Stravinsky’s Svadebka (Les Noces)

Svadebka^1 ranks high in the by no means crowded company of indisputable contemporary master-pieces. That it does not immediately come to mind as such is attributable to cultural and linguistic barriers and to the inadequacy, partly from the same cause, of performances. For Svadebka can be sung only in Russian, both because the sounds of the words are part of the music, and because their rhythms are inseparable from the musical design. A “translation” that satisfied the quantitative and accentual formulas of the original could retain no approximation of its literal sense. Which is the reason that Stravinsky, who was not rigidly averse to changing sense for sound’s sake, abandoned an English version on which he had labored himself in the fall of 1959 and again in December, 1965.

But performances are infrequent as well as inadequate. The four pianos and large number of percussion instruments that comprise the Svadebka ensemble are not included in the standard instrumentation of symphony orchestras and other performing units. Then, too, the piece by itself is long enough for only half a program, while the few possible companion works, using many of the same instruments—Varèse’s Ionisation, Bartók’s “Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion,” Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique (an arrant plagiarism thought to be the apostolic successor at the time)—derive from it as instrumental example.

As a result of the obstacles of language and culture, audiences do not share in the full meaning of the work, hearing it as a piece of “pure” music; which, of course, and as Stravinsky would say, is its ultimate meaning. But Stravinsky notwithstanding, Svadebka is a dramatic work, composed for the stage, and informed with more meanings on the way to that ultimate one than any other opus by the composer. The drama is his own, moreover, and he is responsible for the choice of the subject, the form of the stage spectacle, the ordonnance of the text. Svadebka is in fact the only theatrical work by him, apart from the much slighter Renard, that combines music with a text in his mother tongue, the only work in which ritual, symbol, meaning on every level are part of his direct cultural heredity.

It is also, of all Stravinsky’s works, the one that underwent the most extensive metamorphoses; and that not only occupied his mind during the longest time but that may have, in aggregate, taken the most time. (A later Russia would have awarded him a Stakhanovite medal for his industry alone, if that Russia had recognized Svadebka.) The reasons for the long gestation are, first, that Stravinsky several times suspended work to compose other music, which, each time, left him greatly changed. And, second, that he was creating something entirely new, both musically—its heterophonic vocal-instrumental style is unique in our music—and in theatrical combination and genre, an amalgam of ballet and dramatic cantata that he was himself unable to describe. “Russian Choreographic Scenes,” his subtitle on the final score …

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