ClassicsOnline Home » STRAVINSKY, I.: Duo concertant / Sonata for 2 Pianos / Requiem Canticles (Frautschi, Denk, Philharmonia Orchestra, Craft) (Stravinsky, Vol. 12)
The acclaimed Naxos Robert Craft Stravinsky Edition continues with this fascinating album of diverse pieces by one of the 20th Century’s iconic composers. The Duo Concertant reconciles the contrasting timbres of violin and piano, while the breezy Sonata for Two Pianos, written in America, draws on Russian themes. The Requiem Canticles was performed at Stravinsky’s funeral, while the ‘sacred ballad’ Abraham and Isaac is a dramatic and moving retelling of the Old Testament story. The Élégie for solo viola is one of his most affecting works, and Bluebird is a loving arrangement for chamber orchestra of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.
By James Manheim
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971):
Duo Concertant • Sonata for Two Pianos Requiem Canticles • Abraham and Isaac • Élégie • Bluebird Pas de Deux
Duo Concertant was written between 27 December 1931 and 15 July 1932. Stravinsky spoke freely about his composing philosophy to interviewers during his concert tours, characterizing the first Eclogue to a reporter in Oslo as a Kazatchok, a Russian dance, and revealing that after working on the first trio of the Gigue he had “jumped up from the piano and danced and sung the “Glücklich ist” refrain from Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus. The première was in Berlin on 28 October 1932.
The first recording of Duo Concertant took place in Paris on the 6 and 7 of April 1933, played by the composer and Samuel Dushkin. Stravinsky told an interviewer in Budapest that “I have completed what could be called a sonata for piano and violin inspired by Virgil’s Georgics”. It is athematic in the first movement, which introduces the instruments separately and fragmentally, before bringing them together, a reminder that Stravinsky construes “concertant” as meaning “competition”. Throughout the 1920s he maintained that the sound of strings struck in a piano did not suit the sound of a multiple group of strings bowed, but he had reconciled himself to mating the two in a solo combination. The Cantilène exhibits their distinctive characteristics, the piano producing tremolos on five successive single pitches while the violin plays nine phrases of sixteenth-notes (semiquavers). In truth, the title Cantilène seems contradictory to the style of the music which is song-like only for moments in the violin part but otherwise athematic.
No less puzzlingly, Stravinsky referred to the first movement as a perpetuum mobile, whereas the term more aptly describes the first Eclogue and the Gigue. The second half of the first Eclogue recalls the Histoire du Soldat in its changing metres, staccato style, and double-stopping in the violin part. The second Eclogue, the slow movement of the suite, brings the two instruments together playing the same dotted rhythms and eighth-notes (quavers) with a lovely melodic interplay. Here Stravinsky renounces his precepts about competition and combat.
The inherent monotony of Gigue rhythm is relieved by the smoothest two-way metrical modulation in all Stravinsky’s music, moving from 6/16 and 12/16 metre to 2/8 and 2/4 metre, the first change also being distinguished by the doubling of the violin melody with harmonic thirds. In the latter part of the piece the piano becomes the leading melodic instrument, the traditional piano accompaniment figure being assigned to the violin in a high register.
Dithyramb, the eloquent peak of the Duo Concertant, takes its place in the succession of Stravinsky’s apotheoses (Apollo, Le Baiser de la Fée, and later, Orpheus).
Sonata for Two Pianos
The Sonata for Two Pianos was not commissioned and did not at first assume a sonata form. On 12 August 1942, Stravinsky began to orchestrate a part of the first movement of whatever he was writing, which suggests that he may have been considering a proposal to compose a film score. He resumed work on the sketch on 9 September and added more instruments, including trombone. The third movement was composed next, but his final intentions are still unclear. The second movement, which he did not begin until more than a year later (October 1943)—he was interrupted to write Scherzo à la Russe and the Ode for Serge Koussevitzky’s wife—resolves all doubts since it has the title Theme with Variations, and could only be the middle movement of a sonata. This composition occupied him for five months and required a full sheaf of sketches. Readers familiar with the score will be surprised to learn that the original of the fugato Variation is in F major (not G major, as published).
Stravinsky scholars will be tempted to conclude that Nadia Boulanger, who was near him during most of the composition, had persuaded him that the long lines of the music were more suited to the two-piano combination than to any instrumental ensemble, though, of course, he was quite capable of making this decision himself. After publication, Stravinsky was proud to learn that Dimitri Mitropoulos and Ernst Krenek had performed the piece publicly in Minneapolis. The opus became popular and entered the repertory of duo-piano teams everywhere, including Gold and Fizdale, and Babin and Vronsky. The piece provided a happy continuation of Stravinsky’s development of a breezy, lighthearted American style, following the Circus Polka, Norwegian Moods and Danses Concertantes.
Ironically, the American piano Duo consists largely of elaborations on Russian themes. The Theme with Variations movement is based on No. 46 in a book called Russian Ballads and Folksongs that Stravinsky found in a used bookstore in Hollywood in the spring of 1942. But apart from melody, the extreme simplicity of line and harmony shows a change in mood and style that is absent from Stravinsky’s earlier European creations. For only one distinction, the lines are longer, the rhythms and metres more simple, and the harmony more transparent. Stravinsky, then in his late fifties, was at last free from his double life and his need to provide for a large congregation of relatives, and to enjoy the climate and other benefits (perhaps there were some in the early 1940s) of Southern California.
Shortly after the première of the Requiem Canticles at Princeton, Stravinsky answered an inquiry concerning the origins of the piece: “I began with intervallic designs that I expanded into musical shapes which suggested musical forms and structures. The twofold series was also discovered early on while I was completing the first musical trope, as was the instrumental basis, the idea of the triangulate frame of a string Prelude, wind-instrument Interlude, and percussion Postlude. The overall design of the piece is symmetrical, six vocal movements divided at mid-point by an instrumental dirge.”
Stravinsky pasted his sketches into a loose leaf notebook and added photographs of people who had died during the composition of the work. Thus an obit of Edgard Varèse that includes two photos, clipped from The New York Times on 8 November 1965, appears on a page facing a sketch for two choral phrases of the Exaudi. No connection exists between the music and the deceased, nevertheless, the conjunction of this friend’s death exposes an almost unbearably personal glimpse of Stravinsky’s mind during the composition of the entire work. It is enough to say that the sketchbook preserves a diary of his musical thoughts. Thus the Rex Tremendae sketch reveals that the pitches chosen occurred to him a stage ahead of their final groupings. The Tuba Mirum sketch invites the reader to plot the composer’s thinking from a larval stage to the final score. In one case, the page devoted to Alberto Giacometti, the pre-positioning of which obviously inspired Stravinsky to draw the slightly wavering lines of a cross over the photos of him, may have inspired the music as well, but that is only my speculation.
Another happening, this one from the theater world, left its mark on the composition. Stravinsky saw the New York stage production of Peter Weiss’s play, Marat/Sade and was inspirited by the incoherent talk of the crowd scene to the extent of using his chorus in a parlando to suggest a mumbled congregational prayer in the background of his penultimate movement, Libera Me. The foreground here is a rapid chant in measured quarter notes (crotchets) sung by a solo vocal quartet of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. But on second thoughts, Stravinsky did not want this confusion of voices representing a church congregation, but desired instead to devise a measured spacing of the spoken chant by indicating boundaries in which to limit the speeds for each section of the spoken words.
The choice of chords mixing celesta, campane and vibraphone in the Postlude was the most daring concept in the entire opus since Stravinsky had never heard the three instruments together, and since all of the notes have to be equally balanced in volume. The celesta, of course, is the highest in range and the campane part is confined to the middle of the treble clef. The distribution of the vibraphone pitches is the most precarious. Every chord contains at least one octave or unison. The two-note vibraphone chords are the widest in range, the two-note campane chords are the closest together, and the celesta, which plays chords of three to four notes, provides the richest colour. No chord is exactly repeated. Ingeniously, Stravinsky introduces the second chord of the second trope of this trio with an appoggiatura in all three instruments in preparation for the appoggiatura in the bass part of the piano in the final three chords of the piece. Here, the penultimate chord is sounded twice which functions as a preparation of the final “chord of death”, resolving the procession of harmonics.
Abraham and Isaac
The Sacred Ballad for Baritone and Chamber Orchestra sets verses 1–19 of Chapter XXII of the Book of Genesis, in which God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac into the land of Moriah and sacrifice him. After the journey is enjoined, Abraham experiences a vision of the place of sacrifice from afar. The wood for the burnt offering is gathered and Abraham binds Isaac to the altar. God recognizes Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. The ram is caught and sacrificed instead of Isaac. Abraham retires to Beersheba.
Stravinsky worked from a Russian transliteration of the Hebrew text prepared by Isaiah Berlin, who also provided him with a guide to pronunciation and accentuation. Additional tutoring in pronunciation and word setting from the composer Hugo Weisgall, who was in Santa Fe when Stravinsky began work on the composition in the summer of 1962, should also be acknowledged; Stravinsky received Hugo Weisgall several times in the La Fonda Hotel, and a chart survives in his hand of vowels and consonants and their equivalent pronunciation in English. Stravinsky entered both the Latin-letter transcription of the Hebrew text and the English translation in his manuscript, but the piece was designed to be sung in Hebrew only: the sounds of the words and the music are inseparable, the appoggiaturas, quasi-trills, melismas, and other stylistic embellishments unsuited to any other language.
Completed in Hollywood on 3 March 1963, the score, dedicated To the People of Israel, is now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Theodore Kollek, the Mayor of Jerusalem, wrote to Stravinsky on 30 March 1965, recalling a dinner in Hollywood a few weeks before with the Stravinskys and “our mutual friends Isaac Stern, Grisha Piatigorsky, and Bob Craft”, asking him to give the manuscript to the Israel Museum on grounds that as compared to the Los Angeles County Museum “our setting is better, overlooking as we do the beautiful Byzantine Russian Orthodox Monastery and the eternal hills of the Land of Abraham and Isaac”. But Kollek had been given the wrong address and his letter was returned to him. When he wrote again, on 16 May, Stravinsky was concert-touring and did not receive the letter until 15 July, on which day he replied: “The enclosed manuscript…is my answer….I hope it will be not long before we meet again. All best, my dear friend….”
The instruments play alone only in the introduction and in the brief interludes that divide the narrative into six sections, each of them distinguished by a progressively slower tempo. The full orchestra is never employed together. With the intention of giving the words the highest possible relief, Stravinsky confined much of the accompaniment to a single line shared between and among different instruments. The second part of the narrative, beginning with the words “Abraham took two of his boys with him”, is scored for a single line of wind instruments, which, at the words “Whereof spoke to him God”, spreads to two parts. Here and elsewhere, the word of God related by the angel of God, is accompanied by strings only, at first by five tremolo chords in the upper register, a device that Stravinsky had associated with the voice of God in The Flood, his Biblical opus of the previous year. The next section, a canon between the voice and a bassoon alternating with solo violin, is again restricted to a single instrumental line. The music associated with the departure of Abraham and Isaac with the two serving boys for the place of worship is a flute cadenza punctuated by five string chords. The next and longest interlude, representing Abraham’s journey alone with Isaac for the sacrificial infanticide, consists of a succession of chords of two-pitches in the bass-register, and melodic fragments played by alto flute.
At the start of the next section, the point in the narrative where Abraham collects the wood for the burnt offering, the vocal part is unaccompanied. It begins on C sharp, the referential pitch of the whole work. Octave-doubled in bassoon and bass clarinet and thrice repeated, the pitch becomes increasingly focal. To introduce Abraham’s statement, “God will provide the lamb”, which is scored for trumpet and tuba, the narration briefly employs Sprechstimme (half sung, half spoken), Father and son go together (two bassoons) to the place where God has bidden Abraham to build an altar. The next episode, the binding of Isaac to the altar, and of Abraham brandishing his knife, begins in the English horn on C sharp and ends with the same note in the bassoon. The subsequent episode, the angel crying out of Heaven, is accompanied by the novel combination of flute and tuba. Harsh, forte chords in the full strings punctuate God’s command, “Do not lay thy hand upon the boy”, as well as at the dramatic moment when God says that Abraham has not “withheld thy son, thy only one, from me”.
The capturing of the ram in a thicket inspired programme music. The friskiness of the animal is evoked by leaps and rapid notes in the bassoon, and by the least regular rhythms Stravinsky ever wrote (12 notes to be played in the time of 5, 11 notes in the time of 3, 5 notes in the time of 3, and 3 notes in the time of 5). The next episode, the naming of the place of Isaac’s non-sacrifice as the Mount of the Lord, is introduced by a slightly different form of the interlude before the ram-chasing. The music is a three-part canon for the voice, French horn, and tuba ending in the most passionate moment in the piece, a C sharp sustained in four octaves in the winds, followed by eight repeated C sharps in the vocal part to the words “And they called the angel of the Lord to Abraham”, accompanied by tuba and horn in alternation and then together. Rapidly repeated notes of the clarinet on one pitch should be understood as Stravinsky’s musical image for the multiplication of the seed of Abraham. The short chords, played by all of the wind instruments together, with the words “Blessed is thy seed in all the nations of the earth”, are a further instance of the composer’s musical symbolism. The ending, “And dwelt Abraham in Beersheba”, the most moving section of the cantata, is introduced and accompanied by three solo strings, replaced in the final phrase by two clarinets. The first and the last note of this final verse is C sharp.
The story of Abraham and Isaac has inspired great visual art (Ghiberti’s panel), great music (Stravinsky’s), and great philosophical literature (Kierkegaard). Erich Auerbach’s comparison of it in Mimesis with Homer’s account of the recognition of Odysseus by his nurse Erycleia should also be mentioned. Stravinsky was in his eighties when he composed this deeply-felt, dramatically and musically original work. Its emotional power is conveyed at first hearing, but to understand and love its musical content requires repeated listening.
The Élégie for solo viola is one of Stravinsky’s most affecting short works. Its dedication to the memory of Alphonse Onnou, violinist and founder of the Pro Arte String Quartet, was at the request of the Quartet’s violist, Germain Prévost, a close and longtime friend of the composer. Unique in Stravinsky’s music, he marked the fingerings in the manuscript and published score with the comment that they were chosen to underline the counterpoint.
The prelude begins with a song and accompaniment figure. The principal part suggests a two-voice fugue, and at its climax, the subject, the Dux, is answered by its inversion, the Comes, at the distance of two silent beats in the second voice. Prévost played the piece for Béla Bartók in his New York home before the public première.
Tchaikovsky / Stravinsky: Bluebird Pas de Deux
In January 1941 Lucia Chase, the founding Director of Ballet Theater, commissioned Stravinsky to arrange the four very brief pieces comprising the Bluebird ballet, excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty re-scored for a chamber orchestra. This was Stravinsky’s first commission as a refugee in the U.S. and he greatly enjoyed his work, which he achieved in a few days. All that can be said about the arrangement is that it provides a study in Stravinsky’s improvement over Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. Stravinsky began not by reducing the orchestra, but by adding an instrument—a piano—which provided at least two new ideas as well as a welcome element of articulation and sonority.
For only two examples, Stravinsky scrapped the original flute duet that begins the Second Variation and replaced it with a duet for flute and clarinet, thus creating a dialogue and enlivening the musical style. In the fourth piece, Tchaikovsky attaches appoggiaturas to each note of the woodwind parts while Stravinsky restricts the figure to flute and piano alone, which removes the thickness and clumsiness in exchange for elegance and clarity.