Stravinsky’s ‘Chant funèbre’
In the spring of 2015, in the library of St Petersburg Conservatoire, a score by Igor Stravinsky unheard since its first performance in 1909 was rediscovered among discarded bundles of music. Stravinsky had always considered his orchestral Chant funèbre the finest piece he had written before the three ballet scores that elevated him to fame: The Firebird (1909-10), Petrushka (1910-1911) and The Rite of Spring (1911-13). The funeral song was composed quickly, during the summer of 1908, as a memorial for his composition teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. After the premiere, Stravinsky lost the performance materials and came to assume that, between the Russian Revolution and his later airbrushing by Stalin, they had been destroyed.
The score’s sudden reappearance provoked a beauty pageant on the conductor’s podium. Valery Gergiev gave the first modern-day performance in Moscow at the end of 2016. Simon Rattle led the Berlin Philharmonic through the German premiere, and Riccardo Chailly, with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, recently released the first recording of Chant funèbre on Decca Records.
Stravinsky was right. Chant funèbre is the best composition he wrote during his apprentice years, by a considerable margin. Chailly’s disc also includes three other pieces that he wrote at around the same time – Fireworks, Scherzo fantastique and Le Faune et la Bergère – which demonstrate Stravinsky’s mastery at orchestration. He knows when to resist the temptation to add more weight, which would dilute the crystalline beauty of his elusive orchestral colours. The music is lean without ever being mean; it sparkles naturally without ever draping itself in tinsel.
But Chant funèbre shows that Stravinsky could also handle emotional depth. In a sign of things to come, his eleven-minute piece unfolds as a ritual. At its imaginative core is a vision of Rimsky-Korsakov’s coffin around which the orchestra, apparently in mourning, processes. Stravinsky has a flare for arresting openings (which, as the composer Roger Reynolds once told me, ‘summon into being musical spaces hitherto unimagined’). Rumbling, muffled double basses outline tremulous weeping motions that spread up and around the orchestra. The procession enters from the distance. Footsteps in the basses and harp march in lockstep; then the French horns play a simple, emotionally direct, fanfare-like flourish.
Variations on the line process around the orchestra: violas pick up when the French horns melt into the background, then the cors anglais, followed by oboe and violins, intensify the melodic interest. Such a formal design might, in lesser hands, have resulted in patterns of predictability; but Stravinsky throws our ears off the scent. Flurries of notes, which unobtrusively contradict the stately procession, weave around the orchestra and make us think about the passage of time: the basic pulse might be a slow one, but these internal layers of busyness paint the canvas in two dimensions. The guttural pungency of the harmony might put you in mind of Mussorgsky, but Stravinsky laced his score with kinks in the harmony, and notes never quite land where you expect. There are explicit echoes of Debussy, especially of La Mer, then the most advanced modern composition on the planet.
The mature composer would probably have taken a dim view of his younger self’s neat, contrived ending. Reintroducing material from the opening moments creates a point of emotional closure. In his 1936 autobiography, Stravinsky claimed that ‘music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood.’ But if music is essentially powerless to express anything, then what is the point of music? Stravinsky believed that stylisation and ritual reconnected music with universal truths, whereas self-conscious expression placed psychological moods and feelings in inverted commas.
In the years that followed Chant funèbre, between The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky discovered how those harmonic kinks, when pushed to the foreground, could make the certainty of narrative structure buckle; and once harmony was being used to generate sounds that fractured and became disjointed, the principles of streamlined, polished orchestration that he had inherited from Rimsky-Korsakov evolved into something more personal and distinctive. With Chant funèbre, Stravinsky had buried his teacher, but had yet to exorcise the ghosts of his teaching.