In Venice one night last week, 3,000 special guestsamong them 130 music critics, dozens of big-name musicians, counts and Cabinet ministersfollowed purple-robed Cardinal Roncalli, Patriarch of Venice, into the Byzantine basilica of St. Mark for one of the strangest events in its 1,000-year history. Outside, thousands more were gathered around loudspeakers to hear Igor Stravinsky's latest work. Many thought it was a sort of musical murder in the cathedral.
Under a governmental austerity ruling that cut back their budget 30%, officials of Venice's famed International Festival of Contemporary Music had canceled the prestigious operatic premiéres of earlier years (e.g., Stravinsky's own 1951 Rake's Progress, Britten's 1954 Turn of the Screw, Prokofiev's 1955 Flaming Angel), pinned all their hopes and a large part of their remaining budget on the world premiére of Stravinsky's Canticum Sacrum ad Honorem Sancti Marci Nominis (Canticle to Honor the Name of St. Mark).
Two years ago Stravinsky, who has written a Pater Noster, a Credo, an Ave Maria and a Mass, enthusiastically accepted a commission to compose Passion music for Venice's patron saintat a rumored fee of $12,000. (A member of the Russian Orthodox faith, Stravinsky is very religious, but rarely goes to church in Los Angeles, where he lives, because "the singing is something terrible.") After struggling with the assignment, he turned up not with a Passion but with his Canticumand it took a mere 17 minutes to perform. When officials protested, he replied that he could have made it longer, but it would have been no better. If they wanted more music, play it again. And that is just the way it happened.
The cathedral audience was tense with expectation when the aging (74) composer himself appeared, looking something like an animated Gothic gargoyle. He conducted with clenched fists and wooden fury ("He loves to conduct," whispered one listener, "but he can't") while flashbulbs stabbed the darkness and lit up the cathedral's golden treasures.
The music was an intricate work in five movements, the last a musical inversion of the first, the fourth the reverse of the second. Most listenable was No. 2, an aria on the Song of Songs, which British Tenor Richard Lewis made sweet and plaintive as an Urdu love song, each syllable quivering through half a dozen notes. Elsewhere, the 70-voice chorus surged in powerful chant, defeating the squeaking, thudding, 50-piece orchestra. When it was over, Stravinsky bowed to the orchestra in the thundering silence and bounced off. Said one festival official: "In a cathedral the audience cannot applaud, but at least they cannot boo, either."