In the winter of 1912 Stravinsky was in Berlin for performances of his ballets The Firebird and Petrushka by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company. While there he attended a performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire, conducted by the composer, less than two months after its premiere. Stravinsky had already composed the first of his Three Japanese Lyrics as a song with piano accompaniment, but after hearing Pierrot he decided to give his Lyrics a somewhat similar coat of instrumental color. Back at his home-away-from-home in Clarens, Switzerland, Stravinsky composed the second of the Lyrics for an expanded version of the Pierrot ensemble: two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two clarinets (one doubling bass clarinet), string quartet, and piano, and then he scored the first song for the same group. The third in the set was completed in January 1913.
Each of the Three Japanese Lyrics bears a dedication: Maurice Delage, Florent Schmitt, and Ravel, respectively. They were premiered in January 1914 in Paris on a program that also included the premiere of Ravel's Mallarmé songs and Delage's similarly scored Quatre Poèmes Hindous.
Stravinsky found the texts for the Lyrics in an anthology of Japanese writing translated into Russian (the titles are the names of the ancient poets). "The impression which they made on me was exactly like that made by Japanese paintings and engravings," the composer said. "The graphic solution of problems of perspective and space shown by their art incited me to find something analogous in music."
The three lyrics that Stravinsky chose make a mini-cycle about the transition from winter to spring, unified textually through white flowers, snowflakes, ice floes, and clouds. The first song, "Akahito," was composed before Stravinsky heard Pierrot, and it is most clearly related to the cycling ostinato patterns of The Rite of Spring, on which the composer was working at that time. Spring arrives in a breathless, fluttering rush in the second of these miniatures, and the third song unites the vocal pattern of "Akahito" with elements of the second song's instrumental work.
The equally tiny settings of two poems by Konstantin Balmont were composed earlier, in 1911, for voice and piano (and dedicated to the composer's mother). Much later, in 1954, Stravinsky scored them for the same ensemble as the Lyrics, bringing their sound worlds very close together.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.