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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)


In his book Expositions and Developments Stravinsky recounts how he discovered a totally new musical technique whilst composing songs on popular Russian texts, beginning with Pribaoutki in 1914, which was written during and just before the first days of the 1914 war. The Russian word Pribaoutki is the near equivalent of the English limerick, a story-telling nonsense verse that is spontaneously developed by a party of people one by one, and when Stravinsky decided to set his four Russian ‘song-games’ he was inspired by the old Russian tradition of performing Pribaoutki in which spoken accents are ignored when the verse is sung. Stravinsky said 'The recognition of the musical possibilities inherent in this fact was one of the most rejoicing discoveries of my life; I was like a man who suddenly finds that his finger can be bent from the second joint as well as from the first.' For the listener this meant that all of a sudden yet another remarkable new kind of experience was following hot on the heels of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which had shaken the musical world to its foundations just the previous year. In Pribaoutki Stravinsky strongly foreshadowed the ritualistic and Russian folk style of his Les Noces, which he began to compose the same year, in which he so strongly evoked a mixture of conversation and traditional ceremony in his joyous picture of a Russian wedding. Pribaoutki, orginally written for a baritone and small instrumental group, is a vivid characterisation of traditional Russian story telling in a new musical language that mixes song, verse and speech rhythms.

The first song is called Uncle Armand, who just must stop worrying and should drink all his burdens away. Then comes The Oven, in which a mother urges her daughter Louise to attend to the chicken as it is already cooked. The third song is The Colonel  who hunts, misses his targets, falls, breaks his rifle and calls for his dog who is not there – he will never hunt again. Finally comes The Old Man and the Hare in a town in the air an old man cooks his soup without a fire. A hare asks for a helping of soup, and is told by the man that the hunchback will stand erect, the one armed shall stretch out both arms, and the mute shall speak softly!

© Jon Tolansky

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