Svadebka1 (Les Noces) 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, does not even mention that the subject is a village wedding and that the scenes or “tableaux” are four: at the Bride’s (the ritual plaiting of her tresses); at the Groom’s (the ritual curling of his locks); the departure of the Bride for the Church; the wedding feast.
* * *
The aims of the present essay2 necessarily differ from those of the guidebook the authors are preparing to the facsimile edition of the manuscript scores and sketches from which it has been extracted. The sketches themselves are a study in the processes of growth and refinement that can illuminate not only part of the path of Stravinsky’s working mind but also the embryology of the musical mind as a whole. Even with sketches and scores in hand, however, one is limited in the verbal means for this explication to such pedantic tasks as suggesting comparisons between the sketches and the final score, and attempting to explain how changes in instrumentation have effected changes in musical substance.
On September 9, 1913, Stravinsky, his wife, three children, and nurse Sofia Dmitrievna left Russia at Alexandrov, the border station, en route from their summer home in Ustilug to their temporary winter one in Clarens. In Warsaw, where he had obtained the necessary exit visas the day before, Stravinsky was joined by his friend and co-librettist of The Nightingale, Stepan Mitussov. Having resumed work on the opera after his return to Russia from Paris at the beginning of July, Stravinsky completed the mechanical Nightingale’s music on August 1, and, three weeks later, the true Nightingale’s aria which precedes this japonaiserie. But another project had been taking shape in his imagination that must also have been discussed during that stopover in Warsaw. For it was Mitussov who, two months earlier, had supplied the manuscript of a song which occurs, virtually as he transcribed it, in the Fourth Tableau of Svadebka.
Stravinsky could not have turned his full mind to the new opus until The Nightingale was completed six months later. But he was thinking, and even talking, about it: a letter from Prokofiev to Miaskovsky3 repeats a rumor that plans were afoot to mount it as early as the autumn of 1914. Work on the libretto probably began during May and June. Stravinsky composed no music then—or since the completion of the first of the “Three Pieces for String Quartet” on April 25—and it is unlikely that he was idle creatively for so long, ceaselessly occupied as he was in the far less interesting world of music outside his own head. His notebooks of the time are filled with Russian popular verse, songs and chastushkas (folk rhymes), most of it capped with his scansion marks.
The need for additional texts, in any event, was the principal reason for a hurried trip to Ustilug and Kiev between July 2—on which date he completed the second of the string quartet pieces, in Leysin—and July 24, when he was safely back there working on the final one.4 Believing that war was imminent—this was a few days after Sarajevo—he went first to Ustilug to salvage some personal possessions, then to Kiev, where he stayed at the home of his father-in-law, 28 Annenskaya Street, and where he acquired a volume of wedding songs published (in 1911) as a supplement to Pyesni sobrannye P. I. Kireevskim—“Songs collected by P.[eter] V.[asilievitch] Kireevsky.” The songs in this volume served as the main source of the Svadebka libretto.5 (Kireevsky, who died in 1856, was a great Slavophile who compiled some twelve volumes of Russian folk songs, drawing on the work of many other collectors, including Pushkin.)
Once back in Switzerland, the song cycle Pribaoutki—on texts from Afanas’ev,6 the source, a few years later, of Histoire du Soldat—came first. During this time, however, and during a sojourn in Florence with Diaghilev in October, a version of the libretto was pieced together. And by November Stravinsky had drafted some, possibly most, of the music of the First Tableau; or so I deduce from a sketch, dated that month, for the section at 21, though the date merely refers to a succession of intervals on the same page that Stravinsky’s then seven-year-old elder son had sung (whistled? hummed?), and that his father, with the immemorial pride of the parent in the prodigies of its offspring, had written down. On November 15 Stravinsky composed a Polka. Surprisingly remote from Svadebka, it was the first of the Three Easy Pieces from which the whole of his so-called neoclassicism has been said to stem. But whatever the truth of that, one part of his amazingly compartmented mind—in which Renard and Svadebka were incubating at the same time with no tangling of stylistic lines—was always several steps ahead.
At the beginning of January, 1915, Stravinsky moved to the Hotel Victoria in Château-d’Oex where, except for brief trips, he remained until March. One night in a funicular near Clarens, he found himself with two deeply inebriated Vaudois for fellow passengers, one of whom sang a tipsy tune while the other interjected an accompaniment of hiccoughs. Stravinsky composed a hocket imitating this debauched duet, perhaps the only real hocket ever written though the name has been given to a style of two centuries of European music; and he made capital use of it in the Fourth Tableau of Svadebka, increasing the suggestion of drunkenness appropriate to the wedding feast by shifting the music from thesis to arsis. Then, in a powerful unifying stroke, he identified the hocket rhythm with the motive of the Groom, Khvétis Pamfilievitch, which dominates the ending of the work. It hardly needs to be said that what was actually heard in the funicular must have been very different from the constructions it inspired in Svadebka. But the incident is typical. Stravinsky was able to hear, and often noted down, the music in the rhythms and intervals of machinery, in street noises, in hurdy-gurdies and carousels—and in troubadours, intoxicated or otherwise, such as these Vaudois.
On another excursion (January 28), this time to Geneva, Stravinsky dined with Ernest Ansermet in Maxim’s Restaurant, where he happened to hear a cimbalom—which may not have provoked him to say “Eureka” though that is what he thought. Svadebka’s original subtitle was “Songs and Dances on Russian Folk Themes, for voices, woodwinds, brass, percussion, plucked and bowed instruments.” The plucked instruments were to have included balalaikas, guzlas, guitars, but these were replaced in the first scores by a harpsichord—a “plucked” instrument, after all—and a quintet of strings playing pizzicato. The cimbalom, which is not plucked but hammered with wood or padded sticks, nevertheless provided exactly the articulation Stravinsky required as well as a harder and more resonant sound than the jangly balalaika of his native land. It is a large-size dulcimer—the Biblical instrument, pictured on the Ninevah tablets, uncertainly invoked in Ulysses (“like no voice of strings or reeds or whatdoyoucallthem dulcimers”), but partly described by Pepys in his diary for May 23, 1662: “Here among the Fidlers I first saw a dulcimore played on, with sticks knocking on the strings, and is very pretty.”
That night in Geneva the player7 favored the composer—not knowing that it was the composer—with a demonstration of the instrument, and as a result Stravinsky purchased one for himself and had it sent to Châteaud’Oex, where he immediately added it to the orchestra of Svadebka. He taught himself to play it, moreover, drawing a chart of its thirty-five strings and notating the instrument’s fifty-three pitches on them at the places where they are produced on the actual strings. At first the instrument is indicated in his manuscripts by its Russian name, “tympanon,’ which is the name employed by its master-maker and master-player—its Stradivarius as well as its Paganini—Pantaléon Hebenstreit, whose patron had been Louis XIV. (Pantaléon’s only surviving tympanon, made in 1705, was among the effects of Sacha Votichenko, a descendant of Pantaléon, at the time of his death in 1971 in Scottsdale, Arizona—surely one of the odder cultural properties to have turned up in that state since the London Bridge.) In the next five years the cimbalon was never far from Stravinsky’s instrumental palette, but he was obliged to abandon it after that because too few players could read and play his music. Yet it remained a favorite instrument, and that most genial of his works, Renard, cannot be performed without it.
Two weeks later (February 15), Stravinsky was in Rome, playing The Rite of Spring (four-hands with Alfredo Casella, in a salon of the Grand Hotel), for a small audience invited by Diaghilev and including Rodin. At this time, Svadebka was unveiled privately for Diaghilev (cf. his letter of March 8 to Stravinsky in Château d’Oex), who heard further portions of it in the Hotel Continental, Milan, on April 1, and in Montreux at the end of April. But only creative digression from Svadebka between April and the end of the year was the composition of that miniature masterpiece of musical catnip, the Berceuses du Chat, the first phrase of which so resembles the first phrase of the soprano in Svadebka that the one could have suggested the other—and perhaps did, sketches for both being found on the same page. On January 4, 1916, however, in ever more straitened circumstances because of the war, Stravinsky accepted a commission to compose a chamber opera. This supervention was Renard, some of which had been written a year before; it could hardly have been a happier one, but Svadebka was shelved for seven more months.
Returning to it after that, Stravinsky was again and almost constantly interrupted: by the excerpting and reorchestrating of a symphonic poem from The Nightingale (completed April 4, 1917); by the composition of several short pieces including the “Etude for Pianola”8 (completed September 10, 1917); by four changes of residence; by frequent travels (three trips to Spain in 1916 in addition to quite regular visits to Paris, Milan, Rome); by endless questions relating to the performance and publication of his ever more famous works, and by pourparlers concerning commissions for future ones. For example, he had been asked, through Léon Bakst, to compose incidental music for Gide’s Cléopatre.9 Replying to Bakst, in Paris, from Morges (July 30, 1917), Stravinsky telegraphed that “Notions du réalisme et synthétisme pour la mise en scène ne m’explique[nt] rien. Attends Gide pour comprendre“—and the demand for the concrete is so characteristically expressed that the message could have come from any year of Stravinsky’s life, 1970 as well as 1917, mutatis mutandis in the matter of the authors.
In April, 1917, Stravinsky played virtually the whole of Svadebka for Diaghilev in Ouchy—and Diaghilev wept by all accounts including Stravinsky’s. A month later (May 30) the New York Herald quoted the composer as expecting “to finish Les Noces Villageoises this summer.” Yet the sketch-score was not completed until October 11, a delay that is in some measure attributable, I believe, to three shocks; the death of his beloved childhood nurse Bertha—“Bilibousch”—Essert (April 28), the death of his younger brother Gury (August 3), and the death of “his” Russia.
For though he hailed the Revolution at the time of its first convulsions—telegraphing to his mother and brother at “Khroukov Canal 6, Petrograd,” March 20, 1917: “Toutes mes pensées avec vous dans ces inoubliables jours de bonheur qui traverse notre chère Russie liberée…”—he became a Ukrainian revanchist soon after that (even writing to Swiss newspapers on the subject), and then, and more lastingly, an anti-Bolshevik, denouncing “Lénine” (in the same Herald interview) as a “fanatic.” He quickly foresaw the consequences to himself of the sundering from Russia, in any case, and realized that his voluntary exile was over and the involuntary one had begun. The lament in the epithalamium at the end of Svadebka is as much for the loss of Holy Mother Russia as for |the virginity of Nastasia Timofeyevna, Stravinsky’s stage bride.
The instrumentation was not yet finished on October 11, however, nor was it to be for another five and a half years. Writing more than a year later (November 19, 1918) to Otto Kling, of the English music publishers J. and W. Chester Ltd., Stravinsky discussed the score as if it were complete, but he was trying to negotiate a contract at the time.10 In a letter of April 6, 1919, to Gustav Gustavovitch Struve, of the temporarily defunct Editions Russes de Musique, he refers to Svadebka as “a cantato or oratorio, or I do not know what, for four soloists and an instrumental ensemble that I am in too great a hurry to describe.” But this ensemble—for which the music is fully scored to the end of the Second Tableau—is described in a letter of July 23, 1919, to Ernest Ansermet:
I do not know what to do with the “Noces.” It is ridiculous to stage this “divertissement“—for it is not a ballet—without décors, although the décors would not represent anything—being there simply for decoration and not to represent anything—with pianola, harmonium, 2 cimbaloms, percussion, singers, and conductor on the stage, together with the dancers….
The percussion was inspired by Histoire du Soldat, composed the year before; together with the pianola and cimbaloms, it shows Stravinsky well on the way to the martellato ensemble of the final score. He wrote to Kling again on November 23:
…as for the “Noces” you must put in the contract that it is to be described on affiches and in programs not as a “ballet” but as a “divertissement.” Here is the complete title of the work: ‘Les Noces” (village scenes): divertissement in two parts with soloists and chorus and an ensemble of several instruments.”
The contract was signed on December 7. But Pulcinella, the Concertino for String Quartet, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Mavra, and numerous smaller pieces were composed before Stravinsky could return to and complete the instrumentation. Still another letter to Kling (Paris, May 26, 1921) reveals the composer surrendering to the problem of synchronizing live instrumentalists with the machinery of the pianola:
As for the “Noces,” I am in effect completely reworking the instrumentation for a new ensemble of winds, percussion, and one or two parts for piano. I think that this new ensemble will suit us as well as the former version which includes mechanical instruments, something that could create all kinds of difficulties for you.
Winds or percussion—“sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal”? But apart from the winds he is nearing the final stage and perhaps the most original “orchestra” in twentieth-century music. The volume of sound is still small, evidently, and in fact the third and fourth pianos were not added, nor the arsenal of percussion instruments expanded to include heavy armaments, until the final score. Thus after beginning with an orchestra that, vast and varied as it was, virtually excluded percussion instruments, he ended with one of percussion only, and in the process arrived at the category of the actual orchestra of a Russian peasant wedding; for percussion instruments—pots and pans as well as drums, tambourines, cymbals—were bashed, hammered, clapped together, rattled, and rung throughout the ceremony and celebration in order to drive away evil spirits.
Typesetting the Russian text created new and unforeseen difficulties. Writing to London from Biarritz, August 29, 1921, Stravinsky advised his publisher that
[Although] the [proof] page that you sent to me is good…I ask you to draw the attention of your proof-readers to the Russian text. Literally not a single word is comprehensible. It is an agglomeration of letters with no sense. You must have a proof-reader who knows Russian. Unfortunately I will not have the time to rewrite the whole Russian text in the proofs—and, anyway, it is perfectly clearly written in the manuscript you have. Try to find a Russian proof-reader; so many Russians are without work at the moment.
On October 3, Stravinsky informed a London newspaper that “The Village Wedding” was finished. But he meant the two-hand piano-score, the final proofs of which did not come for another seven months, during which he composed the one-act opera Mavra. The full score was finally completed on April 6, 1923, in Monaco, where the ballet—or divertissement—was already in rehearsal, and the first performance took place June 13, at the Gaieté Lyrique in Paris, a full decade after the work was conceived.
III. A Note on the Sketches
Graphic analysis, in the case of Svadebka, is helpful as a guide to chronology, for as a rule Stravinsky’s Russian script is “printed,” rather than cursive, on the more mature and final sketches. (I should add that he drew most of the staves with his own stylus—a roulette, like a tiny, five-furrowed plough, invented and patented by himself though the idea may have come from the Rastral, a five-nib pen used to rule music paper in the eighteenth century. I should add, too, that he used transparent colored inks in some of the Svadebka sketches to facilitate reading abbreviated scores; if trumpets and oboes alternate on one line, for example, the music of the former might be “orange,” of the latter, “green.”) What the sketches reveal, above all, is that in the beginning was the word. In the very act of copying a text, Stravinsky added musical notations, setting a line of verse to a melody or motivic fragment; or giving it unpitched rhythmic values; or designating intervals or chords that had occurred to him in conjunction with it.
In this Stravinsky is at an opposite extreme from, say, Janácek, who, so he confessed, discovered “the musical motives and tempos adopted to demonstrating [the emotions] by declaiming a text aloud and then observing the inflections in my voice.” Stravinsky’s inspiration in his vocal works came directly from the sounds and rhythms of syllables and words, while structures of poems often suggested musical structures, wordless ones included, such as the imitation of a Russian Alexandrine by Pushkin in Apollo.11 And it is also clear from the sketches that Stravinsky’s musical rhythms and stresses are far more commonly suggested by the text than imposed upon it, and that his own claims to the contrary are greatly exaggerated.
In this manner the earliest of the musical notations sprouting directly from texts were used in the Fourth Tableau, which was the last one composed. (The first notation for the Fourth Tableau, the song contributed by Stepan Mitussov, occurs at about the halfway point.) But in more than one instance notations found on the same sketch page are widely separated in the final composition. Still, once having found his beginning, Stravinsky seems to have composed from beginning to end, though of course not measure for measure exactly as in the published score. (The chronology can be determined by sketches evincing instrumental improvements from one draft to the next.)
I should add that the sketches oblige all of us who have written about Svadebka to eat underdone crow, the largest helping of which is the reward of my own unwisdom. My recantation, moreover, must go all the way back to a statement, published somewhere in my first year of working with Stravinsky, to the effect that music and sound-image were simultaneous and inalterable occurrences in his imagination. This may be true in the case of some of his music—how would anyone know?—but is monumentally untrue in that of Svadebka, in which the sonority is continually and, in the end, totally transformed.
IV. A Note on Derivations
Stravinsky would never concede that the question of thematic origins was of the slightest importance, and though he was interested in ethnomusicology in his youth, the subject bored him later in life and he would not discuss it. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that all of the melodic material in Svadebka is closely related to folk and church music. What I cannot say for certain is how much was actually modeled and how much was “innate”—a combination of memory and of a phenomenal stylistic intuition. Yet I suspect that nearly all of it originated in Stravinsky’s imagination. Musicologists have triumphantly traced the phrase at two measures before 3:
which is from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Polnoe sobranoe sochinenii (1871). But Stravinsky’s sketches reveal that he began with an E minor triad and even further from Rimsky’s example than from his own final version.12
Béla Bartók observed in 1931 that
Stravinsky never indicates the source of his themes, no doubt because he wants to imply his indifference to the question. He has claimed the right to use any musical material in his works that he considers useful; and said that, once used, it becomes in some way truly his own. For lack of documents, I am incapable of determining which are the themes he has invented himself, in his “Russian” period, and which he has borrowed from popular songs. But one thing is certain: if among Stravinsky’s themes there exist—and surely there exist some—which are his own invention, they are extremely clever and extremely faithful imitations of popular songs. Moreover, it is remarkable that in his “Russian” period…the composer hardly ever uses melodies with closed structures, divided into two or three or more verses, but rather motives of two or three measures, repeating them in ostinato. These primitive, brief and often repeated motives are very characteristic of a certain aspect of Russian music…. [La Revue Musicale, 1955]
In one instance, however, it is possible to follow Stravinsky as he consciously transforms received material. For the music at 50-53 is derived entirely (and the music after 53 partly) from the Fifth Tone of the Quamennyi Chant,13 which is sung at the beginning of the Sunday Dogmatik in the Russian Orthodox Service. Here is a fragment of the Chant:
which, after several intermediate stages—including experiments with triplet notation (a symbolism for the Trinity at least as old as Philippe de Vitry)—Stravinsky altered to
Another fragment of the Chant
is merely transposed and extended by Stravinsky to
while still another phrase of the Chant
he converts to:
This last became the duet of the two priest-like basses (cf. 50), which is as close to a representation of the Orthodox service on the stage as Stravinsky ever came,14 for the singers are unaccompanied, following the Church rule, and are the only unaccompanied voices in Svadebka. Yet the entire Second Tableau, with, at the end, a basso ostinato (A-C-A-C sharp) imitating a great church bell, is “ecclesiastical” music.
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The critical bibliography is slender. The chapter on “Wedding Ceremonials and Chants” in Sokolov’s “Russian Folklore” (Macmillan, 1950, for the American Council of Learned Societies, pp. 203-223) is indispensable for the background—but not too far back. But the monograph “Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Les Noces‘, an outline by Victor Belaiev” (Oxford University Press, 1928) is worthless as musical analysis (“the melos of Les Noces…springs, as it were, from a single melodic germ which is presented in the opening bars”) and misleading in most other respects.
The only other essay worth the mention is in Kniga o Stravinskom—“Book about Stravinsky” (Triton, Leningrad, 1929, pp. 181-215) by Igor Glebov (pseudonym of Boris Asafiev), English translation by Richard French, 1972. Stravinsky repudiated Glebov’s essay in its entirety, and his copy of the book is strewn with question marks, profusely underlined, decorated with marginal rubrics. “What well-thought-out nonsense,” he writes at one place. And at others: “What good is all this stupid literature?” and “I am shocked by these pages.” When Glebov writes that “We must not forget that Svadebka is an incarnation of the ancient cult of birth and multiplication,” Stravinsky underscores the “We must not forget” and adds: “Better forget, for this has nothing to do with it.” At the end, the composer writes: “Dear friend” (he had known Glebov before the Revolution) “this is entirely your own concoction. Svadebka is something else than a symphony of Russian songs in a Russian style.”
When apprehensible at all, Glebov’s analysis of the melodic content in terms of “intonations,” and of the rhythmic structure in terms of numbers of measures, is irrelevant. Unfortunately, too, his better insights are substantiated with false arguments; thus, he understands the rhythmic mechanization as style but has obviously never heard of the proportional system on which it is based. He compares Svadebka to The Rite of Spring—inevitably at that time, when even non-Russians not making a case for the superiority of the composer’s “Russian” works were raising the specter of Antaeus. (By the mid-Twenties even dug-in Stravinskyans began to fear that without Russia the wells of the composer’s inspiration were in danger of drying up.)
But the two pieces can be more fruitfully compared for their differences than for their similarities. The Rite is a succession of dance movements, each, to a degree, complete in itself, and each manifesting a classical outline of a first section, middle section, recapitulation. Svadebka, on the other hand, is nonstop; its materials are exposed in fragmentary as well as complete form, as a name is evoked by its initials (pars prototo); and it depends on fusings, interweavings, trellises of cross-connection. Hence the unities of the two pieces are of a very different order. And finally, no matter how much new ground is staked out in The Rite, its antecedents—in the Russian “Five,” in Debussy—are apparent. Svadebka, however, is all new.15
Yet Glebov’s essay is worth reading for the “anthropological background,” the rituals and cultural traditions (of exogamous marriage, for one) or, in a word, for everything which Stravinsky took for granted but of which Western audiences are largely unaware. Glebov’s emphasis is often wrong; thus he exaggerates the role of the skomorokh,16 and misunderstands both the irony and the religion (greatly overdoing the pagan underground). Nor is he of any help with the text, even failing to mention Kireevsky. His terminology, too—“psalmody,” “clausula”—is anachronistic and inapt. Yet he is the only commentator who understands the vital element of lamentation. In addition, his hints—that the Druzhki’s music resembles the music of Russian village street criers, that the Matchmaker may be compared to Nekrassov’s character of that name—are invaluable for non-Russians.
And finally, Svadebka was new when Glebov wrote, yet he saw its originality and its true stature more clearly than any other critic of his time, or of ours. This is doubly remarkable when one remembers that he was writing in a country that had begun to shut down against its greatest composer. In fact the book was banned in the USSR, despite Glebov’s patriotic—or, better, telluric—invocation to Stravinsky at the end of this chapter: “Our musical age is the age of Stravinsky; Svadebka could have been composed only by a composer of a country in which the elemental power of communion with Nature [has] not yet been lost by the bourgeoisie.” The tone, though a little overwrought, is not unlike that of Turgenev’s deathbed letter to Tolstoy: “Great writer of the Russian land….”
V. The Scenario
Stravinsky composed the libretto—selected, colligated, and edited it—from Kireevsky’s collection of songs. But the first version was much longer than the final one, for Stravinsky had originally planned to dramatize the complete wedding ritual, and not to begin with the plaiting of the Bride’s hair, where the score now starts. His first draft of the scenario is as follows:
Fantasy in 3 Acts and 5 Scenes
a. At the Bride’s
b. At the Groom’s (An Incantation Against Sorcery—see page 49 [in Kireevsky])
a. Devichnik (The Bride’s Party) [Dyevishnik = Maiden’s Day, the day before the wedding]
b. The Girls Take Her to the Bath
In the Bride’s House Before the Departure for the Church
The Beautiful Table
I have been unable to determine at what point Stravinsky scrapped this more comprehensive scheme and abandoned the preliminary Matchmaking scenes, the Devichnik, and the ritual dunking17 of the Bride. The final version, in any case, reduced this plan to four scenes: Act II, Scene 1, a and b, Scene 3, and Act III, and it changed the content of Act II, Scene 1, b, abandoning the Incantation in favor of more barbering. The reduction in size was accompanied by a drastic change in genre. Whether or not Svadebka was closer to opera in Stravinsky’s mind than to the “ballet cantata” it finally became, he appears to have begun with musical characterizations in a conventional operatic way, fitting out the Druzhka (Best Man), for instance, with a hunting-horn fanfare—in his secondary role of Master of Ceremonies the Druzhka evidently blew a horn—which, transformed beyond recognition except for rhythm, became the music of the bass voice at 53.
In the final form of the work, roles of this kind do not exist but are replaced simply by voices, none of which is more than loosely identified with the stage characters. Thus the Bride and Groom may seem to be “sung” by, respectively, soprano and tenor; yet no direct identification exists and the same two voices also “speak” for the Bride and her Mother (cf. 21). Even the Groom’s final love song is “impersonated” for him by the bass.
The change in genre led to greater abstraction in the stage movement, too. Thus none of the four final scenes is actually “depicted,” “enacted,” or even narrated; by this time Stravinsky had renounced the use of narrative, substituting a collage of verse. In effect, Svadebka is a verse play for voices speaking out of turn. And as for the stage action, the choreography was conceived as an extension of music: this is to say that gesture and movement were to be stylized according to the rhythmic patterns of the music and not in imitation of popular or ethnographic dances.
As in The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky began with stage pictures in mind, even depending on them. But when the music had been completed he began to pare the stage directions away and actually to forget them, until there existed no picture but only music. Many of his stage directions in Svadebka are quotations from Kireevsky. The following are some from the sketches, all later than the scenario above, and intended for the fourtableaux final score—though only one of them appears there even in part. The first is a syndiasmic epigraph from Kireevsky than Stravinsky appended to an early draft of the full score:
Two rivers flow together
Two matchmakers come together,
They think about the ashblond braid,
How will we unplait this ashblond braid?
How will we part the braid in two?
The father and mother meet the bride with an icon, when she comes home from the bath. After the blessing, the bridesmaids seat the bride on a bench at the table, and place a dish before her, next to which they place a comb. Each bridesmaid approaches the bride, takes the comb from the table, combs her tresses, replaces the comb on the table and leaves some money in the dish. [Kireevsky, p. 241]
After that the bridesmaids take the bride to the middle of the parlor, and they themselves go up to the father and mother of the bride and make low bows before the icon. The bride, meanwhile, wails to her father and mother. [Kireevsky, p. 240, No. 876]
When the bridesmaids leave, the bride sits on the middle bench by the beautiful window and wails [laments] for her father and mother. Her parents bless her with the icon. The bride goes on wailing. [Kireevsky, p. 241]
The parents go to the bride and stand on both sides of her in turn, hugging and embracing her in turn.
The bridegroom’s train enters. The cart is drawn by village women from the opposite side of the stage from that on which the bride’s cart entered. In the cart are the bridegroom and his father and mother and best men. The mother is combing his locks.
The mother combs Khvétis’s locks, moistening the comb in kvas.
At the end of the Tableau, Stravinsky marks the measure in which
The groom’s train prepares for departure…
and the measures during which
The groom’s train departs slowly, in their carts.
Enter the bride’s cart (from the same side of the stage as in the First Tableau), all glittering with icons and mirrors. The characters (the same as in the First Tableau) are also dressed in sparkling clothes.
The backdrop is raised revealing a large room in a Russian izba. It is almost entirely filled by a table, around which a large number of people are seated. They eat and drink. A door is open at the back showing a large bed covered by an enormous eiderdown.
In the wedding parlor stands a table. On the table is a karavay [very large loaf of bread] with various wondrous decorations: the figure of a little man, a little bird, etc. This karavay is surrounded by other, smaller karavays, and by honey cakes, cookies, sweetmeats. The table is made of oak. The tablecloth is patterned [checkered?]. The dishes are made of wood. The mead is strong. The newlyweds eat the karavay first. The karavay signifies the marital union.
Svadebka ends with the following song, during which the druzhka and the svaxa [female matchmaker] lead the young couple to bed. When the druzhka and the svaxa have put them to bed and left them, the parents of Khvétis and Nastasia close the door, place four chairs in front of it, and sit on them. The act is over. The curtain falls slowly. The music continues throughout. At the very end a solo voice [tenor] sings, in a saccharine, or oily voice, drawing out the words:
“Uzh i dushka, zhanushka Nas- tas’jushka,
Pozhivem my x toboju xoro- shenichka,
Shtoby ljudi nam zavdyvali.”
VI. The Text
After Russian fairy tales and the celebrated epic poems about such heroes as Ilyá Múromyets and Dobrýnya Nikîtich, wedding songs are perhaps the largest and most interesting genre in Russian folklore. These songs, together with the wedding ritual itself, go back many centuries, and are extraordinarily poetic, rich in symbols and metaphors. The songs are not as well known in English as Russian fairy tales or epics, no doubt because of the lack of narrative in the wedding ritual; nor can many of the poetic and ritual expressions of the wedding ceremony be translated.
In his early period, Stravinsky found an almost exclusive source of inspiration in Russian folklore. The Firebird, Petrushka, Renard, the Four Russian Peasant Songs, the Pribaoutki, and Histoire du Soldat all derive from Russian folk material, while The Rite of Spring and The Nightingale have at least indirect connections with folklore, international as well as Russian. Stravinsky’s work had many different sources: folk tales, puppet theater, and lyric songs. Still we may wonder that Les Noces is so far removed from being a narrative in the normal sense, and so close to pure ritual. Although ballet is close to certain kinds of ritual, Les Noces has no direct parallel in the history of music or ballet. Stravinsky was the first to see that the wedding songs and ritual could be transformed into a moving work for the stage.
The Russian ‘peasant name for the wedding ceremony is svádebnaya igrá, or “wedding play,” “play” in the sense of a dramatic spectacle in which each of the participants plays out a traditional part and in which the imagination, artistic performance, and vicarious participation by the guests are all important. Stravinsky must have been attracted to the theatrical quality of these “roles”; his bride and groom are intensely human, yet they are not individuals, but symbols: they are caught up in something larger than themselves. No doubt this abstract quality suited Stravinsky’s aesthetics, as well as the aesthetics of the period, which also witnessed cubism and the early phase of constructivism.
Stravinsky puts greater stress on the rhythmic cadence of words and syllables than he does on their sense and imagery. One thinks of zaúm, “transsense” language in the Russian poems of such contemporaries of Stravinsky as Khlébnikov or Kruchónykh, a language which at times comes close to nonsense. But it would be quite wrong, I believe, to limit the aesthetic importance of the language of Les Noces to its rhythmic impact.
Russian folk songs are strongly “tonic,” with a fixed number of principal stresses to each line, and Stravinsky was highly conscious of the importance of this tonic principle. It is interesting that he chose, almost exclusively, folk songs with two principal stresses to the line, and avoided songs which have only a single stress or three stresses. Songs with single-stressed lines are relatively rare, while those with three principal stresses to the line tend to be narrative songs, often expanded to great length. Stravinsky preferred to use short lines from songs that do not tell a story. Often it was clearly the language, which is vigorous and expressive if not always beautiful, that attracted him. Moreover, lines with a double stress are doubtless more flexible; the triple stress requires a longer melodic line, which would tend to work against the percussive quality of this work.
By beginning after the marriage contract has been negotiated and the preliminary rituals are over and the main wedding ritual already underway—and by ending with the consummation—Stravinsky avoids a structure that is too schematic and ethnographic, as well as insufficiently dramatic. Though he generally remains faithful to the folk ceremony, he has not hesitated to change the conception of his work for dramatic reasons. For example, the Russian wedding ritual centers about the bride and her family, and largely ignores the bridegroom, no doubt because the wedding was a far greater emotional shock for the bride. The couple usually lived with the groom’s family, often in another village. While the daily life of the husband hardly changed, that of the wife was totally disrupted, usually for the worse, since she was automatically subordinated in her new household to the authority of her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law.
Instead Stravinsky has given us a more harmonious and balanced drama, in which the roles of bride and groom, are relatively equal. Thus, the second scene in which the bridegroom’s blond locks are curled parallels the first in which the bride’s hair is braided, though in the groom’s case this rite is less symbolic and was less frequently practiced. Similarly, at the end of Part I, in Scene 3, the mothers of both bride and groom lament their desertion by their children. In the folk ceremony only the bride’s desertion of her family was significant, since the groom after all remained at home. But the scene is psychologically sound: Stravinsky has deepened the lament, making it closer to human truth.
December 14, 1972
“Little Wedding,” a diminutive form of svadba, “wedding.” ↩
Read at Emerson Hall, Harvard, August 8, 1972. ↩
Miaskovsky: Correspondence (Moscow, 1969). ↩
He may have returned to Switzerland (Salvan) as early as July 13. A cable addressed to him there on that date from Diaghilev, in London, expresses the hope that “Svadebka suit son chemin.” ↩
The only source, actually, apart from three lines in Tereshchenko’s Byt russkago naroda (vol. 2, p. 332, 1848 edition, used at 93); and apart from Stravinsky himself, for the author of the unidentified lines, the neologisms, and the many amendments and modifications of the Kireevsky originals can only be the composer. At one time he also planned to borrow a line (at least) from Sakharov’s Pyesni russkago naroda, so marked by him in his father’s bound volumes of the 1838 edition (Song 229, p. 331). His father, who had one of the largest private libraries in Russia, owned a number of Kireevsky’s volumes, and Stravinsky was familiar with them when he was young. ↩
See A. Afanas’ev, Russian Fairy Tales, translated by Norbert Guterman, commentary by Roman Jakobson (Pantheon Books, 1945). ↩
Aladar Rácz, whose account of the meeting (“I played a Serbian kolo . Stravinsky wore a monocle, a red tie, a green waistcoat”), and, later, of Stravinsky purchasing a cimbalom (he “prepared the flour-paste, and cleaned the rusty strings himself”), is published in the Hungarian Book Review for May-August, 1972, together with some memoirs by Rácz’s widow. Both accounts contain chronological and other inaccuracies, however, as shown by a letter to Stravinsky, dated January 29, 1915, from his friend Adrien Bovy. ↩
The instrument was used for rehearsals of the ballet as early as 1912. In the fall of that year Diaghilev proposed that The Rite of Spring be “recorded” on it for Nijinsky’s rehearsals. An extremely interesting letter from Ansermet to Stravinsky, June 12, 1919, deals with some of the mechanical problems of the Etude. ↩
Stravinsky’s diary for August, 1917 includes a scheme for this. The project was not closed until December when Ida Rubinstein rejected Stravinsky’s conditions. ↩
Stravinsky’s contract with Diaghilev for the performances was negotiated for him by Ansermet in London in June, 1919. ↩
Not that Stravinsky’s musical imagination was dependent on words, of course. In November, 1947, after completing the scenario of The Rake’s Progress with Auden, he immediately composed the string quartet Prelude to the Graveyard Scene, being inspired by its subject but not yet having the libretto. ↩
Which is not to deny the many borrowings from the collections of Rimsky and others, including the Fire-bird melodies ↩
From the Oktoëchos or “Book of Eight Tones.” Russian ecclesiastical chant, which derives from the Byzantine, is based on a system of eight echoi. These are the Byzantine modes—as distinguished from tonoi, the Greek modes—and each of them possesses different melodic formulas. Thus the Sticheron (Psalm tropes), Troparion (hymns sung between the verse of the Psalms), and Irmos (a Byzantine strophic chant) are sung to eight different “Tones” (same sense as in Gregorian Chant), each of which includes three versions for the Sticheron, three for the Troparion, and three for the Irmos. Each, moreover, changes every week at Sunday matins. The Fifth Tone of Sticheron, the one Stravinsky chose, is sung after the matin Psalm, “Lord, I cried unto Thee,” and it occurs during the part of the service in which typological parallels are drawn between Old and New Testament prophecies. ↩
He was appalled by a project of Diaghilev to exploit the “theater” of the Church and its gorgeous robes, golden orarions, etc., in a ballet. ↩
Glebov’s likening it to Vecchi’s Amfiparnasso (1594)—cf. Casella’s little monograph on Stravinsky (1926)—is far-fetched but may have been suggested by Stravinsky himself, who was fond of throwing out false trails of this kind. ↩
An entertainer who performed at country fairs, singing, dancing, clowning, juggling. ↩
His sketches contain a note to the effect that “among the songs collected by Pushkin see pages 54-60 [Kireevsky]”; references are found to “dancing in the bath”; and a reminder to “See ‘Customs, Songs, Rituals, etc.’ in the Province of Pskov, pages 48-54 [Kireevsky],” which refers to the same thing. I should add that the sketches contain several reminders to look up words in Dal’s Dictionary. ↩