14 Nov 2013

Stravinsky – Elegy for JFK

by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 3 clarinets, baritone or mezzo-soprano.

Duration: 2 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) – Stravinsky wrote brief memorial works throughout his life but by the late 1950s and early 1960s, he had reached an age when they were becoming a far too regular necessity. Among the friends and admired strangers Stravinsky commemorated during that period was festival patron Prince Max Egon zu Furstenburg, Reverend James MacLane, painter Raoul Dufy and writers Dylan Thomas and Aldous Huxley.

THE HISTORY – Huxley died on November 22, 1963 but due to another notable passing that day, Stravinsky was not able to complete the author’s tribute work right away. Stravinsky had been an acquaintance of President John F. Kennedy and was shocked by the news of the assassination. He later told the New York Times: “The idea [for the Elegy] came to me in mid-January 1964. I felt that the events of November were being too quickly forgotten and I wished to protest.” W.H. Auden had come to enjoy a meal with the Stravinsky’s that January and the composer suggested a collaboration in memory of the President. According to Stravinsky, he originally envisioned a chorale and asked Auden for a “very quiet little lyric” but the poet obliged in March with a set of four haiku-like verses that was clearly better suited to solo performance. Stravinsky immediately set to work on the vocal line, using a technique that matched the 17 syllables of each poetic stanza with the musical notes of a serial tone-row. Auden’s poem was not exactly a literary masterpiece but it did capture a respectful balance of the deep emotions felt by Americans after the tragedy. Stravinsky, in “protest” against our ability to move on too soon, fashioned a highly effective miniature lament.

THE WORLD – 1964 was also the year of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the removal of Nikita Khrushchev from power in the Soviet Union, the sentencing of Nelson Mandela to life in prison and the publication of Saul Bellow’s Herzog.

THE CONNECTION – These concerts represent the Utah Symphony premiere of Elegy for JFK.