Stravinsky's Arm Farts

Dec 11, 2010

In his autobiography “Chroniques de ma vie” Stravinsky describes his first childhood memory of sound: an enormous bare legged peasant seated on the stump of a freshly cut tree singing a two-syllable nonsense song and accompanying himself with what we as kids used to call “arm farts.” The tune this old deaf and dumb peasant sang had only two syllables, the only ones he could pronounce. “They were devoid of any meaning, but he made them alternate with incredible dexterity in a very rapid tempo. He would accompany this clucking by pressing the palm of his right hand under his left armpit and would work his left arm with a rapid movement, making it press on the right hand. From beneath his red shirt he extracted a succession of sounds which were somewhat dubious but very rhythmic, and which might be euphemistically described as resounding kisses.”

The young composer-to-be rushed home to his family summer place in the Ukrainian countryside and practiced the technique assiduously until he was so successful at it that his parents forbade him to indulge in such an indecent accompaniment. (“Igor, stop that this instant, or go to your room!”)

Another early memory from the same summer is of peasant women from a neighboring village singing in unison on their way home from work. “I clearly remember the tune, and the way they sang it, and how, when I used to sing it at home, imitating their manner, I was complimented on the trueness of my ear.”

The subject of Stravinsky’s Russian roots is by now very familiar territory for musicologists, the best known examination of which is the megawatt analysis in Richard Taruskin’s “Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions.” It’s in Taruskin’s book that many readers for the first time encounter the term “Turanian,” a word that sounds more like something out of a William Burroughs futuristic sci-fi fantasy than a weighty tome of musicological exegesis. (Burroughs on Stravinsky: “Turanian Igor, the Heavy Metal Kid, on the lam and searching for an angry fix in the tired subway dawn…”).

No, the “Turanian” impulse in Russian art and culture was somewhat of a dreamed up idealization of a primitive, Eurasian Russia, a “pure” Russia uncorrupted by the decadent sophistication of Western Europe as typified by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and their cosmopolitan importing of French, English and German values into a Slavic setting.

There’s no better way to get the full flavor of this imagined return to his “ethnic” roots than Stravinsky’s “Svadebka.” I recently had the chance to conduct a performance of the piece at that great Dutch concert hall, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the total immersion I experienced for the weeks leading up the performance brought home once again the astonishing fertility of Stravinsky’s musical imagination and the technical mastery employed to bring it into play.

“Svadebka,” the most Russian of all the composer’s pieces, has paradoxically been known to most of us by its French title, “Les Noces.” It is a celebration of a peasant wedding out of that mythic “Turanian” past that Stravinsky imagined for the Russia he could no longer live in.

Stravinsky later claimed that of the dozens of sung melodies that form the basis of the piece, all but one were of his own invention. This is a fiction that the Taruskin study pretty much explodes by examining in detail the material’s close relationship to many folk tunes, most of which were mined by the composer from a mid-nineteenth century collection by Pyotr Kireevsky. Composers appear to be exceptionally unreliable when relating their creative processes. (Just this week, while cleaning out a closet, I discovered several old music sketchbooks dating back to 1984-5 when I composed “Harmonielehre.” The sketchbooks appear to contradict my long-held and oft-repeated tale of how I began the piece—but that’s a story for another time.)

“Svadebka” (or “Les Noces”) might be more popular with American audiences if it were performed more. But its instrumentation, consisting of four grand pianos and percussion, makes for a problematic if not impossible furniture issue on any symphony orchestra program. One would have to completely reset the stage, not to mention footing the expense of obtaining four grand pianos, for every rehearsal and performance. Plus the choral text needs to be sung in Russian, and the text is very long, requiring choruses to spend months phonetically mastering what for most is an alien and difficult tongue. As a result this profoundly original music, the most “Russian” of all Stravinsky’s works, is seldom heard in live performance. Compared to “The Rite of Spring,” “Petrushka,” or “Firebird,” it is a composition that you might know about from a recording, but chances are that you’ve rarely experienced it live.

Part ceremonial evocation and part all-night drunken dinner party, the “scenario” (such as it is) is based on the highly ritualized stages of a rural Russian peasant wedding. It begins with the “plach,” which is a keening, wailing lament by the bride-to-be. She bemoans the coming departure from her home and her family in a penetrating melody full of jerking, sobbing grace notes. The original Diaghilev ballet, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinksa, sister of the great dancer Nijinsky, calls for a long line of young women surrounding the bride and ceremonially plaiting her long blond tresses.

In a study of the piece’s ethnic sources, “Stravinsky’s Les Noces And Russian Village Wedding Ritual,” the musicologist Margarita Mazo spent over ten years visiting rural Russia, cataloguing and analyzing the various styles of folk singing and their relationship to social functions.

Mazo concluded that the wedding ceremony was the most elaborate and most ritualized of all rite-of-passage festivities. And she cites how wildly dramatic, even to the point of physical self-laceration, the bride’s ritual lament could be. One description of a young bride banging her head until she’s covered with her own blood summons images of Shi’ite flagellants in states of extreme religious devotion. This is the “plach,” the wailing lament that opens “Svadebka” and establishes its initial ritualistic tone. That tone continues through the first of four panels, but it gradually gives way to a feeling of festive joy. There is an earthy, gritty good humor that pervades most of the piece, a feeling of communal well-being that ultimately explodes into a wildly intoxicating (and literally intoxicated) party scene, the rollicking Fourth Tableau, where wedding guests trade repartees and slightly bawdy jokes and the music reaches an increasingly ecstatic pitch.

Stravinsky in his old age made a famous recording of the piece for Columbia Records. As a measure of how beloved and esteemed he was in the US, the piano parts were performed by four of America’s most famous composers: Samuel Barber, Roger Sessions, Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss. It is a marvelous document but nowhere near representative of what kind of impact the piece is capable of delivering.

The best, most accurate performance I know of is by James Woods and a choir of Russian and British singers, a recording difficult to obtain in the US, but worth the search. The singing is excellent and Stravinsky’s many detailed instructions are rigorously observed.

Peter Eotvos’ has an interesting album that includes an earlier version of the orchestration for gigantic orchestra including bugles. As a student at Harvard in 1966 I was involved in the first ever public performances of Stravinsky’s earlier, ultimately discarded orchestral versions of the piece.

Given Robert Craft’s long, intimate relationship with the composer, one ought always to consult his recordings. They presumably answer problematic questions, but the truth is that Craft’s recorded performance, like many of his Schoenberg and Webern recordings, can be pretty dry and lifeless.

But this is nothing compared to Valery Gergiev, who here, as is often the case, seems to be in a rush to catch a plane to another gig. He largely ignores Stravinsky’s carefully poised tempo relationships in favor of an overall hectic scramble that makes one think of a macho vodka-drinking contest. Gergiev’s solution to all metric modulations is to flatten them out by playing everything more or less the same—fast, faster and fastest.

I don’t know the Bernstein version that has the amazing Marta Argerich playing one of the four pianos.

My favorite version of “Svadebka/Les Noces” is by the Pokrovsky Ensemble, a small Russian chorus that made their own “ethnic” version of the piece. They had to redistribute some of the vocal parts to compensate for their limited numbers, and the instrumental ensemble is apparently a MIDI creation. In fact the whole recording is a studio project. But the singing is something else: raw, raucous, plangent, shrieking, intoxicated, insane, provocative—it’s like a night out with a bunch of drunken Slavs, male and female.

I can’t imagine what Stravinsky would have thought of this version, and I suspect Professor Taruskin would have Pokrovsky for breakfast (and I don’t mean as a guest), but for sure the singing in the Pokrovsky version reveals the “Turanian” roots of the piece better than the more conventional, operatic versions that we normally hear.

In order to be ready for my performance in Amsterdam last month with the marvelous Netherlands Radio Choir, I had to hunker down with the Russian text. I called an old friend, Grisha Freidin, a professor of Russian at Stanford and someone who grew up in Moscow knowing all about Stravinsky. He came to my house one Saturday afternoon and read with enormous passion and humor the entire text into a digital recorder for me, stopping periodically to give me colorful details about the language, or about the Slavic traditions. Here is a sample of Grisha’s exclaiming for me the opening chorus text: “Chesu pochesu Nastasya no kasu!”

I then cut his explications into tiny chunks and walked around for weeks repeating the phrases so that they became familiar to me. It was difficult, not knowing Russian and not knowing which word was a verb and which a noun. But it was worth the struggle. The immersion was memorable, and in the end it gave me more insight into the protean creativity of Igor Stravinsky, arm farts and all.

Comments (23)

Brian M Rosen
December 11, 2010

Gah! It's quite possibly my favorite Stravinsky piece, and now that you mention it, one of the very few major Stravinsky works that I have never heard performed live.

Surprised you don't know the Bernestein version. That's the one I grew up with.

Well, that one and a very strange recording in french. I still might have it sitting around on a cassette tape somewhere...

Mario De Leo
December 11, 2010

I particularly agree with your passage on Gergiev. He's always in a hurry, either on musical tempos or to make a political statement through music (Ossetia comest to mind). What a sad lad.

Jon Erik Kingstad
December 11, 2010

Thanks, John, for this interesting introduction to this piece! I've never even heard of it before. I'm definitely going to search it out and be on the look out for a live performance if the occasion arises. Arm farts! Ha! Ha!

Anthony Prickett
December 11, 2010

LOL i commented on the Pokrovsky album a couple of months ago on my tumblr....great performance! Its funny how poorly known it is....compared to the Gergiev, which is for some reason revered by many.

Grant G.
December 12, 2010

Awesome post, John! I agree that Svadebka is just about the best piece on the planet! I dearly want to do it again soon and often. Seems worth learning Russian just to truly understand all the craziness going on in there. By the way I HAVE to get that Pokrovsky recording. The clips you included are fantastic. I do like the Bernstein as well. After all it's the one that I danced to wasted in college.

(Ok, I just downloaded Pokrovsky version from itunes. Sometimes living in the 21st century doesn't suck.)

December 12, 2010

My introduction to Svadebka/Les Noces was a Nonesuch recording, in French, conducted by Pierre Boulez! It had a spirit of fun and revelry that rang very true for me. To this day, I haven't heard another recording that matches the spirit of that effort.

It's worth mentioning that Stravinsky's Russian colleagues at the Ballet Russe wept when they first heard Svadebka.

December 13, 2010

I'm also a huge fan of the Boulez recording, one of my favorite recordings of anything!

December 13, 2010

Not so hard to obtain in the US when there's a link to Amazon!

December 13, 2010

Me too, I grew up with the Bernstein version. I haven't heard it in maybe 20 years but the voices still sing in my head.

The James Wood version can be downloaded from Hyperion: for only 3 pounds in FLAC (and MP3, but that doesn't count as a serious format).

If you're only interested in Svadebka downloading is an option.

Joe Annicchiarico
December 13, 2010

What about Daniel Reuss' recent (2006) version with Musikfabrik and the RIAS Chamber Choir!?

December 14, 2010

SFSC did this piece with MTT many years ago with pianos and percussion, the chorus in a semi-circle on stage ripping through the text so hard sometimes the pages would fly from the binder. MTT likes to take it at breakneck speed as well, and after each performance I always felt that a tongue transplant would be in order. He also related, during one of the rehearsals, a wonderful story of an evening in a restaurant near Tanglewood with Bernstein and Copland. MTT and Bernstein, fueled by lots of spirits, started singing Svadebka at the top of their lungs and banging the cutlery on the wine glasses for percussion while Copland cowered on the other side of the table yelling, "Boys! Boys!" For me, this piece is thrillingly evoked by a painting in the Palace of the Legion of Honor - I think it's even titled "The wedding" and the bride sits having her hair braided with all the female attendants standing by - you can almost hear them singing chesu pochesu. YAGADA-YAGADYE! So much fun. I am glad you got the opportunity to do it.

mr. Jan Cats
December 19, 2010

Hello John and friends!

I was in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and enjoyed a great Les Noces! Thanks. For all lovers of Les Noces please see this wonderful 1919-2009 version of Svadebka (I visited this one in 2009 in the Netherlands).

Best wishes!

William Fletcher
December 20, 2010

For all you instant gratification types (like me) the Musikfabrik, Woods and Pokrovsky versions are all available on iTunes.

Martin Walker
December 21, 2010

There's a brilliant recording of the orchestral version by Ancerl on Supraphon. He's a wonderful Stravinsky conductor, e.g. in Édipe Roi.

December 31, 2010

The last work by that consummate man of the theatre Jerome Robbins was a revision of his 1965 version of "Les Noces" for New York City Ballet, a company which had, during the composer's lifetime, a very close relationship which is kept alive today by the huge number of Stravinsky ballets maintained in the repertoire. While Robbins used a live orchestra and chorus for the the 1960s performances, in 1998 he chose the Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble recording. I knew the piece well from many viewing of it at American Ballet Theatre in the 1970s (with orchestra) and was totally thrown when the Pokrovsky recording began blasting through the sound system at New York State Theatre (the name of which was purchased by the hateful David H. Koch in 2008) in May, 1998, two months before Robbins' death. It was like hearing the work for the first time. Stravinsky completist that I am, I enjoy both the traditional and folk versions. Love your story on the background, especially the arm farts. I wonder what the hell little Mahler heard besides all those military bands...

Arun Sethi
December 31, 2010

wow, the Pokrovsky really is something else! thanks for the introduction to it

RA Moulds
January 3, 2011

I was very lucky to have heard (and seen) a live performance of this work at the Kennedy Center with the Joffrey Ballet's recreation of Nijinska's choreography. My only regret is that I couldn't see the instrumentalists because they were in the pit! It is a wonderful work, indeed.

Hugh Chandler
January 13, 2011

I heard Les Noces played by the Univ. of Texas new music ensemble a number of years ago, and consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity. I have loved this work for so long, and still do, and I really enjoyed your discussion of the piece! Wish I could have heard your performance! It is truly one of Stravinksy's most marvellous works.

Dick Rhodes
February 25, 2011

I found the Woods disk on Amazon, one of four copies in stock as of 25.ii.11.

Robert Chastain
March 4, 2011

I think it is too bad that you find Gerviev's performance to be lacking in proper tempo observance. While I can only speak for his performances of "The Rite" and "The Firebird," I find that, as he is a ballet conductor, his interpretation is conceived dramatically, as it should be appropriate to bring the dancers alive on stage. This is especially true in the latter work.
As for his facial expression, I have never seen a more intense focus on the music from a conductor. I observe that he must be in a near trance state, as I have never seen sombody deliver so perfectly Stravinsky's gestures to the orchestra. He is truly, deeply inside of the music.
While I am not sure if he is my "favorite" conductor, I do find his work to be top notch.
I will also confess, that I am yet to hear his performance of "Les Noces."

March 5, 2011

Re: Robert Chastain's comment from March 4.
Since when is Gergiev "a ballet conductor"? When was the last time you saw him conduct an actual balletic performance with orchestra in the pit and dancers on stage? He conducts operatic and symphonic performances all the time.

Anthony Prickett
July 28, 2011

But you REALLY ought to hear the one Karel Ancerl did! It's something else a good way!
I heard you conduct this. I don't really like Stucky's version, and that's saying something, as I usually LOVE stucky's stuff. Well, not your fault. The other stuff at the concert was great.

February 4, 2012

Les Noces was to have the longest gestation of all the works of Igor Stravinsky. The musical material was completed in 1917, but it took him six years to draw up the definitive orchestration of the piece. Though the 1917 version for chamber orchestra suffers from a lack of verifiable sources, this is no longer the case for the incredible 1919 version recorded here.
An explosive surround SACD version...

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