Threni (Stravinsky)

The Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, where Threni was premiered

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]

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.

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.


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. Stravinsky dedicated the performance to Alessandro Piovesan, director of the Venice Biennale, who had recently died.[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] Conceding that the performance was a "catastrophe", Boulez nevertheless insisted that he did in fact participate 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.[11]

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.[12]

Threni was first published by Boosey & Hawkes in 1958. Conducting from this score is difficult because of a shortage of bar lines.[13] 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".[14] However, a revised edition, with several changes to the barring as well as some corrections, was issued in 1965.[13]

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.[15]


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.[7] (The flugelhorn is actually listed as "bugle" by the publisher,[16] 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.[15] 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".[7]

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.[7]

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.[7][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.[14]

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 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.[23]


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.[15]

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).[15]

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:[15]

(complaint) uses verses 1–6 and 16–21 (Hebrew letters: aleph, beth, vau, zaïn).
Sensus spei 
(sense of hope) uses verses 22–27, 34–36, 40–45 and 49–57 (Hebrew letters: heth, teth, lamed, nun, samech, ain, tsade, coph).
(solace) uses verses 58–64 (Hebrew letters: resh, sin, thau).

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.[15]



  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 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.
  8. 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).
  9. Igor Stravinsky, Selected Correspondence, vol. 2, edited and with commentaries by Robert Craft (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984): 353.
  10. Robert Craft, An Improbable Life: Memoirs (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002): 208. ISBN 0-8265-1381-6.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 1 2 Claudio Spies, "Igor Stravinsky's Threni: Conducting Details" (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, n.d.) (Accessed 3 January 2011).
  14. 1 2 Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Stravinsky in Conversation with Robert Craft (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd, 1962): 35–36.
  15. 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).
  16. Boosey & Hawkes. "Igor Stravinsky – Threni: id est Lamentationes Jeremiae Prophetae". Retrieved 2011-01-03.
  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" (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. 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.
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