Valery Gergiev gives this intriguing work its first performance in a century at the Mariinsky.
Just a few days after the Sydney Symphony Orchestra announced its Australian premiere as part of their 2017 season, Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song has received its first performance in over a century at the Mariinsky Theatre. The work, written to commemorate the death of Stravinsky’s teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was conducted by Valery Gergiev and recorded for broadcast on Medici TV and Mezzo.
The parts for the 12-minute piece, Pogrebal’naya Pesnya, disappeared following its only performance in 1909 and only turned up last year in the library of the St. Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory thanks to some detective work by musicologist Natalia Braginskaya and the efforts of State Conservatory librarian Irina Sidorenko. It was a serendipitous relocation of library stock in 2015 that saw the Funeral Song disinterred from behind a pile of scores in a back room of the musical archives where it had lain for decades.
“The piece made a powerful impression in a somewhat ungainly way,” writes Ivan Hewitt in the UK’s Daily Telegraph. “The groping bass at the opening seemed like the beginning of The Firebird, but the music soon sank into ponderous immobility, in a way which the nimble composer of later years would never have tolerated. The slithering harmonies of Paul Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice occasionally animated the doleful trudge, but the biggest influences were Tchaikovsky (his Romeo and Juliet loomed large towards the end) and Wagner, a surprise in view of Stravinsky’s life-long contempt for him.”
Stravinsky himself had mixed memories of his Funeral Song. “The score of this work unfortunately disappeared in Russia during the Revolution, along with many other things which I had left there,” he wrote in The Chronicle of My Life. “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 melody as its wreath against a deep background of tremolo murmurings simulating the vibrations of bass voices singing in chorus.”
Moved though he was, however, Hewitt was adamant that “the one composer the piece never recalled was Igor Stravinsky. It seemed incredible that the composer of this strangely moving but gauche piece would soon write the most revolutionary work in the history of music.”
The work will receive premieres in 15 countries around the world next year. The Australian premiere will be the 10th performance and replaces The Merry Wives of Windsor Overture in Charles Dutoit’s programme Martha Argerich plays Beethoven from June 29 to July 1.