Threni (Stravinsky)

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id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae
Cantata by Igor Stravinsky
Scuola Grande di San Rocco (Venice) - Il Salone Maggiore.jpg
The hall at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, where the piece was premiered
TextVerses from Book of Lamentations
Performed23 September 1958 (1958-09-23): Venice Biennale
Recorded5 January 1959 (1959-01-05)–6 January 1959 (1959-01-06) The Schola Cantorum (Hugh Ross, chorus master); Columbia Symphony Orchestra Igor Stravinsky, cond. (LP, 1 disc, 33⅓ rpm 12 in., monaural. Columbia Masterworks ML 5383)
  • soloists
  • choir
  • orchestra

Threni: id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae, usually referred to simply as Threni, is a musical setting by Igor Stravinsky of verses from the Book of Lamentations in the Latin of the Vulgate, for solo singers, chorus and orchestra. It is important among Stravinsky's compositions as his first and longest completely dodecaphonic work, [1] but is not often performed. It has been described as "austere" [2] but also as a "culminating point" in his career as an artist, "important both spiritually and stylistically" and "the most ambitious and structurally the most complex" of all his religious compositions, [3] and even "among Stravinsky's greatest works". [4]

Igor Stravinsky Russian-born composer

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was a Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century.

Book of Lamentations book of the Bible

The Book of Lamentations is a collection of poetic laments for the destruction of Jerusalem. In the Hebrew Bible it appears in the Ketuvim ("Writings"), beside the Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, Ecclesiastes and the Book of Esther, although there is no set order; in the Christian Old Testament it follows the Book of Jeremiah, as the prophet Jeremiah is its traditional author. Jeremiah's authorship is no longer generally accepted, although it is generally accepted that the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 BC forms the background to the poems. The book is partly a traditional "city lament" mourning the desertion of the city by God, its destruction, and the ultimate return of the divinity, and partly a funeral dirge in which the bereaved bewails and addresses the dead. The tone is bleak: God does not speak, the degree of suffering is presented as undeserved, and expectations of future redemption are minimal.

Latin Indo-European language of the Italic family

Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.


Stravinsky composed Threni in 1957–1958 for the Venice Biennale, and it was first performed there in September 1958. A performance in Paris two months later was a disaster, attributed to inadequate performers and insufficient rehearsals. It led to mutual recriminations between Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez and Robert Craft. The work was first published in 1958 and first recorded in 1959, in a recording conducted by the composer.

Venice Biennale Biennial art exhibit

The Venice Biennale refers to an arts organization based in Venice and the name of the original and principal biennial exhibition the organization presents. The organization changed its name to the Biennale Foundation in 2009, while the exhibition is now called the Art Biennale to distinguish it from the organisation and other exhibitions the Foundation organizes.

Pierre Boulez French composer, conductor, writer, and pianist

Pierre Louis Joseph Boulez CBE was a French composer, conductor, writer and creator of musical institutions. He was one of the dominant figures of the post-war classical music world.

Robert Craft American conductor and writer

Robert Lawson Craft was an American conductor and writer. He is best known for his intimate working friendship with Igor Stravinsky, on which Craft drew in producing numerous recordings and books.

As Threni was intended for concert rather than liturgical use, Stravinsky chose the text freely from the early chapters of the Book of Lamentations. It has three movements: the large central movement is surrounded by two much shorter ones. Ernst Krenek composed a setting of the Lamentations in 1942, and Stravinsky acknowledged that it might have influenced him. He considered it less likely that works by Renaissance composers, including Tallis, Byrd and Palestrina, had influenced him, although he had studied such music.

Ernst Krenek was an Austrian, later American, composer of Czech origin. He explored atonality and other modern styles and wrote a number of books, including Music Here and Now (1939), a study of Johannes Ockeghem (1953), and Horizons Circled: Reflections on my Music (1974). Krenek wrote two pieces using the pseudonym Thornton Winsloe.

Thomas Tallis English composer

Thomas Tallis was an English composer who occupies a primary place in anthologies of English choral music. He is considered one of England's greatest composers, and he is honoured for his original voice in English musicianship. No contemporaneous portrait of Tallis survives; the one painted by Gerard Vandergucht dates from 150 years after Tallis died, and there is no reason to suppose that it is a likeness. In a rare existing copy of his blackletter signature, he spelled his name "Tallys".

William Byrd British composer

William Byrd, was an English composer of the Renaissance. He wrote in many of the forms current in England at the time, including various types of sacred and secular polyphony, keyboard, and consort music. Although he produced sacred music for Anglican services, sometime during the 1570s he became a Roman Catholic and wrote Catholic sacred music later in his life.


Stravinsky composed Threni between the summer of 1957 and the spring of 1958, [1] beginning it on 29 August 1957 at the piano of the nightclub in the hotel where he was staying in Venice, [5] and completing it before 27 March of the next year. [6] It was first performed on 23 September 1958 in the hall of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice. The composer conducted soloists Ursula Zollenkopf, Jeanne Deroubaix, Hugues Cuénod, Richard Robinson, Charles Scharbach and Robert Oliver, the NDR Chor and the NDR Sinfonieorchester. [7] Stravinsky dedicated the performance to Alessandro Piovesan, director of the Venice Biennale, who had recently died. [8]

Scuola Grande di San Rocco building in Venice, northern Italy

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco is a building in Venice, northern Italy. It is noted for its collection of paintings by Tintoretto and generally agreed to include some of his finest work.

Ursula Zollenkopf is a German classical contralto singer. A member of the NDR Chor based in Hamburg, she appeared as a soloist in opera and concert, including premieres of contemporary music such as Stravinsky's Threni and Schoenberg's Moses und Aron.

Jeanne Deroubaix is a Belgian mezzo-soprano, focused on concert performances of Early music and contemporary music. She premiered music by Igor Stravinsky and collaborated with Pierre Boulez, performing and recording his Le marteau sans maître.

The first Paris performance, on 14 November 1958, was disastrous. According to Stephen Walsh, Pierre Boulez failed to fulfil his undertaking to obtain adequate performers, and those that he could obtain broke down several times. The audience response was polite at first, but when Stravinsky refused to return and take a bow, it gradually descended into jeers. Stravinsky said he would never conduct in Paris again. [9] Stravinsky felt humiliated by what he called a "scandalous concert", writing in his diary immediately after the performance that it was the "unhappiest concert of my life" and blaming Boulez for the result. [10] Robert Craft adds that Boulez had promised to rehearse Threni, but failed to do so. Stravinsky nevertheless had a share in the blame for not cancelling the concert despite the pleas of family and friends, including his wife and Nadia Boulanger. [11] Conceding that the performance was a "catastrophe", Boulez nevertheless insisted that he had in fact participated in the piano rehearsals, together with Stravinsky, whom he had tried in vain to persuade to be more firm with the singers. He concluded that Stravinsky "was not a good conductor; he was a terribly lousy conductor", and the problems with the singers were compounded because "the orchestra had been ill-prepared by Craft". While agreeing that the singers were "absolutely awful", Boulez protested they had been chosen not by himself, but by an agent in charge of the Aix-en-Provence festival. [12]

Nadia Boulanger French musician and teacher

Juliette Nadia Boulanger was a French composer, conductor, and teacher. She is notable for having taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the 20th century. She also performed occasionally as a pianist and organist.

Stravinsky himself conducted the first recording in January 1959 with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra. This recording has been reissued several times since first being published on LP in 1959, and forms part of the 2007 release of Stravinsky's works by Sony. [13]

The Columbia Symphony Orchestra was an orchestra formed by Columbia Records strictly for the purpose of making recordings. It provided a vehicle for some of Columbia's better known conductors and recording artists to record using only company resources. The musicians in the orchestra were contracted as needed for individual sessions and consisted of free-lance artists and members of either the New York Philharmonic or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, depending on whether the recording was being made in Columbia's East Coast or West Coast studios.

Sony Japanese multinational conglomerate corporation

Sony Corporation is a Japanese multinational conglomerate corporation headquartered in Kōnan, Minato, Tokyo. Its diversified business includes consumer and professional electronics, gaming, entertainment and financial services. The company owns the largest music entertainment business in the world, the largest video game console business and one of the largest video game publishing businesses, and is one of the leading manufacturers of electronic products for the consumer and professional markets, and a leading player in the film and television entertainment industry. Sony was ranked 97th on the 2018 Fortune Global 500 list.

Threni was first published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1958. Conducting from this score is difficult because of a shortage of bar lines. [14] Asked by Robert Craft about this, Stravinsky said, "The voices are not always in rhythmic unison. Therefore, any bar lines would cut at least one line arbitrarily". He recommended the conductor to "merely count the music out as he counts out a motet by Josquin". [15] However, a revised edition, with several changes to the barring as well as some corrections, was issued in 1965. [14]

Stravinsky had already used twelve-tone technique earlier in the 1950s, both in Canticum Sacrum (1955) and in Agon (1957). But neither of these is exclusively dodecaphonic, whereas Threni is. [16]


Threni is scored for one soprano, one contralto, two tenor and two bass soloists, chorus and an orchestra of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, cor anglais, 2 clarinets (second doubling alto clarinet in F), bass clarinet, contrabass sarrusophone, flugelhorn, 4 horns, 3 trombones (1 alto, 1 tenor, 1 bass), tuba, timpani, tamtam, harp, celesta, piano and strings. [8] (The flugelhorn is actually listed as "bugle" by the publisher, [7] though in the "orchestration" list at the head of the score the specification is for "Contralto Bugle in B (Fluegelhorn)", and in the score itself, where all the other instruments are named in Italian, it is called in French and German, "Bugle C-alto (Flügelhorn)". However, the part is played on the flugelhorn. [2] [17] The French word for flugelhorn is bugle à pistons, and the Italian is flicorno.)

General attributes


Stravinsky wrote Threni for the Venice Biennale, not for liturgical use, and he chose the words himself to suit his musical purposes. The complete text is included in Kuster's analysis. [16] The text includes the Hebrew letters that begin the verses in some chapters of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. These are always set for chorus and have been likened to "a series of illuminated initials embellishing a manuscript". [8]

Musical style

Stravinsky himself described his treatment of pitch in Threni as "a kind of 'triadic atonality'", contrasting this with the "tonality repetition" of his ballet scores. [18] Threni makes extensive use of canons. It also uses pitchless chanting in the choir – the first time Stravinsky had done this. [8]

The score calls for a large orchestra, but never uses it in tutti, preferring small groups of individually selected instruments at any one time. [17]

The principal 12-tone row for Threni is D-G-G-A-C-A-D-B-E-C-F-F. Stravinsky makes considerable use of the tonal – even diatonic – possibilities of this row. [8] [17] However, Stravinsky does not really use twelve-tone technique in depth in this work, relying on free transposition and combination, selection, and repetition, so that the character of the music is actually not very different from his earlier works: the beginning of "Sensus spei", for example (especially the many repeated notes in the alto solo, and the repeated response from the chorus), recalls Renard and Les noces , and the two short passages for strings and chorus near the beginning setting the Hebrew letters caph and res are reminiscent of places in Orpheus (1948). [19]


The work most likely to have influenced Stravinsky's Threni is the Lamentatio Jeremiae prophetae, opus 93, by Ernst Krenek, for 8-part unaccompanied choir, composed in 1942 [20] but only published in 1957 (the year before Threni). [21] Stravinsky himself said that he liked this work, that he had read a treatise by Krenek on twelve-tone counterpoint, and that "Perhaps my own Threni shows contact with [Krenek's] Lamentations." [22] Stravinsky's decision to rely on a tactus beat rather than on barlines in the "Querimonia" section is one instance. [19]

Edgar Murray finds Threni less expressive than the Krenek, and more like the Lamentationes of Thomas Tallis. [17] Stravinsky, however, while acknowledging that he had studied the Tallis settings and works by William Byrd and Palestrina, did not believe that they had influenced his music. [15]

Other resemblances have been observed – for example, the male-quartet episode in the "Querimonia" was probably suggested by Carlo Gesualdo's Aestimus sum – though such things may be better characterized as "identifications" than "influences". [19]

The passage beginning at bars 231 ("NUN: Scrutemur vias nostras") presents a rhythmic texture new to Stravinsky, which strongly resembles the multilayered rhythms of Stockhausen's Zeitmaße , which Robert Craft was rehearsing in Stravinsky's home at precisely the time of composition (16 January to 14 February 1958). Stravinsky attended not only these rehearsals but also the recording sessions for Zeitmaße, following the score with great interest. [23] The published score of Threni is also the first of Stravinsky's works to adopt the notational device of replacing the staves in silent measures with whites space on the page, a feature frequently found in Stravinsky's manuscripts as early as 1916, but only in print from this point onward. This feature is also found in Stockhausen's score. [24]

The series used by Pierre Boulez in his Structures 1a is found in the sketches for Threni, but it differs so fundamentally from the row Stravinsky actually used that its relevance to Threni is unclear. [25]


Threni has three movements, corresponding to the three chapters of the Lamentations of Jeremiah from which the texts used in the work are taken. The following is a summary. A detailed musical analysis and the complete Latin text, side by side with the English of the King James version of the Bible, are available in the thesis by Andrew Kuster. [16]

1. De Elegia Prima

After a short orchestral introduction, the movement begins with the words "Incipit lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae" (here begins the lamentation of the prophet Jeremiah), after which the music sets Lamentations chapter 1, verses 1, 2 (first part), 5 (first part), 11 (last part) and 20. A Hebrew letter precedes each verse used (aleph, beth, he, caph, resh). [16]

2. De Elegia Tertia

This movement uses text from chapter 3 of Lamentations, with a Hebrew letter preceding each block of three verses. It is much longer than the other two movements combined, and is divided into three sections: [16]

(complaint) uses verses 1–6 and 16–21 (Hebrew letters: aleph, beth, vav, zayin).
Sensus spei 
(sense of hope) uses verses 22–27, 34–36, 40–45 and 49–57 (Hebrew letters: heth, teth, lamed, nun, samekh, ayin, tsade, qoph).
(solace) uses verses 58–64 (Hebrew letters: resh, shin, tav).

3. De Elegia Quinta

This is by far the shortest movement of the work. It begins with the words "Oratio Jeremiae Prophetae" (prayer of the prophet Jeremiah), after which the music sets Lamentations chapter 5, verses 1, 19 and 21. No Hebrew letters are associated with this text. [16]


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  1. 1 2 David H. Smyth, "Stravinsky as Serialist: The Sketches for Threni", Music Theory Spectrum 22, no. 2 (Autumn 2000): 205–24.
  2. 1 2 David Schiff, "Stravinsky: Finding Religion in the Theater, Drama in the Church", New York Times (June 2, 2002) (Accessed 2 January 2011).
  3. Roman Vlad, Stravinsky, third edition, translated from the Italian by Frederick Fuller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978): 208. ISBN   0-19-315444-7 (cloth); ISBN   0-19-315445-5 (pbk).
  4. Robert Craft, "Threni: The Lamentations of Jeremiah", booklet accompanying Stravinsky Vol. VI, Koch KIC-CD-7514 (New York: Koch International Classics, 2002): [12–17], citation on p. [16].
  5. Vera Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978): 443.
  6. Igor Stravinsky, Selected Correspondence, vol. 2, edited and with commentaries by Robert Craft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984): 398.
  7. 1 2 Boosey & Hawkes. "Igor Stravinsky – Threni: id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae" . Retrieved 2011-01-03.
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Eric Walter White, Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works , second edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979): 497 ff. Accessed 25 March 2011.
  9. Stephen Walsh, Stravinsky: The Second Exile: France and America, 1934–1971 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008): 386–87. ISBN   978-0-520-25615-6. (Accessed 24 October 2011).
  10. Igor Stravinsky, Selected Correspondence, vol. 2, edited and with commentaries by Robert Craft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984): 353.
  11. Robert Craft, An Improbable Life: Memoirs (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002): 208. ISBN   0-8265-1381-6.
  12. Joan Peyser, To Boulez and Beyond: Music in Europe Since the Rite of Spring, revised edition, with an introduction by Charles Wuorinen (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008): 223. ISBN   978-0-8108-5877-0.
  13. Works of Igor Stravinsky. 22-CD set. Sony Classical 88697103112. New York: Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2007. Disc 21, "Sacred Works vol. 2" 88697103112-21.
  14. 1 2 Claudio Spies, "Igor Stravinsky's Threni: Conducting Details" (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, n.d.) (Accessed 3 January 2011).
  15. 1 2 Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Stravinsky in Conversation with Robert Craft (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1962): 35–36.
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Andrew Kuster, "Threni: Large-Scale Musical-Poetical and Formal Row Employment with Objects", chapter 6 of "Stravinsky's Topology: An Examination of His Twelve-Tone Works through Object-Oriented Analysis of Structural and Poetic-Expressive Relationships with Special Attention to His Choral Works and Threni" D.M.A. diss. (Boulder: University of Colorado, 2000). (Accessed 3 January 2011).
  17. 1 2 3 4 Edgar Murray, "Stravinsky: Threni", The Harvard Crimson (13 January 1960). Accessed 3 January 2011.
  18. Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Expositions and Developments (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1962): 107. ISBN   0-520-04403-7.
  19. 1 2 3 Robert Craft, liner notes to Stravinsky: Threni, id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae (1957–58), Igor Stravinsky Conducting, Columbia Masterworks ML 5383 (New York: Columbia Records, 1959).
  20. Anon. "Ernst Krenek: Catalogue of Works Archived 2011-07-24 at the Wayback Machine " (N.p.: Ernst Krenek Institute): Opus 93 (Accessed 2 January 2011).
  21. Clare Hogan, "'Threni': Stravinsky's 'Debt' to Krenek", Tempo, no. 141 ( June 1982): 22–25+28–29.
  22. Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Dialogues (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982): 103. ISBN   0-520-04650-1 (Accessed 6 January 2011).
  23. Jerome Kohl, Karlheinz Stockhausen: Zeitmaße (London and New York: Routledge, 2017): 129, 131–34.
  24. Jerome Kohl, Karlheinz Stockhausen: Zeitmaße (London and New York: Routledge, 2017): 31–32.
  25. Joseph N. Straus, Stravinsky's Late Music. Cambridge Studies in Music Theory and Analysis 16 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 33. ISBN   978-0-521-60288-4.