Composed: 1920, rev. 1947
Length: 12 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, and tuba
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: (1920 version) May 31, 1970, Pierre Boulez conducting; (1947 version) February 22, 1996,
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting
"[The Symphonies of Wind Instruments] is not meant 'to please' an audience or rouse its passions. I had hoped, however, that it would appeal to those in whom a purely musical receptivity outweighed the desire to satisfy emotional cravings."
- Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography
In contrast to his lavish "audience lollipop" The Firebird (1910), Stravinsky described the Symphonies of Wind Instruments as "an austere ritual that is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogenous instruments." Using the terminology of sacred music, Stravinsky creates "short litanies" comprised of varied, discrete musical ideas, from lively cantilena melodies that recall the Russian folk tunes of his early works to ascetic chorales that look forward to his sacred works like the Symphony of Psalms (1930).
Stripping the term "symphonies" of its Classical-era associations, Stravinsky here invokes the word's root meaning, "sounding together." To this end, Stravinsky rapidly juxtaposes blocks of sound, each with its own instrumental, rhythmic, and temporal identity. The effect is a kind of disjointed, collage-like form, whose visual corollary can be found in the Cubist canvases of his friend and collaborator Pablo Picasso. Emphasizing precision over expression, Stravinsky creates four discrete tempos (whose relationships are multiples of each other) that must be strictly adhered to and in which, in the words of writer Paul Griffiths, "rubato is ruled out."
The impetus for the work was a request from the French publication Revue Musicale for Stravinsky to make a contribution in memory of composer Claude Debussy, who had died two years prior. "The homage that I intended to pay to the memory of the great musician ought not to be inspired by his musical thought," Stravinsky wrote. "On the contrary, I desired rather to express myself in a language essentially my own." The Symphonies of Wind Instruments was premiered in London on June 10, 1921, under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky.
-- Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli is an Emmy-nominated composer, and he served as editor and copyist for Esa-Pekka Salonen's LA Variations.