On 28 November 1909 a notable concert took place in the hall of the Noble Assembly in the Russian capital, St Petersburg, to mark the 160th anniversary of Goethe's birth. It was entitled "Faust in Music". The idea of a "Faust concert" had arisen two decades earlier. It was actively discussed by Sergei Taneyev and Alexander Ziloti and warmly supported by Tchaikovsky. For various reasons the idea was not realized at the time and of the works selected by Ziloti and Taneyev on the Faust theme only Liszt's Faust Symphony was performed on 11 November 1889.
The planned concert took place only twenty years later. It again featured Liszt's Faust Symphony, together with Henri Rabaud's symphonic poem La Procession Nocturne inspired by Lenau's Faust, Mephistopheles' Serenade and The Song of the Flea from Berlioz's Death of Faust, (the name given in the concert programme (and indeed in Russia generally) to Berlioz's Damnation of Faust) and two further Songs of the Flea -- by Beethoven and Mussorgsky. Alongside the last two works was the comment: "Orchestration by I. Stravinsky". Both works, as the programme stated, were being performed in an orchestral version for the first time. The orchestra of the Imperial Russian Opera and Count Sheremetev's choir performed. Fiodor Chaliapin was the soloist and Alexander Ziloti conducted.
These works were of course no more than a brief episode in the life of a composer who stood on the threshold of outstanding accomplishments -- the trio of ballets that shook the world: Firebird, Petrushka and Rite of Spring. Those ballets and all the rest that would subsequently be written by a man who very soon became one of the central figures in the musical world of the twentieth century, cast a shadow over much of his early work, including the orchestrations now being published. Until recently they were mentioned only in lists of Stravinsky's compositions. Today, however, they have inevitably become objects of keen interest and attract close attention like everything that may provide information on the genesis of Stravinsky's creative personality, his roots and sources. "I saw and was glad" -- that was the comment the composer's son Fiodor Stravinsky left in the archive documents when, on 24 June 1974, during a visit to Leningrad, he visited the Russian Institute for the History of the Arts (the former Zubov Institute) and saw the works of his father kept there.
The "two characteristic orchestrations produced by Stravinsky for Ziloti's concerts: two 'Songs of the Flea' by Mussorgsky and Beethoven" were mentioned by Asafyev in his famous Book about Stravinsky as early as 1929. For more than half a century this remained if not the only mention of them, then at least the fullest description: both instrumentations appeared only in lists of the composer's works. Yet it is quite obvious that when studying a creative phenomenon of the scale and type of a Stravinsky, it is utterly impossible to pass over any of the forms that his work as a composer took, any of the manifestations of his artistic activity.
These two orchestrations appeared, like any commissioned work, to a large extent by chance. But in them - and quite naturally at that -- there manifested itself, revealed itself something exceptionally fundamental to Stravinsky's nature as a composer. Moreover, much that is specifically Stravinskian made itself felt for the first time. This provides grounds for listening to and examining them particularly closely. At a distance of almost a century, they look to have a significance entirely different from that which may have appeared to his contemporaries and to the composer himself at the time they were written. And if we are to speak of the two orchestrations of the Songs of the Flea as a chance occurrence, then with the essential qualification that this was non-coincidental and fortuitous chance.
And the first question that naturally arises is this: which stage in Stravinsky's creative development is reflected in these works? Of course, we can find in them connections with the artistic principles of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. The influence of Rimsky-Korsakov's personality on Stravinsky was very considerable. The pupil, consciously or unconsciously, imitated his teacher in many things, such as the presentation of a musical manuscript -- even the handwriting of the young Stravinsky is strikingly similar to that of Rimsky-Korsakov: narrow, clearly drawn letters stretching upwards, the same manner of writing notes, slightly sloping heads like strokes crossing through the lines of the stave, with the same inclination of the uprights, the sharply drawn stems.
Stravinsky studied form and harmony with Rimsky-Korsakov, but in his memoirs the pupil laid emphasis above all on the lessons in orchestration. Strict organization, order, immaculate discipline in the part writing, a preference for pure timbres and the characteristic quality of the timbre palette, the virtuoso employment of all manner of instrumental technique, Rimsky-Korsakov's loved ensembles of French horns and bassoons, the various soli and flexible transitions to tutti and the utterly Rimsky-Korsakovian -- treatment of the fullsounding tutti's -- all of these features of both the scores are undoubtedly evidence of the schooling that the young composer had received.
It is not irrelevant to add here that the admiration that Stravinsky felt for Beethoven in his later years was also evoked above all by the orchestral-timbre qualities of the great classic composer's works. There is no doubting that for Stravinsky music set down on paper -- in respect of both pitch and rhythm -- did not exist in separation from its tone colour and it is no coincidence that he reflected on this in connection with Beethoven's instrumental idiom and orchestration.
It is, however, no coincidence that of the two orchestrations only the score of Mussorgsky's Song of the Flea bears the imprint of other creative influences (apart from Rimsky-Korsakov) experienced by the young Stravinsky.
We remind the reader that his close contacts with the World of Art group, his involvement in the Evenings of Contemporary Music and his partiality for the music of Debussy did not escape the attention of his somewhat chagrined teacher.
Indeed, is there not a certain link between Stravinsky's orchestration and Debussy's La Mer in the use of solo cellos and cor anglais (of course, in Stravinsky's score these are no more than details, but very eloquent details); is there not in the way the woodwinds, and to some extent the brasses also, are used, in the rapid juxtaposing of fragments that are emphatically different in acoustic space and tonal density, and also in the search for new colouring a sense of the influence of the Russian composer's great older contemporary who for a few years became a very important point of creative reference for him?
There is a number of Stravinsky's works in which the influence of Debussy can be detected: the first act of the opera Le Rossignol, to some extent The Firebird, the two songs to poems by Verlaine, the cantata Zvezdoliki and the introduction to the second part of The Rite of Spring. The orchestration of Mussorgsky's Song of the Flea can with justification be added to this list.
In the orchestration of Beethoven's song such specific influences are not in evidence. On the contrary it seems to be entirely immersed in the context of the "general conceptions" about the music of the past that were fairly widely held in Russia. At this time Beethoven was quite remote from Stravinsky's interests (the more so as he was psychologically established in his student reflex reactions as a burden that needed to be shrugged off). But in actual fact the contact between the young composer and the masterpiece created by Beethoven a century earlier proved to be charged with immense heuristic energy that was only awaiting its time to come into action.
The two orchestrations, each in its own way, made an inestimable contribution to the establishment of a number of fundamental principles that shaped the mature Stravinsky's orchestral writing. For example, he is extremely consistent in his ensemble treatment of the orchestra - a highly characteristic feature of the composer's style: both scores are full of constant, rapid changes and juxtaposings of a variety of ensembles and microensembles. This is irrespective of the fact that for Beethoven's Song he chose a modest paired composition for the orchestra (without percussion and almost without brass), in contrast to the opulent triple line-up for Mussorgsky's Song (with some additional instruments, low brass and two harps).
Moreover, the more powerful the orchestra, the less it is used in its entirety. For that reason, the tutti effect that appears several times in the course of the Mussorgsky orchestration is never once marked by the full use of all the performing instruments, and the only moment when there really is no rest indicated on any of the lines of the score is the first chord!
The kinship and the contrast between the orchestrations must have been nourished by the common poetic primary source, by a number of similar and contradictory readings of Goethe's text by Beethoven and Mussorgsky, and above all by Stravinsky's authorship itself. Hence we have possibility not only to examine each orchestration individually, but also both orchestrations -- and both Songs of the Flea -- as a single text.
A new kind of texture is found in these works -- the heterophony that would subsequently be dominant in Stravinsky's scores. Heterophonic formations are a characteristic component in the Songs of both ensemble and full-orchestral instrumentation. The combination of variant lines played simultaneously is Stravinsky's -- effectively heterophonic -- discovery and it took place in the orchestration of the two Songs.
A distinguishing, strikingly characteristic feature of Stravinsky's orchestral writing -- the abundance of rests, pizzicati and staccati of various kinds that turn his scores into tracery that is transparent, light, but at the same time sharp11 -- seems to have been tried out for the first time with such consistency precisely in the orchestrations of the two Songs of the Flea: among other things the strings play either pizzicato or arco staccato (this applies particularly to the Beethoven score).
Summarizing, we note that the two orchestrations were an event in Stravinsky's compositional life. Both are marked by an initial creatively active purpose. In both Stravinsky's keen mind and penetrating ear come into play. Both orchestrations have been executed with exceptional mastery and polish, betraying the touch of an artist with a virtuoso command of the voice and language of the orchestra: not only every instrument, but every combination, be it an ensemble or an orchestra, possesses those individual, specific characteristics as far as Stravinsky is concerned.
Vividly expressed in both orchestrations is the exceptionally keen, integral yet flexible sense of another's style that was so inherent in Stravinsky and was powerful and creatively productive to the highest degree. It was right here that a type of contact with the musical legacy of the past characteristic of Stravinsky first manifested itself: every time this artist turns his attentions to someone else's text it inevitably leads to a significant enrichment of it with new artistic meanings and subtexts, and also, as a rule, an element of recomposition, a reworking of its internal structure.
We recall how very differently Mussorgsky and Beethoven came into Stravinsky's life and how differently they passed through it. Mussorgsky's Song of the Flea was the first actual creative encounter between that composer and Stravinsky: later too he orchestrated and arranged his works on several occasions. The orchestration of Beethoven's Song of the Flea, by contrast, was, strange as it may seem, Stravinsky's only direct treatment of his legacy. It concluded a fairly significant stage in Stravinsky's dealings with his music. These dealings were, admittedly, coloured by the prosaic, at times even unhappy experiences of a student.
In later years too, as has already been noted, Mussorgsky and Beethoven represented very different plot lines in Stravinsky's creative life. After a burst of interest in Mussorgsky's music (in his youth and again late in life, in connection with his visit to Russia) it remained something fairly remote for Stravinsky (but not in any way alien!). Beethoven, though, was to become Stravinsky's idol in the last years of his life. It was precisely through his contact with Beethoven's music that he adapted to his new status as a listener rather than a composer.
The two plot lines crossed, tightly and productively, on only one occasion -- the orchestral reinterpretation of the two composer's Songs of the Flea. They provide us with an opportunity, rare and therefore all the more precious, to discover how and what Stravinsky heard in Mussorgsky and in Beethoven. The analysis of Stravinsky's orchestrations might be directed at his understanding and presentation, at establishing the nature of the inevitable deviations from the source text: it was necessary to reach an understanding of what the composer saw (heard) and what he wanted to fit into the lines of the score.
Because the orchestrations of the works of those composers are above all interpretations of them by Stravinsky, a Stravinsky on the eve of the coming discoveries.