Symphonies of Wind Instruments

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Symphonies of Wind Instruments 

Igor Stravinsky​
Born June 18, 1882 in Oranienbaum, Russia
Died April 6, 1971 in New York City, New York

By Marianne Williams Tobias
The Marianne Williams Tobias Program Note Annotator Chair


Two years after the death of Claude Debussy, Stravinsky was asked by La Revue Musicale to write a piece in his memory which would appear in a book including tributes by other composers as well. He was delighted to be asked, and in 1959, he explained that enthusiasm, saying “the musicians of my generation and I myself owe the most to Debussy.” The piece he submitted was the Chorale (arranged for piano solo), which concludes the Symphonies.

Stravinsky’s plan was this: “The homage that I intended to pay to the memory of the great musician ought not to be inspired by his musical thought. On the contrary, I desired rather to express myself in a language essentially my own.” His own language, for this purpose, consisted of wind instruments only, in a work which he described in his autobiography, as a piece “not meant ‘to please’ an audience or rouse its passions. I had hoped however, that it would appeal to those in whom a purely musical receptivity outweighed the desire to satisfy emotional cravings.” 

The title “symphony” referred to the exact meaning of the word—sounding together.  Symphonies of Wind Instruments premiered on June 10, 1920 in London at Queen’s Hall with Serge Koussevitsky conducting. The reception was terrible. The audience laughed, complained, and hissed. He certainly achieved his wish to write something that was “not pleasing.” Despite the reaction, he stood up at the conclusion and took a bow, in spite of his later opinion that the premier constituted an “execution of my Symphonies.” In 1936, Stravinsky was still defensive about the premiere and noted “ I did not, and indeed I could not, count on any immediate success for this work.  It lacks all those elements that infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener, or to which he is accustomed… it is an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies.”

In 1947, Stravinsky re-orchestrated the original score, and that is the version on tonight’s concert. In this revision, he substituted flute and clarinet for the original alto flute and basset horn. In the scoring, he reduced the music written for French horn and increased the parts for oboes, English horn, and contrabassoon. These changes resulted in a reedier and more cutting sound, which had the effect of sharper articulations and more biting, abrupt chords. He also rebarred the work, erasing irregular phrases into regular groupings. 

Symphonies for Winds emerges in clearly defined segments, each segment comprised of a different set of winds. You will not hear long term fluency and connectivity. His format bounces quickly into contrasting moods and combinations. The content from one segment to another differs, although allusions to previous musical passages occur throughout the work. Sometimes the segments move in blended timbres, offering chord-like passages, and other times individual or paired instruments leap into the spotlight, spun off  from the ensemble for a bit of energetic or lyrical freedom. Adding to the instrumental color, Stravinsky frequently invokes a modal style, leaving tonality to be ambiguous. The final chorale coats these jagged features of the main corpus with soothing balm: dynamics remain soft; the pace is steady; the mixing of timbres becomes stabilized. After the foregoing flurry, surprises, quicksilver changes and drama, Stravinsky opted for a starkly serene conclusion. One might have expected a blasting summation, building on the ignition and fuel of the preceding material into a grand fanfare, but his artistic decision is, in its simplicity and calmness, intensely moving.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017

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