The announcement during 2015 that Russian researchers had located a full set of orchestral parts for Stravinsky’s long-lost Opus Five, Funeral Song, was exciting news indeed. The work had been composed as a memorial to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who died in June 1908. It was performed in St Petersburg in January 1909 but thereafter vanished. It finally came to light during a refurbishment of the St Petersburg Conservatoire and so the score had been hiding in plain sight for over a century, albeit under a heavy coating of dust.
Anticipation was running particularly high not least due to Stravinsky’s recollection that Funeral Song was the best and most harmonically advanced of his pre-Firebird scores. Also there is this arresting description of it in his autobiography: “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.” (Did Harrison Birtwistle recall this when writing his memorial piece for Michael Vyner, Ritual Fragment, which physically acts out such a scenario?). So here was a complete work; a youthfully mature score, not a piece of juvenilia. Perhaps you would have to go back to the rediscovery of Haydn’s C-major Cello Concerto in the early-1960s for a find of comparable importance.
On 2 December 2016 in the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery Gergiev presented what had hitherto been known only to the long-deceased attendees at Rimsky’s memorial concert. Like many other music-lovers I was glued to the live stream – as a devotee who has spent much of his life acquiring a detailed knowledge of every extant note of Stravinsky’s music.
The big surprise of Funeral Song is the extent to which the influence of Wagner hangs over it, aligning itself with the other pre-Firebird pieces in presenting another path not taken. These include (often in near-literal quotation) Glazunov and Tchaikovsky (‘Tatyana’s Letter Scene’) in Faun and Shepherdess, Dukas in Fireworks, Rimsky-Korsakov in Scherzo fantastique and elsewhere, and fleeting glimpses of Mendelssohn, Chopin and Scriabin (although Stravinsky detested the latter’s hot-house musical world). And we should not be surprised to hear Wagner, so antithetical to both the young and the mature Stravinsky. Anything, it seems, was worth putting into the stylistic blender to see if something useful came out.
The low tremolos of the opening deliver on Stravinsky’s description above, as do the chromatic and whole-tone harmonic shifts. An early horn solo prefigures those scattered throughout The Firebird. Little nugget-like figures that repeat and proliferate are already characteristic, although the rhythmic inertia throughout is its least Stravinskian property. The confident handling of a large orchestra, with many striking instrumental combinations, is perhaps the chief testimony to the score’s dedicatee. Funeral Song comes to rest on a sequence of minor triads filtered through differing scoring, perhaps an early specimen of the ritualistic perorations that bring many of Stravinsky’s works to a close; we have without doubt been on a musical journey well worth taking.
Decca has made the first recording. The reverberant bass-heavy sound of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and the recording itself complements the work’s dense and voluptuous textures. However this is in turn a handicap for Fireworks and Scherzo fantastique, whose gossamer soundworlds (suggestive of Tennyson’s “horns of Elfland faintly blowing”) require Debussy’s “orchestra without feet” to make their modest mark. However, Sophie Koch’s idiomatic rendering (in French) of the three Pushkin settings hits home in its languorous and conversational tone.
It seems a rum sort of review that leaves The Rite of Spring to its penultimate paragraph, but undoubtedly it is Funeral Song that is the big news. Arguably The Firebird would have made a more satisfying companion piece. Riccardo Chailly’s interpretation of The Rite never fails to play down the orgiastic element in favour of clarifying the rhythmic scansion of the music. In focussing on the latter, he certainly reveals new (to me) aspects in this fathomless score but I miss the barbaric thrust that in an ideal account is counterbalanced by meticulous attention to detail. Pierre Boulez’s DG recording is still my paradigm for this balancing act. I was also put off by the mannered phrasing of the opening bassoon solo, although it is worth noting that the tangled chromatics of the Introduction are revealed in a new light when heard immediately after the earlier scores.
As it settles into the repertory, numerous performances already, Funeral Song will no doubt continue to throw light on the development of Stravinsky’s musical language. I cannot agree with Stravinsky, or Stephen Walsh in his excellent booklet note, that it is his best pre-Firebird piece; that accolade goes to Scherzo fantastique. Perhaps better that we just savour Funeral Song’s unique (for Stravinsky) atmosphere and exquisite detail. What it does very little to explain is the eruption of the ‘real’ Stravinsky’s voice in the very few years that followed it: that remains one of the great mysteries of music.