Long-awaited return of the lost Stravinsky masterpiece “Funeral Song”

Igor Stravinsky in New York City in 1946 (Photo credit: Arnold Newman)

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s long-lost Pogrebal’naya Pesnya (Funeral Song) premieres for the first time since 1909 in St Petersburg’s Mariinsky

Russian composer Igor Stravinsky wrote his orchestral play Pogrebal’naya Pesnya, The Funeral Song in English, at the very beginning of his career  in 1908, shortly after the death of his legendary teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Back from the funeral, the young composer immediately set to work and wrote the play in record time – just over a month. The 12-minute long composition, one of the first independent works of classical modern music, was performed only once – in January 1909 in the Grand Hall of the St Petersburg Conservatory in a Rimsky-Korsakov memorial programme.

(Photo credit: Flickr / deSingel International Arts Campus)
(Photo credit: Flickr / deSingel International Arts Campus)

The work was performed by Count Sheremetyev’s orchestra and conducted by Felix Blumenfeld, also a student of Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1905 Blumenfeld resigned from the Conservatory in a sign of solidarity with the teacher who supported the students’ strike during the first Russian revolution.

The manuscript of The Funeral Song was lost in Russia during the revolution. Although he highly valued the Funeral Song, calling it one of his best early works which were composed before The Firebird ballet, Stravinsky could not recall the music of the disappeared Opus 5 from his memory. In all the national and foreign catalogues of Stravinsky’s works, The Funeral Song came with the remark “unpublished/lost”.

Experts have long suspected that the original score could be preserved in the building of the St Petersburg Conservatory. It was the spring of 2015 when the composition that was considered lost forever, was miraculously found in its library.

(Photo credit: Flickr / deSingel International Arts Campus)
(Photo credit: Flickr/deSingel International Arts Campus)

“It was the autumn of 2014 when the building was closed for the thorough overhaul. The moving of the library where tonnes of musical scores were kept in a very small space was one of the most difficult tasks. Priceless orchestral voices were found already in 2015 on the ground floor of the library. They were buried under several layers of scores that were not listed in the catalogues as they were filed away in storage. On the title page of one of those scores we have found the stamp that said Russian symphony concert and at that moment we have immediately understood that this is the one,” Natalya Braginskaya, a Russian Stravinsky specialist says.

Braginskaya describes The Funeral Song as a moving procession of the musical instruments either of which like a wreath placed at the tomb of the teacher in the form of a melody. The play is full of romantic expression, which is not peculiar to mature Stravinsky. However, some techniques of harmony and instrumentation already anticipate the rich coloristic letter of The Firebird.

“When I began to consider in detail this set of orchestral voices, it became clear that there are 58 parties. They are designed for a large symphony orchestra consisting of about 90 people, the so-called triple cast,” she says.  

Watch the discovery of the Funeral Song manuscript:

When the score was found, the director of the Mariinsky Theatre maestro Valery Gergiev was among the first ones who showed immediate interest to the Stravinsky’s long-lost work. He offered to dedicate the coming year of 2017 to the great composer.

His work, according to Gergiev, needs to be known to more. The premiere performance of The Funeral Song will serve as the opening of the Year of Stravinsky, held in honour of the 135th anniversary of the composer. It is symbolic that for the first time this piece will be played at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, where the great composer was born. Stravinsky spent his childhood and adolescence surrounded by a love of music with his father singing in the Mariinsky Theatre and his mother a pianist.

Come Friday (2 December), the Mariinsky Orchestra under conductor Valery Gergiev will perform Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite from the opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya as well as Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song and The Firebird. Tickets are still available here. A webcast of the concert will also be available here with subscription.

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