A Requiem of One’s Own

Stravinsky’s late 12-tone masterpiece

Keystone Pictures USA/Alamy Stock Photo
Keystone Pictures USA/Alamy Stock Photo

I recently happened upon a photograph taken on the day of Igor Stravinsky’s funeral, on April 15, 1971, in which a water hearse bearing the composer’s coffin leads a procession of gondolas down a Venetian canal. The destination was the Basilica di San Giovanni e Paolo, known familiarly as San Zanipolo, the massive brick Dominican church where 25 of the city’s doges were laid to rest. It was, by all accounts, a grand spectacle, with throngs of onlookers and journalists joining friends, acquaintances, and family members of the late composer. As Stephen Walsh writes, in his biography of Stravinsky, some 3,000 people gathered for the service, sitting

through a Requiem by Alessandro Scarlatti, a brief address by the mayor of Venice, some Andrea Gabrieli organ pieces, and a fairly speculative account of the master’s own Requiem Canticles conducted by [Robert] Craft, then [standing] for more than an hour while the archimandrite of Venice chanted with exquisite refinement the Greek Orthodox liturgy for the departed, seemingly undisturbed by the television cameras and the flashbulbs, the fidgeting and shuffling of his predominantly Catholic audience, and the noise of the crowd outside, which drifted up the nave from the open west door. At the end of the liturgy the Archimandrite beckoned to the composer’s widow and the other members of his close family to come forward and kiss the coffin in farewell. Then the bier was wheeled back down the nave and through the campo to the waiting gondola that would serve as a hearse across the half-mile of open water to San Michele.

This was the island cemetery where Sergei Diaghilev, Stravinsky’s collaborator, was already buried and where the composer’s wife, Vera, would herself be eventually interred.

In retrospect, Scarlatti and Gabrieli might seem like odd choices for a program commemorating the supreme modernist of the 20th century. Not so the Requiem Canticles, an outstanding work from Stravinsky’s late period, written in the 12-tone style that he had once reviled but later embraced. He had been in fragile health at the time of its composition, and as Vera Stravinsky put it, “He and we knew he was writing it for himself.”

The origins of this masterpiece can arguably be traced to 1948, the year Stravinsky met Robert Craft, who was then a 25-year-old musician schooled in the works of the Second Viennese School. Stravinsky employed the young man as his secretary, but over time, the two artists became colleagues as well as friends, with Stravinsky assuming the role of father figure and Craft taking up residence in the composer’s household. For Craft, the 12-tone music of Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern was gospel, and he was eager to nudge Stravinsky toward serial techniques. “I say in all candor,” Craft would later write, not without a touch of hubris, “that I provided the path and that I do not believe Stravinsky would ever have taken the direction that he did without me.”

Stravinsky may have initially found 12-tone music cold, clinical, and abstract, but he also feared being judged an anachronism were he not to, at the very least, explore this terrain. Craft was no doubt a guiding light, and Stravinsky’s 1952 Cantata incorporated several serial elements. Subsequent pieces, such as the Canticum sacrum (1955) and Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1959), are full-blooded serial works, though Stravinsky was never one to adhere dogmatically to any method, and he adapted 12-tone techniques into his own distinctive idioms. Critical response to some of these works veered from befuddlement to hostility, but the Requiem Canticles, solemn and mysterious, haunting and mesmeric, would be something altogether different. The work was commissioned by Stanley Seeger Jr. in memory of his late mother, Helen Buchanan Seeger. Although Seeger had envisioned a grand setting of the Latin requiem mass, Stravinsky at first wanted to write an orchestral piece, settling eventually upon extracts from six sacred texts from the mass, including the Exaudi orationem meam, Dies irae, and Libera me.

He began writing in 1965, during an intolerably hot Southern California summer, working first on the music for winds and percussion that would comprise the requiem’s fifth movement. Stravinsky later referred to this orchestral interlude as a “threnody for winds and muffled drums,” yet absent is any sense of wailing or desperation. The music is quietly solemn, the feeling of mourning conveyed by spare, distilled textures and idioms, with the woodwinds whispering simple, evocative patterns and the repeated dotted rhythms acting as a unifying structural element. The abiding sensation here, and elsewhere, is of an otherworldly austerity that lovers of Webern will recognize.

The relatively brief work (it lasts some 15 minutes) is not without its enigmas. How many requiems have been composed in which the instrumental sections—not only the central interlude, but also the piece’s prelude and its substantial postlude—are more vital to the work than the parts that are sung? That prelude begins in agitated fashion: over a driven, angular string accompaniment, a solo violin cries out a melody and is then joined by a second violin (one playing in three, the other in two—a delightfully unsettling polyrhythm), before a solo viola and cello enter, the two distinct ensembles of strings now working with and against each other. The postlude commences with a piercing chord in the flutes, piano, and harp, after which we hear exquisite sonorities in the celesta, vibraphone, and chimes. And when a series of percussive quarter notes is heard, I am reminded of something Eastern, something opulent, something mystical and lovely, an atmosphere enhanced by the final tolling of the bells. These instrumental passages are the scaffolding upon which the vocal movements are hung: the Dies irae, with its haunting chanting of unwavering eighth notes; the Exaudi, so serene, that time itself seems to dissipate; and the Lacrimoso, with its keening contralto solo, the tone colors of the voice autumnal and round, in contrast to the shrill high notes of the flute.

Was Stravinsky indeed writing the piece as his own requiem, as his wife asserted, or did he have others in mind? While the composer worked, several acquaintances of his died, including Evelyn Waugh, Alberto Giacometti, and Edgard Varèse, and he pasted the various obituary notices into his notebook—an odd thing to do for a composer who did not allow the news of the day to inform his creative process. In his biography, Walsh addresses this contradiction:

Waugh’s death cannot possibly have affected him in any personal sense, and this fact leaves a slightly uncomfortable feeling that the pasting-in of newspaper cuttings and the inscribing of crucifixes was a self-conscious act, a gesture to the movie cameras of posterity, rather than a spontaneous token of grief. Another, less ungenerous, explanation is that Stravinsky found the detached tone of the printed obituaries useful precisely as a corrective to any tendency to personalize his Requiem setting, particularly in view of his own age and condition. He called them a “practical commentary,” presumably for his own benefit. They might suggest a poet who, before writing an epitaph, visits a graveyard to get himself into the right frame of mind.

Perhaps it’s of little consequence whom Stravinsky was memorializing. The elegiac mood is palpable no matter its source. Though the Requiem Canticles was emblematic of a new idiom (new, that is, for him; by the time Stravinsky embraced it, 12-tone music was hardly cutting edge), it also incorporated primitivistic and neoclassical elements familiar from his earlier work. Here, with valedictory finality, is the result of an artist putting it all together at the end of a long and fruitful life—an apotheosis, then, as well as a requiem.

Listen to Robert Craft’s recording of the Requiem Canticles, with soloists Sally Burgess and Roderick Williams and the Philharmonia Orchestra:

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sudip Bose is the editor of the Scholar. He wrote the weekly classical music column “Measure by Measure” on this website for three years.


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