Stravinsky’s ‘Chant funèbre’

Philip Clark

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.


  • 3 March 2018 at 11:14am
    Simon Wood says:
    The requiem is a difficult gig. Fauré's makes us want to cry. Is that what we want at a funeral?

    I remember the TV documentaries about the Second World War carried a lot of Russian music which was especially heavy and worrying over the long queues of refugees in the snow. Occasionally you'd see an old woman fall and be left.

    Russian music seems to have been written for the future - they really knew. Stravinsky really really knew.

  • 3 March 2018 at 11:20am
    simon reynell says:
    Good piece, Philip, but one sentence in particular bothered me:
    “Chant funèbre is the best composition he wrote during his apprentice years, by a considerable margin.”
    I always worry that such statements are subjective opinions masquerading as facts. What do you say to someone who prefers ‘Scherzo fantastique’ to ‘Chant funèbre’? That they’re wrong? That they should pull their socks up and educate themselves better? Or can you really only say that you disagree?
    I’m currently writing a short piece which touches on musical taste, so have been thinking about it a lot, and would be interested to know your thoughts. I tend towards the idea that musical taste is irreducibly subjective, and so ‘Chant funèbre’, like any other piece, is as good or bad as the individual listening to it thinks it is.
    Some pieces obviously become more popular than others, but I don’t see that popularity is a marker of objective quality (woe betide classical music if it is). You could analyse the most popular pieces to try to isolate common elements in them that distinguish them from less popular pieces, but even if that was achievable, it wouldn’t mean that people who preferred less popular pieces were ‘wrong’, only that they had unusual tastes.
    Particular communities of listeners could agree between themselves what qualities are most important in works in a particular genre, and use this to measure the value of individual pieces. They could then establish a canon of ‘major works’, but that would still only be a consensus based on the agreed criteria rather than an objective measure of ‘quality’. And the fact that canons change over time and are contested suggests that even if there are objective factors involved somehow, they can't be timeless, but are subject to shifts of fashion and taste.
    As I say, I happen to be thinking about these questions a good deal, and would be interested to hear your and other people’s thoughts.

  • 5 March 2018 at 1:43pm
    Simon Wood says:
    You've put your finger on it, Simon. The cannons in the "1812" are the best bit.

    A lot of music is boring. Take film music. You listen to it away from the film and it is incredibly boring, unless it's, say, the "Paris, Texas" soundtrack or anything by Morricone.

    That Russian music I heard as a child over WWII documentaries really drove the message home, whilst film music currently tells those wonderful people out there in the dark what to think and feel.

    I often say to my daughters while we're watching a film, "Insert some uplifting music here, please." It doesn't half annoy them.

    Interesting, eh? Some music speaks louder than words, some doesn't. Minimalism? I'd give a few bars of the one-chord "Spoonful" by Howlin' Wolf for the whole of Philip Glass, film score or no.

  • 6 March 2018 at 5:18pm
    John Cowan says:
    That Russian music I heard as a child over WWII documentaries really drove the message home, whilst film music currently tells those wonderful people out there in the dark what to think and feel.

    I don't understand this "whilst". Driving the music home is telling the audience what to think and feel, it seems to me.

    • 7 March 2018 at 9:40am
      Simon Wood says: @ John Cowan
      The "whilst", John: current film score music says "This is what we want you to think and feel”, whereas real music says "Have some of this."

      This "This is what the corporation wants you to think and feel" is slightly spoilt by the "This is what" - it's a condescending hand on the shoulder that actually detracts quite strongly from the mood music.

      This is an interesting topic - if I knew the critical and cultural theory way of putting all this, I would pad it out a bit. It's to do with digital and the pressure and ability to produce acceptable and appropriate product to budget and schedule.

      In many ways I'm looking forward to the post-apocalypse when we have to make our own music with bones flutes and sing.

      Hope this clarifies.

  • 6 March 2018 at 6:07pm
    Pressbaby says:
    Very nice article. Will love to hear the piece. A very nice observation about IS's aesthetic reasonings. If true, I would like to make the point that self expression isn't necessarily always in "inverted commas".

    Faithfulness to expression is the very essence of music. A very good example is "the blues". Both in scale and rhythm it is not what you say but how you say that produces meaning. In every sense, ritualistic.

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