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Stravinsky's Vocal and Choral Works

An owl
Key works

  • Pribaoutki for Male Voice and Eight Instruments
  • Les Noces (The Wedding)
  • Symphony of Psalms
  • Mass
  • In Memoriam Dylan Thomas
  • Canticum Sacrum Cantata
  • Threni (Lamentations of Jeremiah)
  • A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer
  • Abraham and Isaac
  • Elegy for J. F. K
  • Requiem Canticlesv
  • The Owl and the Pussy Cat

Stravinsky wrote many songs and vocal works throughout his life, often featuring a wicked sense of humour. The ones selected here are those that have made the biggest impact on the repertoire and those which feature Stravinsky's characteristic idiosyncrasies, unusual instrumentation or other odd features.

Written in 1914, Pribaoutki (Nonsense Rhymes) is a set of four witty, brief songs for solo voice and eight solo instruments. Les Noces (The Wedding) was conceived in 1914 as a "dance-cantata" describing a peasant wedding in the depths of 19th century Russia. It took Stravinsky until 1921 to finally arrive at the extraordinary sound presented in this piece, using four soloists, choir, percussion and no less than four grand pianos. It is striking though sometimes difficult to bring off successfully. Its requirements mean that performances are few and far between.

"It is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung," wrote Stravinsky about his Symphony of Psalms. "On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing." The Symphony was commissioned by Koussevitsky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston SO in 1930. Written for choir (including a children's choir) and orchestra it is one of Stravinsky's central and most significant works. In its three movements lasting some 23 minutes he expresses a deep Christian faith (he had rejoined the Orthodox church in 1926) using a Latin text of three of the Psalms of David.

Stravinsky's Mass was intended as a liturgical work to be performed in churches as part of a Roman Catholic service (musical instruments are forbidden in the services of the Orthodox Church). It seems surprising that its first performance was in La Scala, Milan in 1948. It is in Stravinsky's coldest, most severe manner and is scored for mixed chorus and ten wind instruments.

Stravinsky had hoped to compose an opera in collaboration with Dylan Thomas and the poet's death in 1953 was "a terrible blow to me as well as to all those who knew Dylan Thomas's genius." Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night," with the refrain "Rage, rage against the dying of the light," is set for tenor and string Quartet framed with a dirge for four trombones.

The remainder of Stravinsky's choral and vocal works belong to his late serial period. Canticum Sacrum (1955) features tenor and baritone soloists, chorus and an ensemble of woodwind and brass with harp, organ (the first work in which Stravinsky used the instrument) with violas and double basses. Time magazine reviewed the first performance in St Mark's, Venice, under the headline "Murder in the Cathedral".

Threni (1958) is Stravinsky's largest work after The Rake's Progress using six soloists, mixed chorus and a huge orchestra. It is completely 12-note and sets a Latin version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer is another work on a large scale in terms of forces used. The sermon is from St Paul, the narrative tells of the stoning of St Stephen and the Prayer is by an English playwright, Thomas Dekkar. Abraham and Isaac (1963) uses Hebrew text but, according to Stravinsky, this is not to be translated - the sense is in the sound the text makes as part of the music, not in its meaning.

Elegy for J. F. K. (1964) sets a text by W H Auden for baritone or mezzo-soprano with three clarinets. Requiem Canticles (1966) is another large scale work for chorus and orchestra with texts that are reminiscent of Verdi's Requiem, which Stravinsky was studying at the time. It sets parts of the mass with a string instrument prologue, a wind interlude and a percussion epilogue. The nine movements sound nothing like Verdi, being exclusively twelve-note. Even Edward Lear's nonsense poem, The Owl and the Pussy Cat, was made into a short twelve-note composition for soprano and piano. It was Stravinsky's last work in 1966.

© Kevin Stephens/BBC

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