Igor Stravinsky: Les Noces

(The Wedding)

May 30, 2015, 8:00 pm
Jordan Hall

New England Conservatory
30 Gainsborough Street
Boston MA 02115

Map • Phone: (617) 267-7442

The Arts Fuse wrote: “Capping its 66th season in Boston, the celebrated ensemble Chorus pro Musica will not only bring its musicians and vocalists to the stage, but local dancers as well. The ambitious evening will range the gamut — from folk songs for children to Stravinsky’s masterpiece Les Noces. The latter will feature new choreography by BoSoma Dance Company, bringing two local establishments together in this zesty season closer.”


Daniel Pinkham: “Awake, O North Wind” (from The Wedding Cantata)
Eric Whitacre: This Marriage
Bob Chilcott: Aesop’s Fables (selections)
— The Hare and the Tortoise
— The North Wind and the Sun
— The Goose and the Swan
Joe Gregorio: Frog went a-courtin’
Igor Stravinsky: Les Noces featuring the following soloists


Daniel Pinkham: Awake, O North Wind

Daniel Pinkham was born in Lynn and spent his life in the Boston area, achieving great success as a composer, an organist, and a beloved and influential teacher. He taught at the New England Conservatory of Music from 1959 until his death in December 2006, and also taught at Simmons College, Boston University, and elsewhere. Pinkham was one of the most prolific 20th century American composers, writing in a variety of styles and forms.

“Awake, O North Wind” is from Pinkam’s Wedding Cantata, a setting of the Biblical Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), which celebrates sensual love and the delight two lovers take in each other. The text is short, and its symbolism fairly clear: “Awake, O north wind, and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.”


Eric Whitacre: This Marriage

Since embarking on his professional career in 1997, Eric Whitacre has become arguably the most popular choral figure of the present day. He received a 2012 Grammy award for Light & Gold, his first recording as both composer and conductor (it was his second Grammy nomination). In addition to his choral and wind ensemble compositions, Whitacre is also known for his “virtual choir” projects, bringing individual voices from around the globe together.

Whitacre writes, “This Marriage is just a small and simple gift to my wife on the occasion of our seventh wedding anniversary.”


Bob Chilcott: Aesop’s Fables

Bob Chilcott is a British choral composer, conductor, and singer. He sang in the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, both as a boy and as a university student, and in 1985 joined the King’s Singers, singing tenor with them for 12 years. Chilcott is well known for his compositions for children’s choirs. He is associated with the New Orleans Children’s Chorus and the Crescent City Festival in New Orleans. His setting of Aesop’s Fables was published in 2008. This evening we perform three of the five fables: “The Hare and the Tortoise,” “The North Wind and the Sun,” and “The Goose and the Swan.”


Joseph Gregorio: Frog went a-courtin’

Composer and conductor Joseph Gregorio is director of choirs at Swarthmore College; he also leads the chamber choir Ensemble Companio, which he founded in 2011 and which won the 2012 American Prize in choral performance. In 2015, he was selected as a grantee by the Ann Stookey Fund for New Music, and in 2011–2012, he was the composer-in-residence of the New York City ensemble Choral Chameleon. He holds music degrees from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Yale, and Cornell. His a cappella setting of the American folk song “Frog went a-courtin’” was published in 2012.


Igor Stravinksy: Les Noces

A singular figure in 20th century music, popular yet always controversial, Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum, Russia, a resort town on the Gulf of Finland near St. Petersburg. His father was a successful bass at the Imperial Opera House, and the family lived near the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Young Igor spent most of his free time at the Maryinsky, where he was allowed to attend opera rehearsals and where he nurtured what became a life-long devotion to ballet.

Stravinsky began piano lessons when he was nine years old and not long afterwards started lessons in harmony and counterpoint. He parents insisted that he enter law school in 1901, but his studies were interrupted when political unrest closed the University in 1905; meanwhile (in 1902) his father died, and from 1906 he turned his focus exclusively to music.

A protégé of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908, Stravinsky attracted the attention of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring(1913). It was during this string of successes that the idea came to Stravinsky of writing a choral/dance work about a Russian peasant wedding. He was then living with his wife and young children in Switzerland, however, and had no access to material for the text.

In 1914, he traveled to his family’s estate at Ustilug (Ukraine) and to Kiev, where he located extensive anthologies of Russian folk poems by Piotr Kireyevsky and Alexander Afanasiev that proved to be rich sources of material, not just for Les Noces but for a series of song settings and the chamber opera Renard. That trip proved to be Stravinsky’s last visit to Russia until 1962, due to the disruptions of the World War and the Bolshevik revolution.

Stravinsky worked longer on Les Noces than on any of his other compositions—some nine years from the first sketches until its premiere in June 1923. During that time, he tried out several orchestrations, starting with a large group of about 150 instruments (similar to his earlier ballets) and in 1919 completing a draft that included mechanical pianola, harmonium, and two cimbaloms (a type of hammered dulcimer)—an ensemble with an exotic effect something like an Indonesian gamelan. The final version employs four pianos, tympani, xylophone, snare drums, side drums without snares, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam, triangle, tambourines, a bell, and two antique cymbals. Stravinsky called the sound “perfectly homogeneous, perfectly impersonal, and perfectly mechanical.”

Les Noces can be considered the peak of Stravinsky’s “Russian” period, when he drew on Russian musical traditions and cultural themes to achieve his first great creative success. It was also his last major “Russian” composition; by 1923, he had turned to themes from Greek mythology and music of the Classical period, leading to compositions such as Oedipus Rex and Apollon.

Stravinsky emphatically denied that Les Noces was a work of folk music (along the lines of roughly contemporary work by Bartok, Kodály, Vaughan Williams, and many others, including Kireyevsky’s field work). He later wrote, “I borrowed nothing from folk pieces. . . . Ethnographic questions occupied me very little.” However, there’s no question about the essentially Russian character of the piece, and several authors have pointed out the colloquial and idiomatic character with which Stravinsky imbued his text.

As for the actual folk connections, they were demonstrated convincingly by the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble, in performances, writings, and a 1994 ground-breaking recording that includes both Les Noces and many folk songs with direct connections to Stravinsky’s work.

With its complex meters, clashing harmonies, and sudden shifts in tone and subject, Les Noces is clearly more than a collection of folk songs. Here, as in his earlier ballets, Stravinsky refracted “primitive” material into a new form. His goal was a direct, unmediated experience. Parallels could be drawn to the visual abstractions and distortions of Picasso (whom Stravinsky greatly admired) or to the narrative distortions of contemporary writers such as James Joyce—as Stravinsky himself noted:

As a collection of cliches and quotations of typical wedding sayings, [Les Noces] might be compared to one of those scenes in Ulysses in which the reader seems to be overhearing scraps of conversation without the connecting thread of discourse. But Les Noces might be compared to Ulysses in the larger sense that both works are trying to present rather than to describe.

In his libretto, Stravinsky enjoyed playing up the “country” nature of the peasant celebration, emphasizing the sounds of southern and western dialects. Choral director Marika Kuzma has pointed out many examples of odd pronunciations and words that emphasize this. Those accents and inflections are meant to make a similar impression to Russian ears as Americans might get from the dialect in Oklahoma or, perhaps, Fiddler on the Roof. (Tonight’s audiences might get a touch of that flavor in “Frog went a-courtin’.”)

Les Noces is driven by a great sense of rhythmic vitality and exuberance, which binds all the performers together. Everyone must pay close attention and act in perfect synchronization, or the whole edifice collapses. At the same time, the music is bright and energetic, full of high spirits. A successful performance is thus naturally “in the moment,” with little chance for artifice or self-consciousness. The excitement is heightened still further by the dancers, who physically channel the rhythmic energy. The result is just what Stravinsky intended: not a description of a celebration, but the thing itself.

Program notes compiled by Peter Pulsifer

The Boston Globe: “The chorus kept the party going with rhythmically energetic, up-all-night industry.”