About this Piece
Requiem Canticles (1966) Introitus (T.S.Eliot In Memoriam) (1965) In Memoriam Dylan Thomas (1954) Mass (1948) Elegy for J.F.K. (1964) Chorale Variations On “Vom Himmel Hoch, Da Komm’ Ich Her” (1956) Cantata (1952)
Many composers have called Southern California home. Drawn by the mild climate and the creative opportunities in the film business, the universities and the beach, composers found a supportive environment here that encouraged experimentation and a certain un-New York informality. This surprisingly eclectic group has included luminaries ranging from cliché-wrecker John Cage to film composers like Bernard Herrmann (of Psycho fame) to the grand-daddy of the serialist movement Arnold Schoenberg, who took refuge here from the Nazis in 1934.
And, of course, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Even today, it is often forgotten that Stravinsky – born in Russia and associated in the popular imagination with the Slavic subjects of his early ballets Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring – actually lived in Los Angeles longer than he resided anywhere else, including his hometown of Saint Petersburg. Like so many other prominent artists, Stravinsky landed in the United States in 1939, fleeing growing political turmoil in pre-war Europe.
After a brief stop in Boston, he settled in evergreen Los Angeles, and eventually took up permanent residence at 1260 North Wetherly Drive, where he remained for nearly 30 years until moving to New York in 1969.
“If there ever was a home for Stravinsky, it was the house in West Hollywood,” Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director emeritus of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has observed. “Stravinsky is maybe the most important figure in the world of the classical arts ever to have lived in Los Angeles, even though for a long time there was very little appreciation of this fact, even in Los Angeles.” During the years he lived here, Stravinsky was remarkably and consistently productive. Many of his major new works (Cantata, In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, Agon, Elegy for J.F.K.), received their premieres in Los Angeles, and he regularly attended performances of the Monday Evening Concerts, an institution he had “come to regard with huge affection.”
At the same time, even at a distance of thousands of miles from Saint Petersburg and in a radically different cultural and meteorological environment, Stravinsky maintained and deepened his connection to Russian traditions and spirituality. As a double refugee (first from Soviet Russia, and then from Nazi-occupied France), the composer and his family (including his wife Vera) found solace and reassurance in the rituals of Russian Orthodoxy, the faith tradition in which he had grown up, and to which he had “reconverted” in 1926.
In their new California home, Stephen Walsh writes, “icons still graced the walls and desk, the panikhidi (requiem services) still came round with grim regularity, and Christmas, Easter, and birthdays were honored as much in church as at the dinner table. Stravinsky was and remained profoundly superstitious, a literal believer in the person of the devil and the actuality of holy relics.” Stravinsky wore a crucifix around his neck, and chose to be buried in the Orthodox section (Reparto Greco) of the cemetery on the island of San Michele near Venice.
And yet Stravinsky’s spiritual, intellectual, and artistic orientation was far from exclusively Orthodox. Living in France, he drew closer to Catholicism, for both theological and musical reasons. A major factor was that Orthodoxy forbids the use of musical instruments in church, and Stravinsky disliked unaccompanied singing.
Catholicism also boasted an incredibly rich tradition of instrumental/vocal musical models well suited to his neo-classical aesthetic. During the last decades of his life, Stravinsky turned increasingly to this Catholic tradition as an inspiration and stepping-off point. All the works on this program (completed between 1944 and 1966) combine voices and instruments in confronting issues of spirituality: faith, mortality, miracles, confession, repentance, communion. With the world at war, and as the inevitability of his own death drew nearer, Stravinsky entered a new phase in his protean career.
Mass originated in a visit Stravinsky paid to a second-hand music store in Los Angeles in 1942 or 1943. There he came across some masses by Mozart. “As I played through these rococo-operatic sweets-of-sin, I knew I had to write a mass of my own, but a real one.” Somewhat uncharacteristically, he began composing without a specific commission, and the resulting score possesses a notable sincerity, clarity, and personal commitment. Despite the emotional warmth of the piece, Stravinsky claimed that he wanted to write “very cold music, absolutely cold, that will appeal directly to the spirit.” Scored for double wind quintet and four-part choir, with boy sopranos and altos, Mass presents a rela- tively straightforward declamation of the familiar Latin text. For the most part, the harmony is diatonic, but with prominent cadences in several different keys.
The deep timbre of the wind ensemble (two oboes, English horn, two bassoons, two trumpets, and three trombones) at times imitates the sound of an organ, and the vocal setting often incorporates what sounds like medieval chant, especially in the Credo. Here, Stravinsky told writer Evelyn Waugh, “I wished only to preserve the text in a special way. One composes a march to facilitate marching men, so with my Credo I hope to provide an aid to the text. The Credo is the longest movement. There is much to believe.”
Cantata, a semi-sacred setting of four English anonymous lyrics of the 15th and 16th centuries, followed upon the success of Stravinsky’s first full-length opera (also in English), The Rake’s Progress in 1951.
Scored for soprano, tenor, female chorus and an instrumental ensemble of four players (two flutes, oboe doubling English horn, and cello), the awesomely complex musical language reflects both an ongoing interest in the works of J.S. Bach and in the system of 12-tone serialism developed by Arnold Schoenberg.
Stravinsky’s personal relationship with Schoenberg (who lived in nearby Brentwood) was strained and distant. Although for more than a decade they lived in the same city, worked in intersecting musical circles, and shared some acquaintances, the two men never apparently formally met. On numerous occasions they attended the same public events and concerts, but shunned the opportunity to converse. When Schoenberg died in 1951, however, Stravinsky sent a telegram to his widow calling his death a “terrible blow inflicted to all the musical world.”
Perhaps in tribute, the very next work that Stravinsky began, Cantata, incorporates Schoenbergian technique more completely than anything he had previously composed. Its central carol “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day” (Ricercar II) is a technical tour-de-force employing canon, inversion, and retrograde versions of an 11-note row. The tenor sings almost continuously for 165 bars. The First Ricercar (“The Maidens came”) contains a curious C-major tribute to Queen Elizabeth I, “our quen princis.”
In Memoriam Dylan Thomas:
Dirge-Canons and Song was the first of four tributes to deceased friends or public figures (Thomas, J.F.K., Aldous Huxley, T.S. Eliot) that Stravinsky would write in the coming years. Stravinsky met the Welshman Thomas (1914-1953), one of the greatest English-language poets (and drinkers) of his generation, only once, in Stravinsky’s Boston hotel room in May, 1953. They discussed several promising collaborations, including an opera about the last two survivors on earth after a nuclear holocaust. When Stravinsky learned of Thomas’ premature death from alcohol poisoning on November 9, 1953, he said “All I could do was cry.”
Stravinsky wrote his musical tribute to Thomas in early 1954, an intricate setting of his most famous poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” written in his father’s memory. Two instrumental dirges (for four trombones and string quartet) frame the song (tenor and string quartet). Entirely in canon form, the somber music derives from a short series of five notes.
Chorale Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her” (From Heaven above to Earth I come) by J.S. Bach belongs to a small group of arrangements of other composers’ music. Stravinsky’s lifelong admiration for (and imitation of) Bach grew in his late neo-classical period. Bach wrote these five canonic variations on Martin Luther’s Christmas hymn, all in the key of C, for two-manual organ and pedals. Stravinsky’s sprightly setting (for mixed chorus and orchestra) presents the chorale and five variations, the first and fifth in C major.
Elegy for J.F.K. was Stravinsky’s response to the shocking assassination of President Kennedy in November, 1963. Stravinsky had met the Kennedys at a White House dinner in early 1962, and called them “nice kids.” He told The New York Times, “I thought that the events of November were being too quickly forgotten, and I wished to protest.” For this succinct musical tribute, W.H. Auden supplied a new lyric (four stanzas, each a free haiku 17 syllables long) that Stravinsky set for baritone (or mezzo) and three clarinets, using a modified serial technique.
Introitus T.S. Eliot in Memoriam commemorates Stravinsky’s friendship with the Nobel Prize-winning, American-born man of letters, whom he revered “not only as a poet and sorcerer of words but as the very key-keeper of the language.” Composed soon after Eliot’s death on January 4, 1965, the Introitus is another august serial work, this time for the unusual combination of tenors, basses, harp, piano, two timpani, two tam-tams, solo viola, and double-bass. The text comes from the Introitus of the Latin Requiem, intoned in unison phrases, some of them declaimed in a whispered parlando sotto voce. Stravinsky took special pride in his use of the covered timpani to pound out the 12-note row on which the piece is based.
Requiem Canticles, one of Stravinsky’s last works, returns for inspiration to the Latin words of the Catholic Requiem Mass. Here, however, they are compressed and abbreviated into small fragments, in six vocal movements for contralto, bass, and chorus, framed by three instrumental sections (prelude, interlude, postlude) scored for percussion-heavy orchestra.
The “heavenly” sonorities of xylophone, vibraphone, chimes, harp, piano, and celesta create an other-worldly atmosphere amplified by unusual vocal effects, such as the juxtaposition of the chorus murmuring the words of the “Libera me” section while a quartet of soloists chants them.
Stravinsky admitted that composing a Requiem at his advanced age of 84 “rubs close to home.” That he was still exploring new horizons, however, seems clear from his use of two entirely different 12-tone rows. Despite the intellectual density of the Requiem Canticles, Stravinsky joked that “most listeners seemed to find it the easiest to take home of my last-period – or last-ditch-period – music, and though I know of no universal decision as to whether it is to be thought of as compressed or merely brief, I think the opus may safely be called the first mini-Requiem.”