuel Barber, and Roger Sessions (who supposedly practiced for 80 hours); Stravinsky conducted, and they recorded it the next day. Another memorable one took place on Boston Common in 1962 with Alfred Nash Patterson’s Chorus Pro Musica, over 100 singers strong, and with Luise Vosgerchian playing first piano. In 1964 I heard the Princeton High School Choir perform Les noces under Tom Hilbish’s direction, and this was among the best I ever heard. (The same group took Les noces to Europe that summer, using an arrangement for two pianos that had Stravinsky’s special permission; when you see in the score how much doubling there is between Pianos 1 and 3 on the one side, and between 2 and 4 on the other, you can imagine the practicality of a two-piano version incorporating judicious adjustments.) I have played Piano 3 from poorly hand-copied parts in three different performances of Les noces, including one at Tufts when my daughter sang the soprano solo. (Once I played in the four-hand version of The Rite of Spring on the same program, and I can confirm that Les noces is the more difficult pianistically.) Most of the live performances of Les noces I’ve heard have been in English, but the Cantata Singers, with David Hoose, did it in well-rehearsed Russian, a tough job to learn because of the huge amount of text; a bravo for Boston.

Stravinsky’s post-Rite of Spring harmonic language of 1914, as in his opera Solovei (The Nightingale), was often densely chromatic, approximating Schoenberg, and polytonal, but began to retrench toward familiar tonality when the Great War began soon thereafter. The tonality of Les noces shows an abundance of A minor and G minor with modal inflections, but beginning and ending in modal E major, with plenty of polychords along the way. The rhythmic organization goes beyond the frequently changing meters, to include counterpoint of different voices singing at different tempi simultaneously while the percussion provides a constant pulse or ostinato pattern — what Stravinsky would refer to as “beat” when discussing American jazz, which began to interest him during those same years. Performances of Carmina Burana seldom manage to conceal an essential hack quality, but some of that favorite concert item is redeemed by recognition of how much is swiped from moments in Les noces like this.

I hope there will be some studied performances of Les noces during the anniversary year. Performers and listeners alike can find useful ways to prepare for the event. Stravinsky’s own writings are a good place to start; likewise Richard Taruskin’s exhaustive “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions,” Volume 2, Chapter 17, pp. 1319-1440, which covers the folk-music and ethnographic sources; and several good recordings. The latter include Dmitri Pokrovsky’s (Elektra Nonesuch Explorer Series), complete with village wedding songs; and Robert Craft’s (Naxos 8. 557499, together with Oedipus Rex).

YouTube hosts numerous fine performances. We embed Dutoit’s:

Scores of Les noces are easy to find. The original edition published by J. & W. Chester (London, copyright 1922), with texts in Russian and French, has been reprinted in folio size by Dover Books; it is at once apparent that this is full of errors, and is possibly the most badly proofread of any of Stravinsky’s scores. Volume 10 (winter spring 1989) of “Journal of the Conductors’ Guild” includes my own list of some 200 corrections, prepared without reference to autograph sources; I will be glad to supply these for anyone with the patience to mark them into the Dover score. A new and thoroughly detailed critical edition of the score, by Margarita Mazo and Millan Sachania (Chester, 2005), is more authoritative.

Stravinsky wrote in 1962: “When I first played Les noces [parts 1 and 2] to Diaghilev — in 1915, at his home in Bellerive, near Lausanne — he wept and said it was the most beautiful and the most purely Russian creation of our Ballet. I think he did love Les noces more than any other work of mine. That is why it is dedicated to him.”

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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  1. Thanks to Mark DeVoto for his steadfast championing of Les Noces. The American Ballet Theater commissioned Jerome Robbins to create a new choreography. The premiere at the New York State Theater in NY City was performed on March 30, 1965. Leonard Bernstein conducted the premiere after which the ABT conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn conducted. In rehearsal – I was fortunate to be in the chorus – Mr. Bernstein was adamant in not allowing the ensemble to slight the full value of the final eighth note in the five- and seven-eight bars. In doing so, a great rhythmic power was created.

    Comment by James Olesen — June 19, 2023 at 9:23 am

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