Charles Dutoit will direct the composer’s tribute to Rimsky-Korsakov with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in June 2017.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra has announced the Australian premiere performance of Stravinsky’s rediscovered Funeral Song to take place in June next year. Charles Dutoit will conduct the SSO in Pogrebal’naya Pesnya, a 12-minute work written by the young composer as a memorial tribute to his former St. Petersburg teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, at the Sydney Opera House.

The music to this, one of Stravinsky’s earliest works (designated his Opus 5) vanished from the history books following its only performance in 1909 as part of the first Russian Symphony Concert in memory of Rimsky-Korsakov, performed by Count Sheremetev’s orchestra and conducted by Felix Blumenfeld who substituted for an indisposed Alexander Glazunov. The work only turned up last year in the library of the St. Petersburg Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s funeral, 1909

“The score of this work unfortunately disappeared in Russia during the Revolution, along with many other things which I had left there,” wrote Stravinsky in The Chronicle of My Life. “I can remember the idea at the root of its conception, which was that all the solo instruments of the orchestra filed past the tomb of the master in succession, each laying down its melody as its wreath against a deep background of tremolo murmurings simulating the vibrations of bass voices singing in chorus.”

The composer remained interested in the piece, however, writing later in his Memories and Commentaries that the parts “must have been preserved in one of the Saint Petersburg orchestral libraries; I wish someone in Leningrad would look for the parts, for I would be curious myself to see what I was composing just before The Firebird.”

It was musicologist Natalia Braginskaya who rediscovered those parts thanks to the efforts searching through old performance materials of the State Conservatory’s librarian Irina Sidorenko. Apparently, some manuscripts had been inaccessible for decades thanks to the number of scores stacked in front of them. It was a serendipitous relocation of stock in 2015 that saw the Funeral Song disinterred from a back room of the musical archives. “For variety of sonority and quantity of instruments only Fireworks, among Stravinsky’s early works, can compare with Funeral Song,” says Braginskaya, “while noting still there is, for the sake of lightness, an absence of heavy brass.”

Igor Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, his daughter Nadezhda Rimsky-Korsakov, her fiancé Maximilian Steinberg, and Ekaterina Stravinsky, Stravinsky’s first wife in 1908

Stravinsky’s Funeral Song will be premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre by Valery Gergiev on December 2 when it will be filmed for television and streamed live by and Mezzo. It then goes on to receive premieres in 15 countries around the world next year. The Australian premiere will be the 10th performance following, among others, the UK premiere conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the US premiere with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit and the German premiere with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle in May.

Funeral Song replaces The Merry Wives of Windsor Overture in Charles Dutoit’s programme Martha Argerich plays Beethoven and will be performed three times between June 29 and July 1.

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