Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere. The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms. In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s. Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century. His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year. He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.
Shortly after Claude Debussy died in 1918, Stravinsky began sketching a piece in his honor. He called it Symphonies of Wind Instruments, yet it was not a typical symphony. Instead, Stravinsky meant the term in the more ancient sense of a group of instruments sounding together. He thus constructed the piece in one movement as a disjunct procession of these varied instrumental groupings. It first appeared publicly as a fragment from the end of the piece in piano reduction in the Parisian publication La Revue musicale, part of an issue dedicated to Debussy’s memory, in 1920. The complete version was premiered under Serge Koussevitzky that same year, but gave Stravinsky little satisfaction in performance: he said that “Koussevitzky executed the work, in firing-squad fashion.” It lay unpublished and largely unperformed until Stravinsky fled Europe and moved to Hollywood. There, he substantially revised the piece between 1945 and 1947. This revised version, which retains the dedication to Debussy’s memory, is the most often performed today.
The defining feature of Symphonies of Wind Instruments is Stravinsky’s use of the various instruments to create distinct symphonies of sound. These groups often contrast and rarely overlap. Tempo is another important factor in the piece. Stravinsky uses three main tempos (essentially quarter note = 72, 108, and 144), always maintaining the eighth-note pulse within each one when using mixed meters. These often change abruptly, but they are related by the ratio 2:3:4, and so easily performable exactly as Stravinsky asks. Both the instrumentation blocks and the tempo sections usually end abruptly and without transition, creating a block form that is typical of Stravinsky’s broader output. The general form of the piece has flummoxed analysts for nearly a century, with no two scholars able to agree on an exact formal plan. The changes in orchestration and tempo, though, provide clues. The piece is in two main sections, divided at rehearsal 42 (the first fermata). Before that, Stravinsky introduces six different musical blocks and three types of transitions that are shuffled around and stated in various orders, never overlapping save for a broader transitional section at rehearsal 11. After 42, only two of those blocks and a new transition type get any treatment, with the final chorale-like block occupying most of the second half. Thus, Symphonies of Wind Instruments makes an overall move from activity and variety to stasis and sameness. In the process, Stravinsky uses at least 37 different combinations of instruments.
Here, the Rotterdam Philharmonic plays the revised version in a live performance:
And here is the original version, again in live performance, by the London Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez:
Symphonies of Wind Instruments has inspired much scholarship, but little agreement. Analyses have been attempted by Edward Cone, Thomas Tyra, Robert Wason, Jonathan Kramer, Jeremy Matthews, Alexander Rehding, and many others. Less scholarly accounts of the piece can be found at Wikipedia, Boosey & Hawkes, the Kennedy Center (which did not check all of its facts!), the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, and the LA Philharmonic. For a conductor’s perspective, read about David Vickerman’s quest to find the perfect tempos on a recording. These are just a handful of the dozens of internet articles about the piece, so go explore!
Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Foundation in his name with an Internet presence. So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice. But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.