Igor Stravinsky, Song of the Volga Boatmen

By Joseph Landers

Written for the concert Stravinsky Outside Russia, performed on Jan 20, 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

In 1996, an orchestration of “Song of the Volga Boatmen” was discovered among the holdings of the Mapleson Music Library in Lindenhurst, New York. This arrangement for bass-baritone and full orchestra was found in the form of a set of individual orchestral parts and accompanying piano-vocal score for use by the conductor, on the cover of which was fastened a typewritten notice saying:

PARTS ORCHESTRATED BY STRAVINSKY ESPECIALLY FOR MR. CHALIAPIN

Although Igor Stravinsky’s arrangement for orchestral winds of 1917 is well-known to musicians, the Lindenhurst discovery suggests that the composer made a second version of the popular Russian folksong—a remarkable notion given the fact that there is no other existing record of this work. An investigation of the discovery revealed significant evidence that the Lindenhurst “Boatmen” was indeed authentic, probably dating from the mid 1920s. The work is an exciting find, perhaps even establishing a new connection between the composer and the great Russian bass-baritone Feodor Chaliapin—a connection that has previously eluded biographers.

The primary obstacles to authenticating the discovery were the absence of any holographic material (full score, short score, or sketch) and an apparent lack of any reference to the piece in the voluminous documentary record of the composer’s life and works. Without such independent verification, authenticity must be established by the sheer physical evidence provided by the music itself: specific tendencies and strategies in scoring, recurring textures and groupings of instruments, and the idiomatic and idiosyncratic way that the individual instruments are treated. These stylistic fingerprints, so poignant and immediately recognizable in Stravinsky’s work, are evident in nearly every measure of the discovery, confirming that orchestration does indeed belong in the composer’s catalogue.

Why Stravinsky would choose to revisit “Song of the Volga Boatmen” remains a mystery, although an earlier connection to Chaliapin might offer a clue. One of the composer’s earliest commissions came in 1909 when the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev requested orchestrations of two Chopin piano pieces, the Nocturne in A-flat major, Op. 32, and the Grande Valse Brilliante, Op. 18. The composer must have felt well-equipped for the job, as the practical exercise of arranging piano pieces for full orchestra was an important part of the training that he received from Rimsky-Korsakov. It is important to note that this particular training influenced the path of Stravinsky’s creative career, as his orchestrations represent an unbroken thread woven through his entire output. These works show a remarkable consistency in approach, strategy, and resulting sound world—from the earliest Chopin pieces, clear through to his orchestration of four sets of Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier done shortly before his death. Stravinsky later showed his two Chopin orchestrations to the Russian conductor Alexander Siloti, who seemed impressed enough to commission two other works, separate settings of “Song of the Flea” by Beethoven and by Mussorgsky. These were intended for a concert given November 28, 1909 on the theme of “Goethe in Music” for which Siloti had booked the biggest name of all the Russian singers, Feodor Chaliapin—which, in light of the current discovery, suggests that the Lindenhurst “Boatmen” might represent a later installment of a collaborative relationship that started in 1909.

Mr. Landers is the head of theory, composition, and history at the University of Montevallo Department of Music. His compositions have been featured on concert series and festivals across the U.S. and abroad, and he has been awarded fellowships by the Fulbright Foundation, the Tanglewood Music Center, the American Music Center, and the MacDowell Colony.