On February 26, 2015, Professor Natalia Braginskaya made the kind of startling discovery every musicologist dreams about. While cleaning out the Saint Petersburg Conservatory’s 120-year old building for badly needed renovation, workers stumbled upon a “previously inaccessible” pile of old scores. When Professor Braginskaya took a closer look, she saw a complete set of orchestral parts for one of Stravinsky’s earliest compositions, Funeral Song (Pogrebal’naya pesnya). Long considered lost or destroyed, this moody and highly personal work was composed as a tribute to Stravinsky’s beloved teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov soon after his death in June, 1908.
Professor Braginskaya immediately began a meticulous re-creation of the full score from the parts, consulting handwritten corrections and notes added by Stravinsky and members of the orchestra that gave its well-received 1909 Saint Petersburg premiere. On December 2, 2016, to open The Year of Stravinsky Festival, Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra gave the resurrected Funeral Song’s festive “modern” premiere.
Stravinsky himself believed that Funeral Song had “disappeared in Russia during the Revolution, along with many other things which I had left there” in 1914. In fact the Conservatory Library officially received the parts in 1932, but “annulled” them for lack of interest in 1951, during the Stalinist “anti-cosmopolitan campaign.” Because he had emigrated, Stravinsky had become a “non-person,” and his music was virtually banned until after Stalin’s death in 1953.
In his 1936 autobiography, Stravinsky recalled that the work’s central idea was “that 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 against a deep background of tremolo murmurings simulating the vibrations of bass voices singing in chorus.” In fact only one melody dominates the texture, a slow, mourning, melancholy phrase announced by muted horn, then passed to English horn, oboe, flute, tuba, and other instruments. The melody unfolds over a repeated seven-note accompaniment that opens in the muted string basses, rumbling divisi in tremolo octaves, rising and falling in a manner that prefigures the opening of The Firebird, completed just two years later.
In its sense of gravitas, lush scoring, and late-Romantic harmonic language, Funeral Song seems indebted to Wagner, also a decisive influence on Rimsky-Korsakov, particularly in his late opera The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.