Chant funèbre, an important orchestral score by the young Stravinsky that was presumed lost for more than a century, is being performed in the United States for the first time in concerts April 6-11 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Stravinsky composed Chant funèbre (Funeral Song) in 1908 as a memorial for his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It was performed just once, in 1909, before the manuscript and the orchestra parts were lost. “The score of this work unfortunately disappeared in Russia during the Revolution, along with many other things which I had left there,” Stravinsky later wrote.
Eventually all but forgotten, Chant funèbre has nonetheless been a source of fascination among music historians as one of the composer’s most significant early scores. It is the main link between Fireworks (the 1908 composition that is the first work by Stravinsky ever performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) and The Firebird, his first international success in 1910.
“I can no longer remember the music,” Stravinsky wrote in his 1936 autobiography, “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 a chorus.”
Stravinsky had a close and complex relationship with Rimsky-Korsakov. As Stravinsky was composing Fireworks in the spring of 1908, he often went to see his beloved teacher, mentor, and recently appointed father-figure: “He seemed to like my visits,” Stravinsky later wrote. “He had my deep affection, and I was genuinely attached to him. It seems that these sentiments were reciprocated, but it was only later that I learned so from his family. His characteristic reserve had never allowed him to make any sort of display of his feelings.”
One day, Stravinsky mentioned to Rimsky-Korsakov that he was writing an orchestral fantasy. Rimsky-Korsakov told him to send it to him as soon as it was ready. Stravinsky did, but a few days later, he received a telegram saying that Rimsky-Korsakov had died, and shortly afterward, his registered package was returned, bearing the message of “Not delivered on account of death of addressee.” It was then that he sat down and began to compose this Chant funèbre.
In his Memories and Commentaries of 1960 — Stravinsky was 78 at the time — he wrote, “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.”
As it turned out, Chant funèbre lay buried just where Stravinsky suspected, although it was discovered 44 years too late to satisfy his curiosity and correct his shaky memory of the music itself (in 1960, he said he thought it was scored for winds alone, although it is in fact for full orchestra). Little more than a year ago, the uncatalogued, professionally copied orchestral parts to Chant funèbre were discovered in storage in the St. Petersburg conservatory, after several unsuccessful searches through the chaotically organized archives over the years by the musicologist and Stravinsky specialist Natalia Braginskaya. It was only during fall 2015, when the entire building was emptied for renovation, that the librarian uncovered piles of manuscripts that had been buried for decades.
There Braginskaya found what she had long been looking for — it was the discovery of a lifetime. The orchestral parts for Chant funèbre contain players’ markings and corrections thought to be in the composer’s hand. Braginskaya immediately began to reconstruct the full score. In just 106 measures, marked Largo assai, and mostly in 6/4 time, the composer presents a dark and luminous funeral song of great power — a testament to the depth of affection he felt for his teacher. There are hints of the fierce and startling music to follow in the next four years, beginning with The Firebird and continuing with Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Braginskaya calls the Chant funèbre a “slow unvarying processional with contrasting instrumental timbres: a dialogue of sonorities, very much as Stravinsky himself vaguely remembered it in his autobiography 25 years later.”
The first performance since 1909 was given on Dec. 2, 2016, in the same hall where it was played once before: St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, rebuilt and reconfigured since Stravinsky’s time, with Valery Gergiev leading the Mariinsky Orchestra. The concert was filmed for television and streamed live. The Orchestra Hall performances add yet another work to the CSO’s list of important compositions it has introduced to this country.
Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
TOP: Portrait of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, mentor and friend to Stravinsky, who wrote Funeral Song as a tribute to him. | Photo: Wikipedia