Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments

IGOR FEDOROVICH STRAVINSKY was born at Oranienbaum, Russia, on June 18, 1882, and died in New York City on April 6, 1971. He completed the Symphonies of Wind Instruments on November 30, 1920, and Serge Koussevitzky conducted the first performance on June 10, 1921, in London. Leopold Stokowski gave the work its first North American hearing with the Philadelphia Orchestra on November 23, 1923. Edo de Waart led the first San Francisco Symphony performances in March 1977. The most recent performances here, in April 2007, were led by Michael Tilson Thomas. Stravinsky reorchestrated the final Chorale in 1945, and revised the remainder of the work in 1947. The score of the 1947 edition calls for three flutes, two oboes and English horn, three clarinets, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba. Performance time: about ten minutes.

The score of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments bears a dedication to the man Stravinsky once called “my father in music,” Claude Debussy. The French composer, twenty years Stravinsky’s senior, had been one of the first of his colleagues to respond generously to The Firebird, and the two men enjoyed a rewarding though not frictionless friendship until Debussy’s death in 1918.

There is also more of Debussy in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments than Stravinsky ever let on. What makes the structure of the work “peculiar,” as Stravinsky called it, is the avoidance of the kind of organic progression from event to event that we associate with the mainstream nineteenth‑century symphonic tradition. Instead, objects here are placed side by side and seem unaffected by their adjacency. Debussy himself often composed that way, especially in his later music.

Soon after the premiere, Stravinsky commented on the Symphonies: “It is devoid of all the elements which infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener and to which he is accustomed. . . . It is an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments.” The work is not in any way a symphony; rather, Stravinsky has gone to the literal root meaning of “symphony” as “a sounding together.”

With startling rapidity, Stravinsky moves from idea to idea—from a bell-like shrilling of clarinets and flutes with trumpet and trombone punctuations to an anticipation of the chorale that is to sound in full at the end, to the flute and clarinet music again, to a tiny fragment of dance music for oboes and English horn, back to the chorale, and from there to a melody—much like a folk song—for flute, followed by a similar tune for bassoon in its top register. All that happens in the first minute and a quarter!

The ideas are many, but the utterance is terse. A fascinating and powerful tension develops between the amplesse of material and the taut structure. Another Debussian aspect is the extent to which textures and sonorities (as distinct from themes) are placed as markers for us to recognize and thus become primary structural elements. At the end, the energies and tensions are grounded in the chorale, the only sustained music in the Symphonies.

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Pierre Boulez conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Thierry Fischer conducting the Netherlands Wind Ensemble (Chandos)

Readings: Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works, by Eric Walter White (University of California Press, Second Edition)  |  The Music of Stravinsky, by Stephen Walsh (Oxford University Press)  |  Stravinsky in the Theatre, edited by Minna Lederman (Da Capo)