Stravinsky’s setting of the Song of the Volga Boatmen
, scored for winds and percussion, captures the ancient spirit of a nation that remained unbendingly resilient. Over the years this iconic Russian folksong drew the attention of many composers, Mili Balakirev’s arrangement being perhaps the best known. Stravinsky’s Swiss exile during the First World War had stirred nostalgic feelings for his lost homeland as evinced in several settings of folk tales he knew as a child. With the 1917 February Revolution fresh in his mind, his memories grew particularly vivid. The composer supposedly prepared the arrangement of the Volga melody as a favour to Sergei Diaghilev. The Ballets Russes impresario needed a new work to replace the traditional playing of the Russian National Anthem ‘God Save the Tsar’ before performances. But the request for a new anthem actually came directly from the recently instated Russian parliament. Stravinsky’s manuscript reveals that he initially entitled the arrangement Hymne à la nouvelle Russie
. The composer literally scored the famous song overnight, dictating the music to his friend Ernest Ansermet who dutifully took down every note. Stravinsky added a piano reduction of the work just below the orchestration. The manuscript also includes a colourful red banner on the cover, sketched by Stravinsky’s friend Picasso as an acknowledgement of the Russian Revolution.
from notes by Charles M Joseph © 2013