by Klára Móricz, author of In Stravinsky’s Orbit: Responses to Modernism in Russian Paris, for Igor Stravinsky’s birthday

As a musician, I always feel a bit embarrassed when I sing “Happy Birthday.” Prompted by the same distaste for kitsch, a composer friend of mine wrote an ironic, slightly depressing version, which I have started to slip in as a substitute at family occasions. Igor Stravinsky seems to have shared this dislike for the world’s most popular tune. When at a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony at the Aspen Music Festival in 1950 the orchestra played it as a surprise, the maestro was not pleased. Instead, he felt victimized by what he considered a practical joke. Clearly the memory stayed with him—one year later when he was asked to write a fanfare for a festival in North Carolina, he planned to tame the ridiculous little tune by subjecting it to canonic variations. Nothing came of this project at the time, but in 1955 he managed to turn “Happy Birthday” into a short “Greeting Prelude” for the 80th birthday of his friend, the conductor Pierre Monteux. Leonard Bernstein then used this piece to greet Stravinsky on his 80th birthday in 1962 at a Young People’s Concert. Placed between such gems as In Memoriam Dylan Thomas and Canticum Sacrum in Eric Walter White’s book Stravinsky: The Composer and His Work, it earned only a brief, dismissive entry from White, who considered the “jovial, aphoristic work…too short to make much effect.” 

This anecdote might seem a minor piece of trivia about Stravinsky. Yet this minuscule piece displays many features that made Stravinsky the greatest composer of the twentieth century. To start, Stravinsky’s version of “Happy Birthday” rids the tune of its saccharine quality by using the same characteristic procedures that helped turn Stravinsky’s music into a conscious rejection of the Romantic notion that music must express emotions. Its brass-dominated orchestral colors, discontinuous melodic lines, seeming disregard for what sounds well together, and highly crafted, extremely complicated contrapuntal procedures all contribute to the ironic effect that is a hallmark of not only Stravinsky’s music but of twentieth-century art in general.

Listen to Stravinsky’s Greeting Prelude (Happy Birthday) performed by the Oslo Philharmonic

With its heavy brass, Stravinsky’s “Greeting Prelude” is celebratory but lacks pathos. Stravinsky gives the tune first to the horns, whose accented notes receive further emphasis from the piano’s percussive doubling. Stravinsky throws the notes of the tune into different registers, breaking continuity necessary for any sense of melody. The second time, “Happy Birthday” is played by the double bass, tuba, contrabassoon, and bassoons—members of the orchestra that rarely feature melodies. This time the strings stage a rebellion, playing a rhythmically more intricate counterpoint with random accents and little, fake-expressive dynamic fluctuations against the bass. In other words, they act as strings should: erratic, emotional, and expressive.

And here is the joke. At closer inspection it turns out that the strings are still playing the tune, made almost unrecognizable by the rhythmic alterations. The cellos begin, imitated by the violas that play the same melody, but inverted. One needs to turn the score upside down and read it in treble instead of alto clef to find the notes of “Happy Birthday” in the viola part. The first and second violins also join in with the tune, but they play it transposed. And as if this would not be enough, to show off his contrapuntal skill Stravinsky also introduces a retrograde (played backwards) version of the melody in the viola and second violin.

The last iteration of “Happy Birthday” in the “Greeting Prelude” is similar to the first, but now the strings play a diminished modal version of it with mechanical parallel triads, a favorite technique of Stravinsky, who liked to show that rules of harmony are there to be broken. There is no cheap satisfaction brought by a conventional cadence at the end. With a whimsical move Stravinsky leaves the penultimate note of “Happy Birthday” hanging in the upper parts and forgets to resolve the dominant in the bass.

As Bernstein put it, there is nothing more appropriate than greeting Stravinsky with music in his own language. With the COVID-19 crisis silencing our orchestras, let’s have my description of this brilliant musical joke serve as a birthday fanfare for Igor Stravinsky.