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Stravinsky Rediscovered

Stravinsky’s Les Noces (Svadebka) may be less widely famous than his first three ballets - The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring - but it is as powerful, as fresh, as vibrantly original as any of them, and in its time has probably been as widely imitated. Unlike them, however, Les Noces missed out on the spectacular public success that goes with particular moments in art: the kind of shock impact of a Rite of Spring on cosseted late-Romantic sensibilities.

Stravinsky had his first idea for a peasant-wedding ballet in 1912, even before the Rite was complete and nearly a year before its riotous first performance in May 1913. But partly for circumstantial reasons to do with war and revolution, partly because of rapid and drastic changes in his own artistic language, Les Noces reached the stage only in June 1923. By this time not only had the whole face of modern music been transformed, but Les Noces itself had been given a series of major face-lifts turning it from a twanging ethnic fantasy into an austere expression of postwar anti-Romanticism, its original 40-or-so-piece band reduced to a quartet of pianos plus a percussion ensemble of mainly dry, unpitched sounds. By 1923, Paris had heard or seen Pulcinella, Renard, and Mavra, in that wildly confusing order; later the same year it heard the Octet. Hardly surprising if critical opinion, while relieved at Stravinsky’s ‘return’ to folk materials, was mystified by his artistic direction as a whole. And the situation wasn’t much helped by the work’s bizarre scoring, including a difficult part for chorus and vocal soloists, which made it doubly unlikely that dance companies would take it to their bosoms even after the expiry of Diaghilev’s exclusivity.


These and many other details are lucidly charted by the Stravinsky scholar Margarita Mazo in her editorial introduction to the new full score, and by the dance specialist Stephanie Jordan in a note on the work’s production history. Jordan reveals that up to the mid-sixties Les Noces was hardly restaged at all but that since then it has had nearly sixty different productions. The printed score hasn’t been so fortunate. I myself own a copy of the ‘seventh edition’ of the miniature score, bought in the late seventies, and also a slightly battered copy of the first edition, and as far as I can see they are printed (or in the later case photographed) from the same plates, with the same misprints and omissions. Not long ago I bought a vocal score, copyrighted in 1989 but still on sale fifteen years later, which also looks as if it comes from the original print. All these scores carry only the Russian text and French translation, with no sign of any phonetic transliteration of the cyrillic - though Stravinsky publicly insisted that the work be sung in Russian - and no hint of any English text, though Stravinsky’s own recordings are both in that language.


It’s hard to blame Chester for this state of affairs. They inherited Stravinsky in 1919, at a time when his previous Russian publishers had effectively been put out of action by the war, and they supported and published him in a period when most of his works were for bizarre combinations of voices or instruments which meant, in practice, that they were seldom performed. The Chester catalogue looks marvellous these days: Les Noces, Renard, The Soldier’s Tale, Ragtime, Piano Rag Music, the easy piano pieces, and a whole series of wonderful, groundbreaking songs. But at the time these works were a publisher’s nightmare, costly to produce and hard to sell or promote, at a time when money was particularly short. It didn’t help that their one moneyspinning Stravinsky work, the 1919 Firebird suite, turned out to have been sold to them under false pretences. After the Second War, Stravinsky would get furious with Chester for, among other reasons, their lack of enthusiasm for publishing new and even more oddly-scored versions of old works like the Russian choruses, which nobody seemed interested in anyway - the fact that Les Noces was hardly performed during those decades is symptomatic. Relatively, such music was out of fashion: ballet companies weren’t staging it, and of course concert organisers weren’t programming it. They would mostly have sympathised with Diaghilev’s exasperated reaction to an earlier version of the score, which, he grumbled, ‘leaves idle the musicians I’ve got, and asks me for only four, one of whom, however, I have to get from Honolulu, another from Budapest, and the others from God knows where.’

One other problem, impossible to resolve before now, emerges from Professor Mazo’s brilliant account of her editorial work on the Noces score: the problem, that is, of the sheer quantity of manuscript and printed sources. These are even more scattered than Diaghilev’s imagined instrumentalists, and even now, as she explains, crucial materials are emerging whose very existence was previously unsuspected. The work’s lengthy gestation and the many versions it went through are the main reasons. The prehistory of this score is more complicated than for any other Stravinsky work: more sketches, more drafts, more proof copies, not to mention more stray manuscript pages of the kind Stravinsky was in the habit of giving away as presents. As usual with his works of that period, there is no single score that an editor can take as a standard text which, will serve as the basis for a modern edition.

Everywhere there are problems, ambiguities, questions which arise precisely from Stravinsky’s pragmatic, essentially irrational approach to composition. For instance, in the final pages, where bells sound to mark the moment of procreation, conductors have always had to decide whether the omission of the pianos from (for some reason) two of the eighteen chimes was deliberate or a misprint. Mazo restores them, for reasons that are clear and incontrovertible. On the other hand she clearly has no truck with Pierre Boulez’s notorious claim that the rogue eleven-beat space between chimes eleven and twelve is a misprint and should be reduced to the eight beats that otherwise prevail. No source supports this claim. It exists only in the rational mind, which - when he was composing - Stravinsky’s was not.

Today, Les Noces is a repertory piece, and - as danced for instance in Irina Nijinska’s version of her mother’s original chorography - one of the few great ballets that survive as

integrated art-works, in the original World of Art spirit that first inspired the Ballets Russes. Supposedly a product of the cool, anti-emotional twenties, its ethnic elements tie in mysteriously with the constructivist procedures which Nijinska brought back to Paris from the early Soviet Union. Yet the fusion still brings tears to the eyes and a lump to the throat, in a way that few more overtly emotive works manage to do. It’s wonderful at last to have a printed text worthy of that integration.


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