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Lost and Found: The Rediscovery of Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, Op. 5

It isn’t every day that a score by a major composer disappears for 108 years and then, miraculously, resurfaces. But that’s what has happened with one of Igor Stravinsky’s earliest works. The manuscript of the long-lost Funeral Song, Op. 5 was found at the St Petersburg Conservatoire last year. It was written as a tribute to Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, and was performed only once in 1909. That is, until last Friday when Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra brought it back to life at a late-night concert in St. Petersburg.

Stravinsky could barely remember this music when he wrote his memoirs in 1935:

…The best of my works before The Firebird…Unfortunately, the score of this work disappeared during the revolution… I no longer remember the music, but I recall very well my idea for the work. It was like a procession of all the soli instruments of the orchestra, coming in turns to each leave a melody in the form of a crown on the master’s tomb, all the while with a low background of murmuring tremolos, like the vibrations of bass voices singing in a choir.

Stravinsky specialist Natalya Braginskaya recently told the story of the score’s rediscovery:

It was the autumn of 2014 when the building was closed for the thorough overhaul. The moving of the library where tonnes of musical scores were kept in a very small space was one of the most difficult tasks. Priceless orchestral voices were found already in 2015 on the ground floor of the library. They were buried under several layers of scores that were not listed in the catalogues as they were filed away in storage. On the title page of one of those scores we have found the stamp that said Russian symphony concert and at that moment we have immediately understood that this is the one.

Below is last Friday’s performance. If you associate Stravinsky with serial compositions such as the 1959 Movements for Piano and Orchestrathe romanticism of Funeral Song may shock you. You can hear foreshadowings of The Firebirdespecially in the hushed, mysterious string tremolo of the opening. As with The Firebird, there are echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov’s glistening orchestration. Even more amazing is the imprint of Wagner, a composer who Stravinsky later claimed to abhor. And you may even hear subtle references to Tchaikovsky. (For example, listen to the snarling ascending chromatic lines in this passage, or the tragic drama of this minor chord near the end, which reminded me of a similar sound in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet). Forget about the riot-inducing primitivism of The Rite of Spring and all of those dry, witty neoclassical compositions which would come later. Here we’ve unearthed a truly rare find: Stravinsky the unabashed Romanticist.

Update: You can hear the performance at 45:16 at this link.

3 Responses to Lost and Found: The Rediscovery of Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, Op. 5

  1. Peter Harter December 7, 2016 at 5:51 am #

    What a cool story. It just makes you wonder how many scores are sitting around in libraries that we will never hear because we don’t dig deeply enough. We only really listen to and record a few pieces from each period. It was this library digging that led Mendelssohn to rediscover Bach in the 19th century. If he hadn’t done his scholarship perhaps Bach would be lost to history. Some scholars think that William Blake would have fallen into obscurity if not for the lucky discovery of Jeffery Keynes, generations after his death. It is an intriguing idea that there are great ones from the past who have yet to be discovered.

  2. Peter Harter December 7, 2016 at 6:15 am #

    Why does this remind me McPhereson’s “Ossian”- and the controversy surrounding its authenticity? It also was supposedly pieced together from disparate sources, but many people accused McPhereson of writing it himself. Has nobody any qualms about the authority of this work?

    • Timothy Judd December 7, 2016 at 7:17 am #

      Thank you for your comments, Peter. It’s an interesting idea, but so far the authenticity of this score has not been questioned.

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