Symphonies of Wind Instruments

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           A few years after the end of WWI, Stravinsky’s musical thinking underwent a major shift.  Of course, he was not alone in his generation, for ever since the turn of the century various composers had sought contrasts and answers to the inflated musical ideas of late Romanticism.  Large orchestras gave way to small, varied groups.  Extended tonal harmonies yielded to non-functional harmonies, or other schemes of organizing sound.  Composers were looking everywhere for new directions.

            But before Stravinsky’s shift came his Symphonies of Wind Instruments in memory of Claude-Achille Debussy, a work that seems to span the gap between the three great early ballets (The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring) and the important neo-classicism period that followed.   It may be seen in some ways as the last of the works that partake significantly of native Russian elements—scales, motifs, and the like—while concomitantly looking forward to the spare textures and pungent colors of the future.  Notwithstanding its title, one needs to disabuse oneself of any idea that the title is connected with the conventional genre of a symphony.  Rather, it harkens back to the very early Italian reference to “combinations” of, and contrasts between, groups and sounds.

            The Symphonies of Wind Instruments finds its origin in the spring of 1920, at which time Stravinsky had removed to France from Switzerland, where he had sat out the war.  That year, a volume of the important journal, Revue musicale, was to be dedicated to the memory of Debussy, who had passed away two years earlier.  For inclusion Stravinsky composed a brief chorale of homage. Very soon, he integrated the chorale into a larger composition, the main body of which was a series of contrasting episodes.  Some of the material of which had been conceived independently, earlier.

            The completed work, only about nine minutes long, is in the esteemed tradition of serious ensemble music for winds.   The genre has a long history dating back to the time of Giovanni Gabrieli in Venice in the 1590s, right through works of Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvořák, and Gounod, among others.  Of course, later in the twentieth century, many more works have been added by major composers for wind ensemble.  The Symphonies of Wind Instruments is scored for more or less the woodwind and brass sections of a symphony orchestra (but no piccolo or bass clarinet).   The color palette, in keeping with some of his other contemporaneous works, provided a perfect resource for the composer’s well-known proclivity for the clean, crisp, pungent sounds of wind instruments—a trait that he freely owned up to.

            It is clear from the record that Stravinsky conceived of the work as a series of gestures stemming from the liturgy of the Orthodox church, even labeling some sections in the draft as “invocation,”  “hymn of praise,” and so forth.   There is also a “dance” idea—presumably liturgical dance.  It is manifestly ritualistic, composed of “austere litanies.” The fundamental structural idea of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments is that of a succession of boldly contrasting sections—some very brief—each characterized by unique themes, harmonies, tempi, colors, rhythms, and textures.  A montage, if you will. Sections are repeated from time to time, or alluded to, and will be easily recognized upon their return, generating an interesting mélange of contrasts.  The most easily followed gesture is the opening “invocation,” or “bell” idea in the shrill clarinets.  It occurs some six times.

            The chorale in memory of Debussy, which was the work’s genesis, originally served as the opening, but the composer soon recognized its more appropriate position at the end.  There are three and only three tempi in the Symphonies, more or less slow, medium, and fast—maintaining a clocklike precision throughout.  They, typically of the composer, bear a very precise relation to each other, standing exactly in 2:3:4 ratios of speed (mm. 72, 104, 144).  As the short sections alternate and evolve, there is growing sense of the impending chorale, which admirably brings the homage to a serene close.

            This modest composition is clearly the most important work for large wind group of the entire twentieth century.  It was not always considered so.  Given its première in 1921 in London by the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra, led by Serge Koussevitzky, the performance is reputed to have been a rather slap dash affair.  While the audience sniffed or laughed at some of the passages, at least the restrained English audience had the consideration to applaud the composer when he stood at the conclusion.  There was no “French riot.” But the critics disapproved, and a rift between the composer and the conductor was fought out in the newspapers.  Typical of the critics’ “purple” prose was the comment by the esteemed Ernest Newman:  “I had no idea Stravinsky disliked Debussy so much as this.”  Other comments were “a strange tribute,” “senseless ugliness,” and “the most hideous and most meaningless collections of noises.”  Today, of course, we all know better, not because we are smarter, or more sophisticated, but because today we have a century of musical history, and consequently, musical acuity, under the belt.

            The composer, himself, in his Autobiography, had perhaps the last word:    [the work was not meant] “. . . to please an audience or to rouse its passions.”  If any great composer was the “King of Cool,” it was Stravinsky.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2020 William E. Runyan