Composed: 1920, rev. 1947
Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 31, 1970, Pierre Boulez conducting (1920 version); February 22, 1996, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (1947 version)
This brief, potent work had its origins in a request from La revue musicale for a page of music by Stravinsky to be included in the publication’s December 1920 supplement, Tombeau de Claude Debussy, dedicated to the memory of that composer, who had died two years earlier.
Stravinsky wrote in his 1936 autobiography, Chronicle of My Life: “I had a distinct feeling that [Debussy] would have been rather disconcerted by my musical idiom, as he was, I remember, by my Zvezdoliki [“King of the Stars”] when we played it together on the piano. Moreover, [Zvezdoliki] had been composed at the time of Sacre du printemps, about seven years earlier... Since then, I had experienced considerable evolution, and not in the direction pointed to by the tendencies of [my] Debussyist period. But the supposition... that my music would have remained foreign to him did not deter me.”
The Symphonies of Wind Instruments – the title refers not to any musical form but to the original meaning of symphony, as a “sounding together” of instruments – was described by its composer as “an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments”.
The first page, in piano reduction, appeared in the specified issue of the Revue and the first performance of the complete version for woodwinds and brass took place at the Queen’s Hall, London, under Serge Koussevitzky’s direction, in June of the following year. The composer’s tart description of that chaotic event can likewise be found in the Chronicle.
From what can be gleaned in sifting through the score’s complex history, the first “authentic” version, presumably the one conducted by Koussevitzky, wasn’t published until 1933, in an edition prepared by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet with the composer’s blessing. The manuscripts of the various editions are now in the possession of the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel. In 1947, due to the confusion, even in Stravinsky’s mind (and a falling out with old friend Ansermet) over which were the authentic parts, Stravinsky responded to a request by his friend and musical assistant Robert Craft for “definitive” performing materials. It is this 1947 version that is now the standard edition of Symphonies.
-- Herbert Glass