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Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, rev. 1947)

Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai


In the year Igor Stravinsky composed Symphonies of Wind Instruments, a work featuring and banding together instruments of common calling (the winds and brass), a massive strike on Oahu banded sugar cane workers across multiracial unions. Annexation funneled political and economic power to a white minority of entities ruling Hawai'i economics, the Nā Hui Nui ʻElima (the Big Five sugar plantations), the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Association, and the Republican Party. The "Divide and Control" policy of ethnic workforce segregation deterred striking groups from banding together. The Japanese and Filipino workforce constituted the most significant labor unions, and they joined forces in the seven-month Oahu's Sugar Strike of 1920.


Over 8000 workers demanded increased wages and maternity leave in the wake of World War I. The arrival of the Spanish flu and the numerous evictions forced many into homelessness and death. Their efforts saw a 50% pay raise over six months, but the strike enflamed racism. Republican Governor Wallace Rider Farrington sympathized with the white minority to segregate their children from values in "ethnic and colored" students. The failure of "Divide-and-Control" led to the return integration efforts used by missionaries to separate Hawaiians from their cultural identity a hundred years earlier. Americanizing the next Japanese generation first, Farrington limited subjects in foreign language schools and emphasized English, American history, and the promotion of Christian conversion. 



Upon the passing of French composer Claude Debussy in March of 1918, La Revue musicale (a music magazine) "proposed to issue a number devoted to the memory of Debussy, containing several pages of music, each specially written for the occasion by one of the great man's surviving admires, and I was among those asked to contribute" writes Stravinsky. "I began at the end and wrote a choral piece which later became the final section." This I gave to Revue Musicale in a version for the pianoforte."


The death impacted the composer; he recalls, "It was while still in Switzerland that I heard of Debussy's death. When I had last seen him, he was already very weak, and I realized that he must soon leave us. I was sincerely attached to him as a man, and I grieved. While composing Symphonies, I used to wonder what impression my music would have made on him. The homage that I intended to pay to the memory of the great musician ought not to be inspired by his musical thought; on the contrary, I desired rather to express myself in a language which should be essentially my own." Stravinsky completed the work in Garches, France, during the winter of 1920.



"Symphonies" in the title refers to the ancient Greek definition of "sounding together" and illustrates Stravinsky's quilt-like architecture of sewing together an all-wind force with alternating passages of contrast. The 1920s marked the beginning of the composer's Neoclassical period (starting with Pulcinella), a retroactive exploration of the Classical period extending into ancient Greek mythology. Symphonies channel an ancient world with a tapestry of pointy and robotic fanfare, hymn-like carols, and pagan folk dancing. However, it is a cold perspective, a musical body absent of a classical soul, a distortion through the modern lens of musical time travel.


Serge Koussevitzky conducted the premiere in London on June 10, 1921, but Stravinsky was worried about its reception (even after having gone through the experience of the Rite of Spring years earlier). The composer writes, "I could not count on any immediate success for this work. It is devoid of all the elements which infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener. It would be futile to look in it for any passionate impulse or dynamic brilliance. It is an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogenous instruments. This music is not meant "to please" an audience or to rouse its passions. I had hoped, however, that it would appeal to those in whom a purely musical receptivity outweighed the desire to satisfy emotional cravings."


Stravinsky revised the work throughout his life, sometimes with drastically inconsistent pitch corrections through versions. Finally, owing to the confusion of which version was "authentic," he revised the work, simplifying the instrumentation to its definitive 1947 edition. The 9-minute score calls for three flutes, two oboes, English horn, three clarinets, three bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and tuba.


Igor Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum, Russia, and died in New York City on April 6, 1971.

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