The Stravinsky Years

The Final Performance-Invitation to a Funeral

Gregg Smith: “Igor Stravinsky died on Tuesday, April 6, 1971. While returning to New York City that same day from being on tour, we heard the devastating news in the airport terminal. I found out that they were having a public service for Stravinsky in New York City at Frank Campbell, on Madison Avenue. So I contacted Lillian Libman, Stravinsky’s personal manager, who was helping the family in this difficult time.

I asked if they might want the Gregg Smith Singers to sing some Russian music at the public service. Stravinsky had written a Pater Noster (Otche Nasch’) and an Ave Maria, (Bogoroditse Dievo), both of which the Gregg Smith Singers had frequently performed.

Lillian Libman agreed that this would be a good tribute at the public service, which was scheduled for Good Friday, April 9. Then, on April 7, Holy Wednesday, she called me back to say, “We have a problem.”

The burial service and memorial concert for Stravinsky was to be held on Thursday, April 15 in the church of San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, Italy. It would be a Greek Orthodox service, presided over by Archimandrite Cherubim Malissiamos of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The original orchestra and choir that had been contacted in Italy had agreed to perform the “Requiem Canticles,” a piece that had been specifically requested by Stravinsky for his funeral, according to Lillian Libman and Robert Craft.

The point of contention appears to have been the complexity of the music. The orchestra and chorus were willing until they saw the music that they would be expected to perform on such very, very short notice—the “Requiem Canticles.” Some of the contacts panicked before the music arrived in Italy, some panicked after they saw the music, but panic was in the air.

Additional complications, which included the complexities and duties of Holy Week, Easter and the week following Easter in Italy, as well as the complexities of the “Requiem Canticles,” caused the original orchestra and choir to regretfully refuse. Lillian Libman was having extreme difficulty trying to coordinate services in New York City and get another orchestra and choir together in Venice.

Gregg Smith: “So the “problem” that she was asking me to solve was to get to Venice as quickly as possible and, as she said, “Find an orchestra and a choir in Venice and prepare them for the “Requiem Canticles.” The music is already over there, ready for rehearsing. You’ve just got to go out and get somebody to do it. Pay them double if you have to. And when you get a choir together—make sure it’s about 16-to-24 singers, if you can.”

She added that Robert Craft would arrive with the Stravinsky family on the following Tuesday, two days before the service, and the choir and orchestra should be ready to start rehearsing immediately with Robert Craft on that day.

Gregg Smith: “The Gregg Smith Singers sang the Russian pieces for the New York City ceremony and I was able to be there to conduct that. I left almost immediately afterwards and caught a 7:30 plane that evening from JFK to Milan.”

“When I arrived the next morning, Saturday, I took the train to Venice. As soon as I arrived, I started to look around for a possible pick-up orchestra. I even spent a few minutes listening to a small orchestra playing excerpts from “Cavalleria Rusticana” in the San Marco Plaza. Decided ‘No.’ Then I got lucky.”

“I went to the church of San Giovanni e Paolo that same Saturday. There I found a priest who spoke French. I asked him if he would act as a translator and help me recruit an orchestra and a choir, and he agreed.”

“Now, one of the many difficulties I faced in finding and recruiting an orchestra and a choir was that I spoke little to no Italian. So finding someone willing to work as a translator (I did speak French) was a huge help. In addition, the priest had contacts with the office of the Mayor of Venice, who was also involved in planning and arranging the funeral services.”

“I had to wait until Monday, but the priest guided me to the Mayor’s office. There I met the General Manager of the Teatro Fenice. A potential orchestra! So, with me speaking French to the priest, the priest speaking Italian to the General Manager, who replied in Italian, which was translated back into French, we negotiated hiring an orchestra.”

“When they found out what they were being requested to perform—the twelve-tone “Requiem Canticles”—I almost lost them. The General Manager said he was worried that they wouldn’t be able to do it justice, that the music was too hard and there wasn’t enough time to rehearse it.”

“But I said, French to Italian, “No. It’s not as bad as you think. The “Requiem Canticles” is composed of nine very short movements. Full orchestra does not play in most of them. Because it’s in short sections, the instrumentalists can learn it quickly and I can help because I’ve rehearsed it before.” The General Manager allowed himself to be convinced and said that the orchestra would be ready to rehearse that same afternoon.”

Gregg Smith: “I then spent the afternoon rehearsing the orchestra. Thank goodness I had written out, during the plane flight over to Milan, how to give rehearsal numbers in Italian! But my troubles weren’t over yet.”

“The next hurdle was the chorus. At this point, it turned out that the Rome Radio Chorus, one of the best professional choruses in Italy, was touring nearby. The priest helped me to contact them. I asked the group’s conductor, through my translator, if he would be willing for the Rome Radio Chorus to sing the choral part of the “Requiem Canticles.”

“The conductor (who was the spitting image of Roger Wagner!) was doubtful. He didn’t think they could do the “Requiem Canticles”. It was too short notice, too difficult music. Instead, he indicated to me that the choir would be fine doing the “piccolo” (or little) “Mass” by Stravinsky, which they had in their repertoire. They also would be happy to sing a Scarlatti “Requiem Mass.” But they didn’t feel up to the “Requiem Canticles.”

“When I relayed this information to Lillian Libman and the Stravinsky family, they were adamant—a great big, firm “No!” The reason for this was that Stravinsky himself had requested the “Requiem Canticles” to be done at his funeral and it had to be that. Nothing else would do. After much discussion and reassurance that the piece could be learned in time, the conductor and the Rome Radio Chorus agreed to do the “Requiem Canticles” if Gregg would teach it to them.

Choir rehearsals began that Tuesday night, with Gregg working with the Rome Radio Chorus, while Robert Craft , who had just arrived, working with the Teatro Fenice orchestra.

Roz Rees: “I remember being in a Teatro Fenice rehearsal room used by the opera chorus for the Radio Rome Choir rehearsal that was held on Tuesday. The choir was about 30 in number. The conductor was rather territorial and aggressive as well. He did not allow Gregg to conduct at all, although he did allow him to give the pitches. Gregg sat at the piano, banging out notes as the Rome Radio Chorus conductor worked with the choir. In this way, he was also able to slip in crucial cues and pitches discreetly to help the choir learn the piece.”

Roz Rees had arrived in Venice a day earlier, on Easter Monday afternoon. Upon arriving, she learned that she would be doing the alto solo in the “Requiem Canticles.” In between choir rehearsals, she worked with Robert Craft in his hotel room (which had no piano), with Gregg Smith singing cues, including trumpet cues. “I’d say, “Gregg, where’s the pitch? Where’s the pitch?” And they’d both laugh.”

Roz Rees: “One wonderful moment occurred when we had dinner at the Teatro Fenice restaurant. The restaurant manager, when he’d found out that Gregg was working on the Stravinsky funeral and concert, came to our table with a book of famous signatures. He showed us the many signatures made by Stravinsky over the years, including the last signature, where Stravinsky had drawn a picture of himself as an ‘old man who could no longer drink wine, but must now drink water.’ It was very moving to see.”

Gregg Smith: “When Robert Craft arrived on Tuesday to rehearse the orchestra, I was so relieved. He rehearsed the orchestra on Tuesday (at the Teatro Fenice) and both choir and orchestra on Wednesday, with at least one of the rehearsals in the church of San Giovanni e Paolo, where the service was to be held.”

“One of the joint rehearsals with Robert Craft was in the theater lobby of the Teatro Fenice. The orchestra was seated in the actual lobby and the choir stood on the steps that led up to the balcony. Though by now, Robert Craft was doing all the conducting, the Rome Radio Chorus conductor was still keeping himself in the picture.”

Roz Rees: “He was an aggressive, noisy conductor who loved to shout, but he did take the “Requiem Canticles” apart effectively so his choir could learn it. However, he couldn’t seem to step away. As Robert Craft gave cues for the choir to become softer, the Rome Radio Chorus conductor would go “Ssh! Ssh!” louder than the choir.”

Gregg Smith: “Robert remembered that the Rome Radio Chorus had been conducted by Stravinsky previously, and that Stravinsky had actually made the conductor leave. The solution that Robert came up with was less draconian. He simply relegated the conductor to the back of the orchestra. He was to stand between the orchestra and the choir, which is where the vibrant “Ssh! Ssh!” still continued to occur from time to time.”

Roz Rees: “Robert Craft was fabulous to sing with as a conductor. He gave me every cue. Gregg was also wonderful. During the “dress rehearsal” in the church of San Giovanni e Paolo, Gregg went around and around the church to find the “livest” place to stand, so that I wouldn’t have to strain my voice, singing low as an alto, since I usually sang soprano. He found a good spot and I planted myself. It was not in front of the orchestra but a bit to one side.

“The church of San Giovanni e Paolo is a beautiful old church, but the acoustics in the church were not helpful and sometimes became muddy with a lot of reverberation. But I was right on. I was standing in what’s known as an acoustical “halo,” in a church without good acoustics. So when the other soloists—the baritone and the quartet—noticed that there was a “sweet” spot, they joined me there.”

Roz Rees: “The Rome Radio Chorus also didn’t have a tenor for the solo quartet portion, so Gregg was elected to sing tenor! Ironically, the musical portion of Stravinsky’s funeral service which was selected to be broadcast for international television included the quartet with Gregg Smith singing tenor!”

The service began with a “Requiem Mass” by Alessandro Scarlatti. This was followed by some words by the Mayor of Venice. Then there was an organ piece by Andrea Gabrieli, followed by the “Requiem Canticles,” conducted by Robert Craft.

An hour of chanted Greek Orthodox liturgy for the dead followed, beautifully and movingly intoned by the Archimandrite Malissiamos. At the end of the long service, the family was beckoned up by the Archimandrite to kiss the coffin in traditional farewell, and then Stravinsky made his last journey via gondola to San Michele.

“After the service, Gregg and I were right up front, near the gravesite at San Michele. There were not so many people at San Michele; the bigger crowd was at the square in front of the church. But as the last chants were being sung at the grave site, by this wonderful Greek orthodox cantor, the paparazzi were still coming over the wall of the cemetery, flash-bulbs popping, paying no attention to this sacred liturgy, so beautifully and movingly sung.”

Gregg Smith: “As we left San Michele in the returning gondola procession, leaving Igor Stravinsky resting near his mentor and compatriot, Sergei Diaghilev, I could not help but think of the picture I had seen in Stravinsky’s home in Los Angeles, more than a decade before—the photograph of Diaghilev’s funeral procession of gondolas. And now, here I was in Stravinsky’s own gondola funeral procession – in a sense, coming full circle.”