Les Noces by Igor Stravinsky,
orchestrated by Steven Stucky (2005)
The gestation of Stravinsky's Les Noces was long and convoluted, stretching over nearly a full decade and at least five versions. Late in life, Stravinsky recalled that he originally intended to use a "super-Sacre" orchestra of 150 musicians even larger than the massive Rite of Spring. No such draft exists: either he had only thought about the possibility without trying it, or decades later he was misremembering the work's origins. The first two versions, both incomplete, date from 1914-15 and are scored for two string quintets (one pizzicato, the other arco) and nine winds. Version 3 (1915-17), the first complete draft, is scored for an idiosyncratic combination of twenty-seven winds and brass, eight strings, harp, piano, harpsichord, and Hungarian cimbalom. Meanwhile, in his other works (L'Histoire du soldat, Symphonies of Wind Instruments), Stravinsky was already moving toward smaller ensembles and more austere instrumental sonorities as he positioned himself to join the Paris-based movement soon to be dubbed "neoclassicism." In this context, the rich sound-world of Version 3 must suddenly have seemed old-fashioned, and Version 4 of Les Noces (1918-19) is stripped down to two cimbaloms, harmonium, pianola, and percussion (notice the similarity to George Antheil's notorious Ballet mécanique of 1923-25). But only in the definitive Version 5 (1922-23) did Stravinsky arrive at the "perfectly homogeneous, perfectly impersonal, and perfectly mechanical" sound of four pianos and four percussionists, in which, crucially, only struck instruments are heard.
A version for full orchestra was suggested by Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2005, originally as a companion to Sacre. I have kept Stravinsky's four percussionists intact, simply replacing the four pianos with an orchestra of conventional size and makeup (not super-Sacre). The task was far from simple, of course; it required learning the musical language as thoroughly as possible in order to stay faithful to its content (if not its sound).
This is in no sense Version 6: It would have been foolhardy to try to recreate an orchestral sound that Stravinsky himself might have imagined, or of which he might have approved. Removing the "mechanical" character of Les Noces – the unique sound of four pianos – changes it considerably, but at the same time I am guessing that it will help reveal the close relationship between this music and Stravinsky's earlier, more familiar Sacre and Petrushka, with whose compositional techniques it shares so much. My orchestration is not meant to replace Stravinsky's definitive 1923 version, but rather to offer a fresh lens through which to appreciate this uniquely original masterpiece.
– Steven Stucky