Posts Tagged: chicago symphony

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song – UPDATES

I made the above video this past December, very shortly after the “re-premiere” of Stravinksy’s Chant funèbre (Funeral Song) Op. 5. Basically this piece is one of only a handful of works that young Igor completed prior to his astonishing success with The Firebird. It was re-discovered just in 2015 and re-premiered by Valery Gergiev and the Mariyinsky Orchestra in St. Petersburg.

This past weekend I was in Chicago giving pre-concert lectures for the Chicago Symphony at the U.S. premiere (actually, the North American premiere… actually the Americas premiere) of this work which was given by the CSO with Charles Dutoit. I did a whole new round of research and I just thought I’d update/clarify a few things from this video:

1. It’s really sunk in just how amazing the progress that Stravinsky made from his earliest completed compositions to The Firebird. His first real work (though, he didn’t give it an opus number) is a piano sonata in F# minor. Listen to this:

which basically sounds like Victorian salon music that could have been written by Chopin or Schumann (with, perhaps, tinges of Grieg) and compare it to Katscheï’s dance:

The sonata was written when Stravinsky was about 22 (he got a very late start as a composer, though he had soaked up tons of the Russian operatic repertoire through his father, a notable bass soloist); Firebird came just 5 years later. Show me another composer who made such progress in such a short time!

2. Speaking of King Kashchei (or however you want to spell it) it turns out that Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, had written an opera on that very same subject just a couple of years before Stravinsky began studying with him. There’s a definite commonality between the opening of Rimsky’s opera, the opening of the Chant funèbre, and the opening of The Firebird:

3. I talk a lot in the video above about chromatic music v. diatonic music, but since making it, I’ve delved more deeply into Rimsky-Korsakov’s own octatonicism and it turns out that probably has an even greater impact on the Chant funèbre.

4. There’s also a bit of history that I was able to suss out. Stravinsky’s memory of the Chant funèbre, it turns out, was pretty hazy; for one thing, he recollected having scored it for winds alone, rather than for full (Wagnerian) orchestra. Another thing that he either got mixed up about, or perhaps never knew, is the fate of the score.

Of course, the piece has been retrievable to us because the orchestral parts were preserved. Stravinsky himself assumed that the parts would be found somewhere in a vault in St. Petersburg (he was right) but he lamented that the score had been lost during the Russian Revolution.

It appears he was not quite right about that. Stravinsky had composed the piece at his summer getaway in Ustilug, on the present-day border between Ukraine and Poland. In those days, this whole region, Volhynia, was part of the Russian Empire (and who knows, it may again be before long.) During the “season”, the Stravinskys were living abroad in Switzerland, and during the spring of 1915, Ustilug was caught in the firestorm of a major Austro-German offensive into the Russian Empire.

Stravinsky’s house sustained considerable damage, but not before his brother-in-law, a neighboring landowner, could load his personal items onto on a train bound for Warsaw for safekeeping. Unfortunately the trunk containing Stravinsky’s documents was lost in transit. The best guess is that the score of op. 5 was in this trunk.

5. The big picture takeaway that I have settled on with further study and reflection, is that what this piece shows more than anything is that Stravinsky’s ability to reinvent himself and his music in every piece was already in evidence from the very start of his career. His piano sonata has, as mentioned above, bits of Schumann, Chopin, Grieg, and Tchaikovsky; his Symphony in E-flat, op. 1, is very much in the Glazunov vein. By opp. 3 and 4, he’s showing a pronounced influence of Rimsky-Korsakov and Chausson, and now in op. 5 it’s Wagner and Scriabin.

This anti-pattern of a pattern continued throughout his entire career. In many ways Stravinsky’s artistic output mirrors that of his contemporary Pablo Picasso, in that they both changed styles constantly and yet somehow stayed true to themselves. A tough trick indeed.

OK and the final final takeaway is the same as I reached in this video: I like this piece more every time I hear it. Hopefully sooner rather than later we’ll get a good, clean, professional recording rather than the myriad livestream bootlegs currently littering the YouTube landscape!

Season opener

I’ve kind of been stalking the Chicago Symphony recently.  Put another way, the orchestra has recently held three free events to open up their season, and I’ve been to all of them.  Two of them were hits – out of the ballpark we’re talking here – and one was a miss.

Thursday, Sept 16
Mexico 2010 celebrations
Benito Juarez High School Auditorium
Carlos Miguel Prieto, conductor

This event was part of the CSO’s contribution to Mexico’s bicentennial celebration, and important collaboration and outreach event given the large Mexican community in Chicago and given the fact that Chicago is a sister city with Mexico City.  The programming was awfully clunky though – why did it begin with “Till Eulenspiegel”?  Why not just, you know, Mexican music?  That’s what followed, namely Galindo’s “Sonnes de Mariachi”, Marquez’ “Danzon No. 2” and Moncayo’s “Huapango”.

Let’s forget this German oddball pink elephant gargantuatron in the room for a moment (which I’m guessing might have been the idea of the conductor who wanted to get something juicy into a rare appearance with the Chicago Symphony) and look at the Mexican selections.  I happen to have played all three of those pieces in orchestras at one point or another.  I’ve also played really, really good Mexican music.  If you were going to play Mexican music for an inter-generational, celebratory crowd, how could you possibly avoid doing Sensemayá, which is one of the baddest pieces of orchestral music Mexican or otherwise out there?

[part 2]

I’m basically just shocked that there was not a single piece by Ravueltas (above) or Carlos Chavez, who are justifiably considered Mexico’s great composers.  I also hate to rag on this concert because it did seem to deeply affect the community in attendance – young and old, Hispanic and non-, all seemed genuinely moved that their new auditorium would be graced by the presence of this great orchestra, and that’s a good thing.

Sunday, Sept 19
Free Concert for Chicago
Millennium Park
Riccardo Muti, conductor

Here was an amazing concert – everything was just right.  First off, the orchestra sounded fantastic, like a real old orchestra with beautiful, singing tone.  A huge part of the equation was the programming, which was very much (and very wisely) of the “give them what they want to hear” variety: Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino, Liszt’s “Les Préludes” (OK, nobody’s perfect), Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, and Respighi’s The Pines of Rome.  All were appropriately flashy and bombastic, but for me, the Verdi stood out particularly in terms of sound and interpretation – just perfect.

The other cool thing was how crowded it was there.  It literally felt like a rock concert wending one’s way through the unwashed masses at the park.

And at the end?  Fireworks!

Wed, Sept 22
Dress Rehearsal for the Opening Subscription Concert
Orchestra Hall
Riccardo Muti, conductor

Here were the real fireworks (umm… you know, figuratively speaking).  First half: Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique.  Second half: Berlioz, Lélio.

What is Lélio, you might ask?  Well, that’s a question easier asked than answered.  It’s the sequel to Symphonie Fantastique. [btw, I find the idea of a purely instrumental work having a “sequel” incredibly interesting – I can’t think of a single other example.  Can you?]  It’s a sort of monodrama for narrator, orchestra, chorus, and lieder singer with accompanist.  There’s a huge amount of dialogue given by the narrator (in Chicago played brilliantly by a truly corpulent Gérard Depardieu: )

The narrator is sort of Berlioz, but sort of not – basically, it’s whoever wrote the Symphony Fantastique – let’s call him Berlioz’s alter ego.  [p.s. here are some notes that I put up about Symphonie Fantastique a while ago.]  This has got to be the most Berlioz-y piece that Berlioz ever Berliozed, if you’ll pardon the expression.  Basically, the narrator extemporizes at length about his ordeal in composing/living the story of the Symphonie, the inability of his continental peers to understand Shakespeare’s brilliance, and his mental cohabitation with the characters from The Tempest – all interspersed with orchestral interludes, lieder played at the piano, and a choeur des ombres. Towards the end, it turns out that the composer-narrator just happens to have sketched a choral-orchestral fantasy on the subject of The Tempest, and – how convenient – there just happens to be an orchestra on stage.  Before the piece begins, he exhorts the players on stage to play in tune, follow the conductor, not to drag, etc.  This lengthier piece is what one usually hears from Lélio.  The “Tempest Fantasy” ends and the narrator is quite impressed and then goes off to die – or something.

Anyway, I’ve got to hand it to Muti – this is a hell of a way to kick off a season.  Great mix of a familiar classic and something crazy.  New York should be green with envy.  Their opening concert sounds like it SUCKED!!!!