h.f.k. stein

Elegy for J.F.K.

Elegy for J.F.K. is a piece of vocal music composed by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky in 1964, commemorating the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

Composition background

After the outbreak of World War II and his emigration to Los Angeles, California, in 1939, Stravinsky continued to work within the neo-classical framework, but beginning in the early 1950s turned to various serial techniques, which he used until his death in 1971.

Music overview and analysis

Elegy for J.F.K. is scored for baritone or mezzo-soprano, and three clarinets, and is a twelve-tone serial composition. The lyrics are from a poem dedicated to President John F. Kennedy by W. H. Auden after Kennedy's assassination. Elegy makes use of various textural changes to accommodate the changes in vocal register. The piece is in ternary form, just like the poem, meaning that material is repeated in the first and last nine measures. Various compositional elements suggest the severity of the topic such as the frequent use of da capo, the perfect fifth D#–A# in the clarinets from mm. 7–8, and the repeated tritone G#-D throughout.

Compared to other serial pieces by Stravinsky, Elegy uses less strict pitch ordering, combining a melodic vocal with chordal clarinet texture. A twelve-tone analysis of this piece shows some patterns of the style. As in all twelve-tone music, there is a mathematical relationship between the prime, inverted, and retrograde series. For example, if the melody pitches in mm. 1–8 are P0 (G#, D, C, A#, E, F, B, A, G, F#, D#, and C#), then the harmonic pitches that the clarinets play are RI0 (D#, C#, A#, A, G, F, B, C, F#, E, D, and G#), with some repeated pitches and the perfect fifth of D# and A# played in mm. 7 and 8. Stravinsky uses the P0 form in all of the measure rows except MM. 9-13 which uses RI0. The words for these measures have the lyrics “Why then? Why there? Why thus, we try, did he die?” His use of RI0 here suggests an attempt to answer the question posed by Auden in the poem. Sometimes, Stravinsky even writes only partial or incomplete row statements, a poignant symbolism of the topic of this piece.


  • Auden, W. H. Collected Poems. New York: Random House, Inc., 1965.
  • Kuster, Andrew. "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. Published in 2005 as Stravinsky's Topology [N.p.]:, © 2000. ISBN 1411664582
  • Morgan, Robert. “Twentieth-Century Music”, Yale University. 2003.
  • Payne, Anthony. “Stravinsky’s 'Abraham and Isaac' and 'Elegy for J.F.K.'” Tempo new series, no. 73 (Summer 1965): 12-15.
  • Straus, Joseph Nathan. Stravinsky's Late Music. Cambridge Studies in Music Theory and Analysis 16. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 0521802202
  • Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. Themes and Episodes. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1966.

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