In July 1914, just before the First World War began, Igor Stravinsky took a hasty trip to his estate in the village of Ustyluh, very near the Polish border in western Ukraine. This was his beloved summer home, a rural escape from bustling St. Petersburg that provided him the perfect conditions in which to compose. With war imminent, and the possibility of easy transit between Stravinsky’s two home countries—Russia and Switzerland—growing unlikelier by the day, the 32-year-old composer wanted to rescue as many of his belongings as he could before settling in Switzerland full time. He took with him what he could, but he abandoned a good deal—and not just in Ustyluh, but in St. Petersburg, as well.
One of those items left behind was the score of an early composition, the Chant funèbre, or Funeral Song, Stravinsky’s opus 5. He had composed the piece in tribute to his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had died in June 1908. Rimsky had entered Stravinsky’s life at a time when some uncertainty existed about the direction the young man’s life would take. Stravinsky’s parents had urged him, in no uncertain terms, to undertake a career in the law; he wanted to pursue music, an interest that Rimsky cultivated, taking him on as a private student in 1905. Those lessons continued until the master’s death. Stravinsky loved Rimsky dearly, and his feelings of crushing grief informed every bar of the orchestral elegy that he then composed, in a white heat of merely a few weeks. This Chant funèbre received its premiere at the Great Hall of the St. Petersburg Conservatoire on January 17, 1909, at a memorial concert for Rimsky. It would be the only performance of the work in Stravinsky’s lifetime. After the years of war and the upheaval of the Russian Revolution—with Stravinsky moving from Switzerland to France and to the United States and becoming an official non-person in the eyes of the Soviet bureaucracy—the Chant funèbre was forgotten and lost, thought to have been likely destroyed.
For years, the composer wondered about the whereabouts of the score and orchestral parts (the piece hadn’t been published). Scholars, too, were interested, since the work came at an interesting point in the output of the 20th century’s most celebrated modernist: following immediately upon a series of early, more Romantic pieces and preceding the masterpieces that would alter the course of Western music: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). In 1960, with only a dim recollection of the piece, Stravinsky recalled that the Chant funèbre was “the best of my works before the Firebird, and the most advanced in chromatic harmony. The orchestral parts must have been preserved in one of the St. Petersburg orchestral libraries; I wish someone in Leningrad would look for the parts, for I would be curious myself to see what I was composing just before the Firebird.” It’s not as if people didn’t look. Natalya Braginskaya, a professor at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire and an expert on Stravinsky, had been trying for years to locate the score and the parts, stymied at every stage by the chaotic nature of the institution’s holdings—thousands of scores and books jumbled together, uncatalogued and unsorted. Then, in the autumn of 2015, the Conservatoire underwent a much-needed restoration, with the contents of its library and archives temporarily removed from their dusty quarters. There in a back room, amid heaps of manuscripts unseen for decades, a librarian came across what seemed to be the orchestral parts for the Chant funèbre. She quickly contacted Braginsksaya, who authenticated the score.
It was the musical discovery of the 21st century, and following a December 2016 performance of the piece by Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, many others have taken place, with the first recording—by Riccardo Chailly and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra—now available, too. The Chant funèbre, lasting a little more than 10 minutes, is a deeply meditative funeral march, a haunting elegy in which the pervading sense of darkness is occasionally shot through with flickers and bursts of light. There’s an opulence to the score that suggests Wagner and a mastery of color that could only have been honed by Rimsky himself; in places, I hear fleet figures that could have been written by Paul Dukas, with certain lines and figures reminding me of Tchaikovsky, Scriabin, and Rachmaninov. What the Chant funèbre most definitely isn’t is a bridge between such early Stravinsky works as the Scherzo fantastique and Feu d’artifice and the revolutionary worlds of The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. Sure, the opening tremolos—an ominous, funereal shimmering in the strings that contrasts with the brightness of the winds—foreshadow similar passages in The Firebird. But the piece belongs to the universe of Stravinsky the novice, not Stravinsky the brazen modernist. There isn’t anything innovative about the harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic materials, nothing to suggest the sudden flowering of genius in those famed ballet scores to come. That doesn’t meant, however, that the Chant funèbre isn’t thoroughly enjoyable and impressive in its own right.
Some critics have called the piece monotonous, given that it essentially has one theme, introduced by a solo horn and repeated throughout in various forms. For me, the interest lies in how this theme is clothed and disrobed via a manipulation of sonority and orchestral color, how the textures alter over the course of the piece, with the sound lean in certain places, opulent and lush in others. The feeling is linear, station to station, yet this sensation does seem to jibe with what Stravinsky recalled about the piece, when he described it in 1960: “I can no longer remember the music, but I can remember the idea at the root of its conception, which was that all the solo instruments of the orchestra filed past the tomb of the master in succession, each laying down its own melody as its wreath, against a deep background of tremolo murmurings simulating the vibrations of bass voices singing in chorus.” The Chant funèbre may not be the missing link in Stravinsky’s oeuvre, yet it’s an eerie and unsettling work, a study in rich chromatic harmony and a fitting tribute to a beloved teacher. If the idiom is old-fashioned, Stravinsky’s youthful attempt to wrestle with the idea of death—the final rising arpeggio figure on the harp suggesting both uncertainty and calm—is timeless.
Listen to Riccardo Chailly conduct the Lucerne Festival Orchesta in the premiere recording of Stravinsky’s Chant funèbre:
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