Composed: 1914-1919; 1922-1923
Length: c. 23 minutes
Orchestration: timpani, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, chimes, cymbals, snare drums, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 4 pianos, mixed chorus, and soloists
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: September 6, 1972, Lukas Foss conducting
In 1914, around the time he was completing The Nightingale, Stravinsky began planning his next project for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, another ceremonial look at old Russian peasant traditions, like The Rite of Spring. In July he made a quick trip to Russia and the Ukraine for a published collection of folk and traditional poems and lyrics that he wanted for the project, and he set to work with his usual focus. But the outbreak of World War I in August upset many of his and Diaghilev’s plans. Stravinsky began work on other pieces, as the prospect for performance of Les noces receded. His musical style was also in flux, and Les noces would not have its premiere until 1923, the longest period of development of any of Stravinsky’s pieces.
Late in life, Stravinsky recalled that he originally intended to use a “super-Sacre” orchestra of 150 musicians, even larger than the massive Rite of Spring. No such draft exists: either he had only thought about the possibility without trying it, or decades later he was misremembering the work’s origins. The first two versions, both incomplete, date from 1914-1915 and are scored for two string quintets (one pizzicato, the other arco) and nine winds. Version 3 (1915-1917), the first complete draft, is scored for an idiosyncratic combination of 27 winds and brass, eight strings, harp, piano, harpsichord, and Hungarian cimbalom. Meanwhile, in his other works (Histoire du soldat, Symphonies of Wind Instruments), Stravinsky was already moving toward smaller ensembles and more austere instrumental sonorities as he positioned himself to join the Paris-based movement soon to be dubbed “neoclassicism.” In this context, the rich sound-world of Version 3 must suddenly have seemed old-fashioned, and Version 4 of Les noces (1918-1919) is stripped down to two cimbaloms, harmonium, pianola, and percussion (notice the similarity to George Antheil’s notorious Ballet mécanique of 1923-1925). But only in the definitive Version 5 (1922-1923) did Stravinsky arrive at the “perfectly homogeneous, perfectly impersonal, and perfectly mechanical” sound of four pianos and four percussionists, in which, crucially, only struck instruments are heard.
In its final form, Les noces consisted of four scenes performed without a break, with a libretto that Stravinsky adapted himself from a ritual he found in the collection he brought back from Kiev. The first scene takes place in the bride’s house, where she and her bridesmaids are preparing her hair. The second scene switches to the groom’s house, where his friends attend to his hair and he asks for his parents’ blessings. The third presents the departure of the bride from her house and the lament of the two mothers for the leaving of their children. The actual marriage ceremony itself is not depicted, the fourth scene taking up the wedding feast with toasts and tales and drinking songs from the guests, and a final nuptial benediction. Although the soloists do sing music representing individuals – the bride, the groom, etc. – they are not consistently any one “character,” but rather provide idealized voices for the dancers.
“Les noces is a marriage in many dimensions: female and male (the first scene is begun and largely carried by women’s voices; the second brings the men into prominence, and after that the shares are equal), narrative and action, song and dance,” wrote Paul Griffith in his biography of the composer. “But perhaps its deepest, and most deeply Russian, binding is of holiness and humor, the holiness of a ceremony going on beyond the senses and the humor of drunken guests at a wedding party. It is both comedy and icon.”
— Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Steven Stucky was for many years the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Consulting Composer for New Music.