Igor Stravinsky was “in no way a prodigy”, and three of his other works stand “some distance beyond Funeral Song.” (Keller 2017) What more, he said that the piece was for wind instruments, when it clearly was not. Incredibly, these appear to be the only remarks coming from the program annotator James M. Keller; the rest was filled with context – from Rimsky-Korsakov to the Russian Revolution – and quotes from Stravinsky himself. Keller provided no analysis of his own; it was as though he felt no need to.
If that is the case, it worked for the better. For it was part of Keller’s strategy to evoke a sense of mystery. Following the use of a fancy “amanuensis”, he cites “for wind instruments” which he later debunks and quotes the name Rimsky without prior explanation. It is only on page 2 of 2 that his role as mentor is clarified, but the resolution is short-lived; the program notes end with another quote, in which Stravinsky appeared to downplay the role of his mentor. The work itself is also shrouded in mystery, from the tale of its loss and belated recovery to Stravinsky’s admission that he could not judge whether its positive reception was “due to the atmosphere of mourning” or “the merits of the composition”.
The ABRSM (Scaife 2005) suggests a default three-part structure, with the caveat that “the structure of any programme note will be determined by its content” (7). Keller has clearly opted for the latter, maximizing attention on the historical context over the work itself. Funeral Song is an obvious enough cue, yet Keller manages to wrap a fresh layer of ambiguity that impels the reader to take a close listen. I listened to the second debut alluded to in the notes, and found myself continually surprised by the unfolding action and enchanted by the moments of haunting silences.
By mostly letting Stravinsky speak for himself, Keller has masterfully served his function: “to specify emotions, and to provide the settings and atmospheres that give these emotions an individual flavor.” (Temperley 1971, 603) This work written in Rimsky’s memory is now listened to in Stravinsky’s memory.
Keller, James M. “Notes on the Program: Funeral Song, Op. 5 – Igor Stravinsky.” New York Philharmonic. April, 2017. Accessed May 3, 2017. https://nyphil.org/~/media/pdfs/program-notes/1617/Stravinsky-Funeral-Song.pdf.
Markus, Richard. “Stravinsky – Funeral Song Op.5.” YouTube video, 11:59. Posted December 25, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mu5018jIkfM.
Scaife, Nigel. “Writing Programme Notes: A Guide for Diploma Candidates.” Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. April, 2005. Accessed May 3, 2017. http://www.abrsm.org/resources/writingProgNotesApr05.pdf.
Temperley, Nicholas. “The” Symphonie fantastique” and Its Program.” The Musical Quarterly 57, no. 4 (1971): 593-608.