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Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song for orchestra receives its first performance in 107 years, conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on 2 December.

An orchestral work by the young Igor Stravinsky, assumed lost for over a century, receives its first performance in modern times in St Petersburg on 2 December. Funeral Song (Pogrebal’naya Pesnya) was composed by the 26-year-old composer as a memorial tribute to his beloved teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and, as his op.5, is the missing link between his early Fireworks and Scherzo Fantastique and his ballet The Firebird, written for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which launched Stravinsky’s international career.

The historic performance at the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg features Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra in a programme opening a year-long celebration of the music of Igor Stravinsky. Funeral Song is performed between Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite from The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and The Firebird and the concert is presented under the aegis of the St Petersburg International Cultural Forum and is to be filmed for television and streamed live by Medici.tv and Mezzo.

Funeral Song has not been heard since its first and only performance on 17 January 1909 at the first Russian Symphony Concert in memory of Rimsky-Korsakov, presented at the Great Hall of the Conservatory with Count Sheremetev’s orchestra conducted by Felix Blumenfeld, replacing an indisposed Glazunov. The twelve-minute work for symphony orchestra was soon forgotten because, as Stravinsky noted in The Chronicle of My Life, "the score of this work unfortunately disappeared in Russia during the Revolution, along with many other things which I had left there". The composer remained intrigued about the piece in later years, writing in Memories and Commentaries that "the orchestral parts must have been preserved in one of the Saint Petersburg orchestral libraries; I wish someone in Leningrad would look for the parts, for I would be curious myself to see what I was composing just before The Firebird."

The momentous rediscovery of the orchestral parts was thanks to the persistent efforts of musicologist Natalia Braginskaya and the careful sifting of old performance materials by the St Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory’s librarian Irina Sidorenko. Prompted by the Music Department’s relocation of stock in the spring of 2015, a complete set of uncatalogued orchestral parts of Funeral Song was identified in a back room of the archive, where manuscripts had been made inaccessible for decades by the sheer volume of scores in front of them. The rediscovery was announced to the musical world by Dr. Braginskaya in September 2015 in a paper presented at an International Musicological Society conference in St Petersburg and reported in The Guardian by leading Stravinsky expert Stephen Walsh.

In her paper, now published in Acta Musicologica, Dr. Braginskaya notes that "for variety of sonority and quantity of instruments only Fireworks, among Stravinsky’s early works, can compare with Funeral Song, still there is, for the sake of lightness, an absence of heavy brass." Though Stravinsky could not later recall the detail of the work, he noted in The Chronicle of My Life that "I can remember the idea at the root of its conception, which was that all the solo instruments of the orchestra filed past the tomb of the master in succession, each laying down its melody as its wreath against a deep background of tremolo murmurings simulating the vibrations of bass voices singing in chorus."

In terms of Funeral Song’s soundworld, Dr. Braginskaya describes a mingling of post-Wagnerian chromaticism with the harmonies of Rimsky-Korsakov, seeing the score beginning "a line of musical commemoration by Stravinsky, through the Symphonies of Wind Instruments in memory of Debussy leading up to the numerous later in memoriam works."

For its return to the concert stage, the score of Funeral Song has been reconstructed from the complete set of parts by Dr. Braginskaya and the St Petersburg Conservatory who will collaborate with Boosey & Hawkes, Stravinsky’s principal publisher, in preparing the full score for publication. Boosey & Hawkes is making Funeral Song available for further performance beginning in 2017 in concerts planned by leading orchestras and Stravinsky interpreters.
Details of forthcoming performances

> Mariinsky Theatre 
> St Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory 

Stravinsky Postcard 1910 (Wikimedia Commons)

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