Symphonies of Wind Instruments

From Wind Repertory Project
Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

General Info

Year: 1920 / 1947 / 2001
Duration: c. 9:25
Difficulty: VI (see Ratings for explanation)
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
Cost: Score and Parts - Rental   |   Score Only - $34.95

For availability information, see Discussion tab, above.


1920 edition
Full Score
Flute I-II-III
Alto Flute
Oboe I-II
English Horn
Bassoon I-II-III
B-flat Soprano Clarinet I-II (I doubling A Soprano Clarinet)
F Basset Horn
Horn in F I-II-III-IV
C Trumpet I-II
A Trumpet
Trombone I-II-III

1947 edition
Full Score
Flute I-II-III
Oboe I-II
English Horn
Bassoon I-II
B-flat Soprano Clarinet I-II-III
Horn in F I-II-III-IV
B-flat Trumpet I-II-III
Trombone I-II-III


None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

Did you ever know someone who treated a friend with warmth in person but trashed-talked him behind his back? Such appears to have been the case with Debussy's regard for the young Stravinsky. Granted, Debussy was dying of cancer and in terrible pain during his last years, which coincided with the worst years of World War I. And in fact it seems clear that he had great professional and personal respect for the young Russian, whom he had first met in Paris in 1910 after the first performance of The Firebird. Stravinsky likewise regarded Debussy as one of his most profound musical influences. He was deeply moved at the elder composer's death in 1918, and immediately agreed to contribute a piece for a special Tombeau issue of La Revue Musicale -- a brief chorale for piano that would be reworked as the finale of his enigmatic Symphonies of Wind Instruments, dedicated to Debussy on its completion in 1920.

But despite friendly correspondences through the years leading up to Debussy's death, there's evidence that the elder composer was envious of how Stravinsky's shocking early ballet scores had made him the toast of Paris -- potentially eclipsing Debussy's fame in the process. In 1913, he beamed glowing praise in a letter to Stravinsky: "For someone like me, who is on his way down the other side of the hill but still in possession of an ardent passion for music, there is a special satisfaction in declaring how much you have enlarged the boundaries of the permissible in the Empire of Sound." On the other hand, in a 1916 letter to a friend, Debussy called Stravinsky "a spoiled child, a young man who wears flashy ties and treads on women's toes as he kisses their hands. As an old man he'll be insupportable." ("Was it duplicity?" Stravinsky said later of Debussy's apparent two-facedness. "Or was he annoyed at his incapacity to digest The Rite of Spring when the younger generation enthusiastically voted for it?")

Fortunately Stravinsky knew nothing of this at the time, otherwise we might not have this miniature masterpiece, which was at the same time the last work of what some have called Stravinsky's "Russian phase" and the beginning of his new neoclassical outlook of the 1920s. It was begun in the summer of 1920 in Brittany and completed in November of that year. Serge Koussevitzky conducted the premiere in London on June 10, 1921.

The piece strikes the listener as singular for several reasons. The use of the word "symphonies" for a 10-minute single-movement piece seems odd until we think back to the ancient word of "sounding together in harmony" (although as musicologist William Austin has pointed out, "nowhere before the final chord is there an unquestionable tonic or a complete and unclouded major scale"). Stravinsky clarified the use of the word, somewhat, by calling his piece "an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments."

The lack of strings was also odd for a piece called "symphonies." Some have pointed to Stravinsky's shunning of the lush, romantic qualities of string instruments, others to post-war economic woes that made works written for smaller forces more likely to earn a performance. But the sonority of the Symphonies is so strikingly perfect to its content that one can't imagine it in any other setting. It is, again in the words of Austin, "one of Stravinsky's most poignantly beautiful masterpieces, with a form as original and convincing as that of the Rite, and as hard to define."

It is cast in four basic episodes, each containing tiny bits of material from the other three. The first contains two quirky Russian folk melodies, and the second is flowing Pastorale. Sharp fortissimo chords mark the third, strongly rhythmic dance section, whose texture and harmonic language both remind us that we are only seven years beyond The Rite of Spring. Finally, the haunting Chorale for the Tombeau is for brass alone, joined by woodwinds at the end.

In 1947 Stravinsky created a revised version, with several small scoring changes that eliminated some of the unusual instruments from the original (alto flute, basset horn, A clarinet, etc).

- Program Note from National Symphony Orchestra Performance on November 13th-15th, 2008

Symphonies for Wind Instruments was completed in 1920 and is an odd piece in the oeuvre of Igor Stravinsky. Dedicated ‘To the memory of Claude Achille Debussy,' the first sketches of Symphonies of Wind Instruments appear between 1918 and 1919 after the death of Debussy, who was his close friend. Stravinsky, along with Ravel, De Falla, Bartok, and Roussel, had been asked to contribute a piece to the new music journal La Revue musicale, in memory of Claude Debussy. While the other composers had written pieces in imitation of Debussy’s impressionistic style, Stravinsky wrote an ‘austere’ chorale titled Fragment des Symphonies pour instruments a vent a la mémoire de C. A. Debussy.

The instrumentation of the piece is for an extended orchestral wind section without strings and had been adopted into the wind band repertoire following the creation of the Eastman Wind Ensemble in 1952. The title can be somewhat confusing, but one must go to the ancient definition of symphony, meaning, “a group of instruments sounding together." With this is mind the listener can now discern it from what we know a ‘symphony’ to be today. In Stravinsky’s mind, each section of homogeneous sounding instruments (i.e., flutes, clarinets, double reeds, trumpets, etc.) is a symphony. These symphonies make up the four different episodes of the piece. With excerpts of the chorale interspersed within these episodes, the listener will hear a piece in a form all its own.

The 1920 version was premiered by the famous conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitsky. Stravinsky was not very happy with this performance, and it was one of the reasons why he began to conduct his own music. The work went under the ownership of a couple of different publishers and Stravinsky himself had lost some of his later proofs. He decided to make a new version from his first proof and a piano reduction. The new 1947 version came with changes in instrumentation and phrase length. Malcolm McDonald says of the two versions, “...the original version is the more redolent of the liturgy and Russian orthodox church music; the revised version is more abstract, more a Cubist play of colors and planes.”

Program Note by Jeffrey E. de Seriere II for the California State University, Long Beach, Wind Symphony

In 1920, the Revue Musicale published a suite of piano pieces in memory of Debussy, who had passed away two years earlier. They commissioned Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which was published in the memorial anthology as a chorale for solo piano. Though it was dedicated to the memory of Debussy, there is no trace of Debussy’s style in this music. Rimsky‐Korsakov warned Stravinsky about Debussy: “Better not to listen to him; one runs the risk of getting accustomed to him, and one would end by liking him.” By 1959, Stravinsky had far outgrown Rimsky’s influence. He said: “The musicians of my generation and I myself owe the most to Debussy."

The title “Symphonies” is deceptive. Rather than symphonic form per se, the title reflects a need for a structuring principle akin to that of the symphony, a new form for abstract instrumental works. Most of Stravinsky’s orchestral work to this point had been suites and rearrangements from stage works, not “pure” or “abstract” music. Symphonies typifies Stravinsky’s “Russian” phase, though there is a very slight foreshadowing of neoclassical idioms; a “classicising tendency” that is not yet doctrine. The work uses modes to replace traditional tonality and contrasts mobile articulated eighth notes with haltingly abrupt chords. It is also notable for its use of tone color to make shapes and lines stand out.

In the 1940s, Stravinsky began to revise his earlier works. The revisions allowed him to use new methods to solve the musical problems at the heart of the works. The 1947 revision of Symphonies brought substantial differences. The changes tended to improve resonance, rather than intensify dissonance. They also improved articulation of successive chords. Stravinsky chose to strengthen, rather than alter, the “color” differences that are characteristic of his early work. In the revision, the only change in the orchestration was to substitute flute and clarinet for the outmoded alto flute and basset horn. However, he overhauled the scoring to produce a “reedier” and more incisive sound, diminishing the presence of the French horn, while increasing that of the oboes, English horn and contrabassoon. In Stravinsky’s words, Symphonies “has the character of ritual, but is abstracted from any context.”

- Program Note by Jason Sundram for San Francisco Wind Ensemble concert program, 26 August 2017

Igor Stravinsky ... was forced to take refuge from the War [World War I] in Switzerland from 1914 to 1920. During this period, Stravinsky’s isolation from his resources in Russia compelled him to write music for reduced instrumentation, perhaps culminating in his famed 1918 L'Histoire du Soldat. 1918 also saw the death of his friend Claude Debussy, during one of the darkest times of the entire war. These events inspired some of the material in Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments -- which is not a symphony in the classical sense, but rather defines a “sounding together” of different instruments -- the word’s original definition.

The single-movement Symphonies was composed during the summer of 1920 and premiered in London in 1921 under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky. Symphonies develops material from Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, The Wedding, parts of L’Histoire, and the Russian popular material from his numerous vocal compositions -- particularly the songs composed during his Swiss exile. The result has been called a kind of summary of many of the musical ideas that Stravinsky explored during his six years in exile. The symphonies referred to in the title present themselves throughout, as the piece is a constant experiment in different instrument combinations -- often contrasting, rarely overlapping or joining each other. Stravinsky’s words are insightful and important to unlock digestion of this work:

It lacks all those elements that infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener, or to which he is accustomed. It is futile to look in it for passionate impulse or dynamic brilliance. It is an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments. ... This music is not meant to ‘please’ an audience, nor to arouse its passions. Nevertheless, I had hoped that it would appeal to some of those persons in whom a purely musical receptivity outweighed the desire to satisfy their sentimental cravings.

- Program Note by Andrew Grenci and Joel Baroody for the United States Coast Guard Band concert program, 22 December 2017


State Ratings

None discovered thus far.


To submit a performance please join The Wind Repertory Project

  • Illinois State University (Normal) Wind Symphony (Anthony C. Marinello, conductor) – 27 March 2024
  • University of Maryland (College Park) Wind Orchestra (Michael Votta, conductor) - 6 October 2023
  • Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.) Symphonic Wind Ensemble (Mallory Thompson, conductor) - 17 February 2023
  • University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) Symphony Band (Michael Haithcock, conductor) – 30 September 2022
  • DePaul University (Chicago, Ill.) Wind Ensemble (Clifford Colnot, conductor) - 2 June 2022
  • University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) Wind Ensemble (Emily Threinen, conductor) -- 7 February 2022
  • University of Miami (Fla.) Frost Bands (Jack Hontz, conductor) - 2 May 2021
  • University of North Texas (Denton) Wind Orchestra (Andrew Trachsel, conductor) - 1 April 2021
  • Eastman School of Music (Rochester, N.Y.) Wind Ensemble (Mark Scatterday, conductor) - 19 February 2021
  • University of South Florida (Tampa) Wind Ensemble (Matthew McCutchen, conductor) - 20 November 2020
  • Liberty University (Lynchburg, Va.) Symphony Orchestra Winds (Kathryn (Voelker) Wert, conductor)- 3 November 2020
  • Purdue University Fort Wayne (Ind.) Symphonic Wind Ensemble (Daniel Tembras, conductor) – 27 February 2020
  • University of Georgia (Athens) Hodgson Wind Ensemble (Cynthia Johnston Turner, conductor) – 25 February 2020
  • University of Illinois (Champaign) Wind Symphony (Stephen G. Peterson, conductor) – 4 December 2019
  • University of North Carolina, Greensboro, Wind Ensemble (Jonathan Caldwell, conductor) – 21 November 2019
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison Wind Ensemble (Scott Teeple, conductor) – 3 November 2019
  • University of Southern California (Los Angeles) Thornton Wind Ensemble (H. Robert Reynolds, conductor) - 1 November 2019
  • Indiana University (Bloomington) Wind Ensemble (Rodney Dorsey, conductor) – 24 September 2019
  • University of Colorado Boulder Wind Symphony (Donald J. McKinney, conductor) – 15 November 2018
  • University of Texas, Arlington, Wind Symphony (Douglas Stotter, conductor) – 16 September 2018
  • Conservatorio Superior de Música "Manuel Castillo" (Sevilla, Spain) OSC (Juan García Rodríguez, conductor) - 8 May 2013
  • New York Philharmonic (Valery Gergiev, conductor) - 21 & 22 April 2010 (1947 version)
  • Eastman Wind Ensemble (Rochester, N.Y.) (Frederick Fennell, conductor) – 17 November 1961 *Premiere Eastman Wind Ensemble Concert*

Works for Winds by This Composer