Les noces

This article is about Stravinsky's ballet. For Jerome Robbins' choreography, see Les Noces (Robbins).
Les noces
Choreographer Bronislava Nijinska
Music Igor Stravinsky
Premiere June 13, 1923
Original ballet company Ballets Russes
Genre Neoclassical ballet
Type Classical ballet

Les noces (French; English: The Wedding; Russian: Свадебка, Svadebka) is a ballet and orchestral concert work composed by Igor Stravinsky for percussion, pianists, chorus, and vocal soloists. The composer gave it the descriptive title: "Choreographed Scenes with Music and Voices." Though initially intended to serve as a ballet score, it is often performed without dance. It premiered under the musical direction of Ernest Ansermet at the Ballets Russes with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska on June 13, 1923, in Paris. Several versions of the score have been performed, either substituting orchestra for the percussion and pianos or using pianolas in accordance with a version of the piece that Stravinsky abandoned without completing.


Stravinsky first conceived of writing the ballet in 1913 and completed it in short score by October 1917. He wrote the libretto himself using Russian wedding lyrics taken primarily from songs collected by Pyotr Kireevsky and published in 1911. During a long gestation period its orchestration changed dramatically. Stravinsky first planned to employ an expanded symphony orchestra similar to that of The Rite of Spring. His thinking went through numerous variations, including at one point the use of synchronised roll-operated instruments, including the pianola, but Stravinsky abandoned that version when only partially completed because the Parisian piano firm of Pleyel et Cie was late in constructing the two-keyboard cimbaloms, later known as luthéals, that he required.[lower-alpha 1]

Stravinsky settled on the following forces: soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, mixed chorus, and two groups of percussion instruments: pitched percussion, including four pianos, and unpitched percussion. This orchestration exemplifies Stravinsky's increasing proclivity for stripped down, clear and mechanistic sound groups in the decade after The Rite, although he never again produced such an extreme sonic effect solely with percussion.

Reminiscing in 1962, Stravinsky recalled "When I first played Les Noces to Diaghilev ...he wept and said it was the most beautiful and the most purely Russian creation of our Ballet. I think he did love Les Noces more than any other work of mine. That is why it is dedicated to him."[2]


The work was premiered on June 13, 1923, at the Théâtre de la Gaîté in Paris,[3] by the Ballets Russes with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska. The instrumental ensemble of four pianos and percussion was conducted by Ernest Ansermet. The work is usually performed in Russian or French; English translations are sometimes used, and Stravinsky used the English one on the recordings he conducted for Columbia Records in 1934 and 1959.

At the 1926 London premiere the piano parts were played by composers Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Vittorio Rieti and Vernon Duke.[4] When Stravinsky conducted a recording using the English libretto in 1959, the four pianists were composers Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and Roger Sessions.[5]

The premiere of the 1919 version of Les noces, with cimbaloms, harmonium, and pianola, took place in 1981 in Paris, conducted by Pierre Boulez.[6]

The Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned an arrangement by Steven Stucky for symphony orchestra and premiered it under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen on May 29, 2008, at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The arrangement retains Stravinsky's percussion parts while replacing the four pianos with a large orchestra.

The version including pianola that Stravinsky left unfinished was completed with permission from Stravinsky's heirs by the Dutch composer Theo Verbey and performed in the Netherlands in 2009.[7]

Critical Reception and Legacy

Les Noces received a mixed reception to its early performances. While its premiere in Paris in 1923 was welcomed with enthusiasm,[8] the London performance three years later received such a negative response from critics that, according to Eric Walter White, “The virulence of this attack so exasperated [the novelist] H. G. Wells that on June 18, 1926, he wrote an open letter.” Wells’ letter, quoted by White, said: “I do not know of any other ballet so interesting, so amusing, so fresh or nearly so exciting as Les Noces…That ballet is a rendering in sound and vision of the peasant soul, in its gravity, in its deliberate and simple-minded intricacy, in its subtly varied rhythms and deep undercurrents of excitement, that will astonish and delight every intelligent man or woman who goes to see it.” [9] The pious reaction of Soviet critics such as Tikhon Khrennikov was no surprise: “In Petrushka and Les Noces Stravinsky, with Diaghilev’s blessing, uses Russian folk customs in order to mock at them in the interests of European audiences, which he does by emphasizing Asiatic primitivism, coarseness, and animal instincts, and deliberately introducing sexual motives. Ancient folk melodies are intentionally distorted as if seen in a crooked mirror.” [10] However, in 1929, Boris Asafyev, a musicologist less inclined to stick to the "party line" made a shrewd prediction: “The young generation will find in the score of Noces an inexhaustible fountain of music and of new methods of musical formulation – a veritable primer of technical mastery.” [11]

The passage of time has indeed shown Les Noces to be one of Stravinsky’s finest and most original achievements. Writing in 1988, Stephen Walsh said “Although others among Stravinsky’s theatre works have enjoyed greater prestige … The Wedding is in many respects the most radical, the most original and conceivably the greatest of them all.”[12]

Howard Goodall has pointed out the influence of the distinctive sonorities of Les Noces: “To other composers, though, as they gradually came across Les Noces, its peculiar faux-primitive, fierce sound proved irresistible… The sound world of Les Noces is, quite simply, the most imitated of all twentieth-century combinations outside the fields of jazz and popular music.” Goodall lists composers that have fallen under its influence such as Orff, Bartók, Messiaen and many others, including film composers.[13]

In her memoir of working as Stravinsky’s agent during the final decade of his life, Lilian Libman recalls the composer’s particular fondness for the work: “Still, did he have a favorite as a father has a favorite son?...I think it was Les Noces… It drew him, it would seem, as no other work of his had done. During the time I knew him, the mention of Les Noces never failed to produce the same smile with which he greeted those for whom he felt great affection.” [14]

Notable recordings

Nijinska choreography

Nijinska's choreographic interpretation of Les noces has been called protofeminist.[17] Les noces deserts the upbeat nature of a typical wedding, and instead brings to life the restrictive nature of a woman's duty to marry. The dark and somber set provides the backdrop to the simple costuming and rigid movements. The individuality of the dancer is stripped away in Nijinska's choreography, therefore displaying actors on a predetermined path, as marriage was regarded as the way to maintain and grow the community. The choreography exudes symbolism as, huddled together, the women repeatedly strike the floor with their pointe shoes with rigid intensity, as if to tell the tale of their struggle and ultimate reverence. The Russian peasant culture and the dutifulness it evokes in its people is represented in Nijinska's piece.


  1. The idea that it is impossible or difficult to synchronise a pianola with other instruments is quite erroneous. There have been hundreds of concerts in which the pianola has accompanied chamber music, or been used as the solo instrument in concertos, beginning in 1900, when Luigi Kunits, concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, was accompanied by the early pianolist, Charles Parkyn. One example is the Rachmaninoff Third Piano Concerto with the Flemish Radio Orchestra in Brussels, with newly arranged rolls, perforated in March 2007.[1]


  1. History of the Pianola - Pianolists.
  2. Stravinsky, I. and Craft, R. (1962, p.118) Expositions and Developments. London, Faber.
  3. Walsh, Stephen. "Stravinsky, Igor (Fyodorovich)" in Sadie, Stanley, editor; John Tyrell; executive editor (2001). The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition. London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-56159-239-5. OCLC 419285866 (eBook).
  4. White, Eric Walter (1966). Stravinsky, the Composer and His Works. University of California Press. p. 260. Retrieved June 2, 2015.
  5. Jowitt, Deborah (2004). Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance. Simon & Schuster. p. 362. Retrieved June 2, 2015.
  6. Craft, Robert. "Stravinsky Pre-Centenary." Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 19, No. 1/2 (Autumn, 1980 - Summer, 1981), pp. 464–477 doi:10.2307/832606
  7. "The Village Wedding". Svadebka. Retrieved June 2, 2015.
  8. Walsh (1999, p.366), Igor Stravinsky, a Creative Spring. London, Jonathan Cape.
  9. White, E.W. (1947, p.74-75) Stravinsky, a Critical Survey. London, John Lehmann.
  10. Khrennikov, T. (1948, pp58-9) “Za tvorchestvo, dostoinoe sovetskogo naroda” [For creative arts which Soviet people deserve], Sovetskaia Muzyka (1948), no. 1.
  11. Asaf’yev, B. (1929, trans. 1982, p.153) A Book about Stravinsky. Ann Arbor, UMI Research Press.
  12. Walsh, S. (1988, p84), The Music of Stravinsky. London, Routledge, p.84.
  13. Goodall, H. (2013, p.272) The Story of Music. London, Chatto and Windus.
  14. Libman, L. (1972, p.227) And Music at the Close, Stravinsky’s Last Years. London, MacMillan.
  15. Building a Library, May 6, 2000
  16. René Bosc conducts "Les noces" by Igor Stravinsky (1923). Retrieved 28 January 2012.
  17. Dance Kaleidoscope on same-sex marriage. Nuvo, 15 May 2013. Retrieved 10 December 2014.

External links

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