Seattle Symphony to Perform Stravinsky’s Lost "Funeral Song"

Igor Stravinsky, George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

Music Director Ludovic Morlot returns to the podium to lead performances of Stravinsky’s rediscovered Funeral Song on January 4 & 6.

By Andrew Stiefel

It’s not every day that you get to hear a premiere by one of the 20th century’s most influential composers. But that’s exactly what you can expect when Music Director Ludovic Morlot returns to the podium to conduct the West Coast premiere of Stravinsky’s Pogrebal’naya Pesnya (“Funeral Song”) on January 4 and 6.

Lying hidden for more than a century, the elegiac Funeral Song was thought lost, even by the composer himself. Composed in 1908, the piece was written as a tribute to Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It was performed at a memorial concert for Rimsky-Korsakov in Saint Petersburg in 1909 and subsequently lost during the upheavals of the Russian Revolution.

Stravinsky spoke fondly of the work throughout his life, calling it “the best of my works before The Firebird.” Then, 106 years later, the music was rediscovered in the library of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory when Russian musicologist Natalia Braginskaya found a set of orchestral parts buried at the back of a shelf in the library.

Funeral Song received a second world premiere in Saint Petersburg on December 2, 2016 with conductor Valery Gergiev and The Mariinsky Orchestra. You can watch an excerpt of the performance below:

The music does not sound like Stravinsky’s beloved later works, especially the series of ballets he wrote for the Ballets Russes in Paris. Instead, as Alex Ross notes in an essay for The New Yorker, the music “has a veiled power, and hints at otherwise hidden sources of inspiration. A spectre haunts the scene: the spectre of Wagner.”

Written on the cusp of his major breakthrough, Funeral Song provides a glimpse of Stravinsky stepping from the lush musical realm of the late 19th century toward the modernity of his mature works. In Stravinsky’s imagination, the instruments of the orchestra process past the tomb of his teacher, “each laying down its melody as its wreath against a deep background of tremolo murmuring.”

“It’s a thrill to be able to give the Seattle Symphony and West Coast Premiere of Stravinsky’s Funeral Song,” says Morlot. “This piece is very somber, dark, and a powerful ode to Stravinsky’s teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.”

But the Stravinsky is not the only work receiving a premiere.

These concerts also feature the Seattle premiere of another influential 20th century composer, György Ligeti. Violinist Augustin Hadelich joins Morlot and the orchestra to perform Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. Hadelich previously received a Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo on the Seattle Symphony's recording of Dutilleux's Violin Concerto, L'arbre des songes.

Photo by Luca Valenta

“The Ligeti Violin Concerto is one of the most extraordinary and difficult works ever written for the violin,” says Hadelich. “It is by turns beautiful, frightening, joyous, painful and virtuosic. Performing it is exhilarating and feels a bit like walking on a tightrope!”

Completed in 1992, Ligeti’s concerto is one of his signature achievements. The music is original, inventive and deeply expressive. The concerto reflects his continuing fascination with non-standard tuning, which is most evident in the opening of the first movement. Ligeti described the sound as a “shimmer” resulting from the juxtaposition of different systems.

“The concerto is sonically very unique in the way it makes use of multiple tuning systems; while most of the orchestra musicians will be tuned as usual, some will tune to the pitches of the harmonic series,” adds Morlot. “The result is the sonic equivalent of two paintings, one Renaissance and one contemporary, blending together.”

The music of the second movement takes the form of a beautiful, serene unaccompanied solo, reminiscent of medieval chant. The music is interrupted by a chorus of ocarinas, performed by members of the woodwind section, hinting at the influences of Hungarian folk music that are never far away in Ligeti’s compositions.

The performances conclude with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39. “We know Ligeti loved Mozart; this is what inspired me to put these two composers together,” explains Morlot. “Of Mozart’s symphonies, No. 39 is one of my favorites. I find it has a certain sweetness that gives it a nostalgic tone.”

Music Director Ludovic Morlot returns to the podium to lead the orchestra in a program featuring Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, Stravinsky’s rediscovered Funeral Song and Ligeti’s Violin Concerto on January 4 and 6.


Posted on January 2, 2017