Continuing my series of program notes:
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Les Noces (The Wedding/Свадебка (Svadebka))
Steven Stucky (born 1949)
Scene 1: At the Bride’s House (‘The Tresses’)
Scene 2: At the Bridegroom’s House
Scene 3: The Bride’s Departure
Scene 1: The Wedding Feast (The Red Table)
When, in 1915, Stravinsky first played Les Noces to the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, Diaghilev wept. According to Stravinsky, Diaghilev said it was ‘the most beautiful and most purely Russian creation of our Ballet. I think he did love Les Noces more than any other work of mine.’
The ‘Russianness’ of Les Noces’ may not be so apparent to listeners expecting the colourful fantasies or ecstasies of a Rimsky-Korsakov or Scriabin, or the melancholic depths of a Tchaikovsky. But it does have an earthy authenticity and a two-dimensionality (there are basically only two tempos) that remind us of folk art. The original production choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska (Nijinsky’s sister) and designed by Natalia Gontcharova (and viewable on YouTube in productions by the Royal Ballet and the Mariinsky) looks as if inspired by woodcuts.
Les Noces is, in a sense, a black and white follow up to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, except that in The Rite the virgin dances herself to death; in Les Noces, she is led away with her groom to begin a rustic marriage. The libretto, created by Stravinsky from traditional lyrics compiled in 1911 by the ethnographer, P.V. Kireyevsky, is a suite of four episodes told through quotations of typical talk. As Eric Walter White says, ‘...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.’ There is no narrative; only occasional stage directions. But we can work out the broad action – the plaiting of the bride’s tresses, the preparation of the groom’s locks, their departure for the marriage bed and the wedding festivities including some very drunk guests. Voices are assigned freely to various parts. All-up, the effect is, as Stravinsky wanted, impersonal – but perhaps deep as a result. Just as in his Mass, Stravinsky could be regarded as aspiring to the practical virtues of a genuine ritual.
As far as the music is concerned, Stravinsky’s metres often follow the irregular patterns of Russian popular verse, and there are some pre-existing tunes, such as the altered liturgical chant for a duet of basses. Stravinsky’s cellular melodic structure may be derived from Russian folksong, but in his permutation of the cells we can perhaps glimpse the Serialist that he became in later life. It’s in the area of orchestration that the work retains its focus tonight.
A work for soloists and chorus was always at the forefront of Stravinsky’s mind. But instrumentally, Stravinsky first wanted a ‘super-Sacre’ orchestra, that is: one comprising 150 musicians, bigger than the juggernaut he had created for Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). No draft of this version exists, but a later version (1915-17) is scored for, what tonight’s orchestrator Steven Stucky calls ‘an idiosyncratic combination’ of 27 winds and brass, eight strings, harp, piano, harpsichord, and Hungarian cimbalom. Next came another idiosyncratic version for two cimbaloms, harmonium, pianola, and percussion. Finally, in 1922-23, Stravinsky struck on the ‘perfectly homogeneous’ combination of four pianos and four percussionists, the version most often heard today.
In 2005, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Esa-Pekka Salonen asked Steven Stucky to write a version of Les Noces for conventional orchestra, which was premiered in 2008. A Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, whose recent premieres include Silent Spring with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Stucky has had a long association with the LA Phil, most recently as Consulting Composer for New Music.
Stucky has said that he ‘kept Stravinsky’s four percussionists intact, simply replacing the four pianos with an orchestra of conventional size and makeup.’ The task was not simple though, as he had to learn Stravinsky’s language thoroughly to remain faithful to the work. Removing the mechanical sound of the four pianos had a significant impact on the impression made by the music, but this new version, he says, will ‘help reveal the close relationship between this music and Stravinsky’s earlier, more familiar Sacre and Petrushka’.
It may also dramatise a smoother transition between The Rite and Stravinsky’s later neo-classical works. In any case, says Stucky: ‘My orchestration is not meant to replace Stravinsky’s definitive 1923 version, but rather to offer a fresh lens through which to appreciate this uniquely original masterpiece.’
Gordon Kalton Williams © 2012
This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International (http://symphonyinternational.net/). Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:
Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013
Wagner's Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene), published 31 July 2013
Liszt's Tasso, published 2 August 2013
For more on Stravinsky, see Igor in Oz - Stravinsky Downunder, published 12 July 2012