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Symphonies of Wind Instruments

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky
Quick Look Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Michael Christie, conductor/Jennifer Koh, violin, plays Bernstein Nov. 13 - 15, 2008
© Paul Horsley

Did you ever know someone who treated a friend with warmth in person but trashed-talked him behind his back? Such appears to have been the case with Debussy's regard for the young Stravinsky. Granted, Debussy was dying of cancer and in terrible pain during his last years, which coincided with the worst years of World War I. And in fact it seems clear that he had great professional and personal respect for the young Russian, whom he had first met in Paris in 1910 after the first performance of The Firebird. Stravinsky likewise regarded Debussy as one of his most profound musical influences. He was deeply moved at the elder composer's death in 1918, and immediately agreed to contribute a piece for a special Tombeau issue of La Revue Musicale - a brief chorale for piano that would be reworked as the finale of his enigmatic Symphonies of Wind Instruments, dedicated to Debussy on its completion in 1920.

But despite friendly correspondences through the years leading up to Debussy's death, there's evidence that the elder composer was envious of how Stravinsky's shocking early ballet scores had made him the toast of Paris - potentially eclipsing Debussy's fame in the process. In 1913, he beamed glowing praise in a letter to Stravinsky: "For someone like me, who is on his way down the other side of the hill but still in possession of an ardent passion for music, there is a special satisfaction in declaring how much you have enlarged the boundaries of the permissible in the Empire of Sound." On the other hand, in a 1916 letter to a friend, Debussy called Stravinsky "a spoiled child … a young man who wears flashy ties and treads on women's toes as he kisses their hands. As an old man he'll be insupportable." ("Was it duplicity?" Stravinsky said later of Debussy's apparent two-facedness. "Or was he annoyed at his incapacity to digest The Rite of Spring when the younger generation enthusiastically voted for it?")

Fortunately Stravinsky knew nothing of this at the time, otherwise we might not have this miniature masterpiece, which was at the same time the last work of what some have called Stravinsky's "Russian phase" and the beginning of his new neoclassical outlook of the 1920s). It was begun in the summer of 1920 in Brittany and completed in November of that year. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the premiere in London on June 10, 1921.

The piece strikes the listener as singular for several reasons. The use of the word "symphonies" for a 10-minute piece single movement seems odd until we think back to the ancient word of "sounding together in harmony" (although as musicologist William Austin has pointed out, "nowhere before the final chord is there an unquestionable tonic or a complete and unclouded major scale"). Stravinsky clarified the use of the word, somewhat, by calling his piece "an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments."

The lack of strings was also odd for a piece called "symphonies." Some have pointed to Stravinsky's shunning of the lush, romantic qualities of string instruments, others to post-war economic woes that made works written for smaller forces more likely to earn a performance. But the sonority of the Symphonies is so strikingly perfect to its content that one can't imagine it in any other setting. It is, again in the words of Austin, "one of Stravinsky's most poignantly beautiful masterpieces, with a form as original and convincing as that of the Rite, and as hard to define."

It is cast in four basic episodes, each containing tiny bits of material from the other three. The first contains two quirky Russian folk melodies, and the second is flowing Pastorale. Sharp fortissimo chords mark the third, strongly rhythmic dance section, whose texture and harmonic language both remind us that we are only seven years beyond The Rite of Spring. Finally, the haunting Chorale for the Tombeau is for brass alone, joined by woodwinds at the end.

In 1947 Stravinsky created a revised version, with French horns removed and small scoring changes that resulted in a more piquant sound.