Hyperion Records

Les Noces 'Svadebka'
author of text
Russian folk

'Stravinsky: Les Noces & other choral works' (CDH55467)
Stravinsky: Les Noces & other choral works
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55467  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  
Part 1. Scene 1: The bride's chamber 'The tresses'
Part 1. Scene 2: The bridegroom's house
Part 1. Scene 3: The departure of the bride
Part 2. Scene 4: The wedding feast

Les Noces 'Svadebka'
Stravinsky wrote of Les Noces: ‘I became aware of an idea for a choral work on the subject of a Russian peasant wedding early in 1912; the title Svadebka (‘Les Noces’) occurred to me almost at the same time as the idea itself.’

This idea of the wedding as a choral work did not take final shape until 1923, over ten years later. In the meantime the piece went through many sea-changes of colour which present some intriguing combinations of instrumentation, involving mechanical and folk-based sonorities. The long gestation period had much to do with the War, but also other com­missions such as Renard and Le Chant du rossignol were offered to Stravinsky. One of the first versions of the score emerged in 1917 in which the vocal parts were enveloped by a lush sonority of a large orchestra plus solo strings and cimbalom. Stravinsky had apparently earlier toyed with the idea of a much more ‘peasant’ sounding ensemble with bala­laikas and guitars for a more representational display of the text. The stripping away of realistic detail in favour of a more radical and austere sound took Stravinsky in the opposite direction in 1919, towards a largely mechanistic, experimental sound involving pianola, harmonium, two cimbaloms and percussion. The next version—an improbable and, from a conductor’s point of view, fiendish combination of four pianolas with harmonium and percussion—was explored and abandoned. Finally, the evolution from representational through mechanistic to a synthesis of the stylized combined with a metamorphosis of folk elements emerged in the form which is heard in this recording. Scored for four pianos and percussion, it is with these forces that the orchestral medium is most powerfully suggested without sacrificing the pungency of percussive impact.

Dramatically, the spectacle and vocal representation of a wedding is similarly stylized. The vocal lines are not represen­tational; for example the soloists do not take on exclusive individual roles of bride, groom, parents etc, but rather adopt different roles, giving us an insight into the expressions and reactions of individual characters without developing them as personalities. The original choreography for the work at the Théâtre de la Gaîté‚ in June 1923 reinforced Stravinsky’s ideas of ‘the ritualistic and non-personal. The choreography was expressed in blocks and masses; individual personalities did not, could not, emerge.’

Though Stravinsky structures the first two scenes of Svadebka by separating the male and female wedding pre­parations, these formal frames are widened later as the rituals of the wedding become more complex, and the last scene takes on a potentially anarchic but compositionally tightly controlled form. Here the sound picture is a collage of streams of thought, strands of conversations, party noises—sounds which are almost representational in their depiction of energy, celebration, drunkenness, sexual suggestiveness combined with the evocation of pagan fertility gods alongside references to the Virgin and saints. Pagan play-acting is a strong tradition, seen here in both the collection of bridal songs and Svadebka, but perhaps the most important element underlying Svadebka, the idea of ritual and sacrifice, is most characteristically expressed by Stravinsky’s compositional technique of cellular, motivic repetition made unpredictable by using irregular stresses. However, Stravinsky is never merely descriptive. The collection of clichés which are typicalIy trotted out at weddings might be ‘compared to one of those scenes in Ulysses in which the reader seems to be overhearing scraps of conversation without the connecting thread of discourse. But Svadebka might also be compared to Ulysses in the larger sense that both works are trying to “present” rather than to “describe”.’

The textual sources for Svadebka were anthologies which Stravinsky described as ‘treasures of the Russian language and spirit’. The appearance of creatures in the text is both typical of traditional folk characters and symbolic of the bridal situation. ‘Swans and geese both fly and swim and, therefore, they have fantastic stories to tell about the skies and the waters, stories that are mirrors of peasant superstitions. I am referring to the soprano’s lines beginning “I flew up high one day and saw the sea …”, but “swan” and “goose” also refer to the bride and groom. They are popular terms of endearment like “my little dove” or “my little goose”.’

Svadebka contains the same aspects of innocence and cruelty which are essential to The Rite of Spring except for the Rite’s final element of death-sacrifice. In Svadebka it is given a ‘civilized’ form in the marriage bed scene and sublimated in the form of celebration—or lament depending on the viewpoint—in the tolling of the bells at the very end of the piece. The binding of the bride’s tresses with red and blue ribbons was a religio-sexual custom, as was the tying of the tresses around her head to signify the married state. The lamentation of the first scene can also be taken on different levels: the girl genuinely weeps for loss of innocence and for the pain of her pulled hair, but also because it is the bride’s custom and duty to weep.

from notes by Lorraine Gwynne © 1991

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