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ClassicsOnline Home » STRAVINSKY, I.: Symphony in C / Symphony in 3 Movements / Octet / Dumbarton Oaks (Craft) (Stravinsky, Vol. 10)
With neo-classical works such as those on this disc, Stravinsky showed that great music could still be composed with the simplest of means, recalling Beethoven’s achievement yet using his own thoroughly modern rhythmic vitality, grace and refinement. The Robert Craft Collection has been acclaimed as “one of the more adventurous and interesting recording projects by Naxos”, with individual titles receiving the highest praise: “an almost unsurpassable choice” (8.557501), “as with all the releases in this magnificent series, the performances are excellent” (8.557502), “a disc of major importance” (8.557508).
By David Denton
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Octet • Dumbarton Oaks Concerto • Symphony in C • Symphony in Three Movements
Stravinsky made his official début as a conductor introducing the Octet in a Koussevitzky concert at the Paris Opéra on 18 October 1923. The performance followed another major première, Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto (his magnum opus, in this reviewer’s opinion), and preceded the Eroica Symphony, a scarcely believable neighbourhood for Stravinsky’s brief (13-minute) opus for eight solo winds, a large part of which features only two instrumental parts together at a time. No wonder the Octet ensemble had to be screened off and moved to the stage-front of the cavernous Opéra.
The Octet was secretly dedicated to Stravinsky’s mistress, Vera de Bosset. It also happens to be the happiest of his early pieces. It has never been fully put into perspective, though it is the composer’s first completely neo-classic opus. The first movement, Sinfonia – Allegro, has a key signature (E flat). It begins with a Lento introduction. A single trumpet note opens the piece and is answered by the woodwinds—flute, clarinet, two bassoons—which play an extended, quiet quartet, featuring the flute in some of the tenderest music in the piece. The introduction concludes with a recapitulation of the beginning.
The following Allegro, the body of the piece but barely longer than the introduction, is rollicking music, thematically simple, always syncopated, lightly scored—duets, trios—constantly varying instrumental colours. Most of the music is diatonic, as is the complete work, with one exception. A new characteristic is the prominence of scales: they occur in all three movements. The form and harmonic language are eighteenth-century classical.
The second movement, a Theme and Variations, is a showcase featuring instrumental virtuosity. The first variation is repeated after the second, after the third, and before the fourth, the fugal slow movement, and the Octet’s only harmonically dense one. The last movement is a romp, with a pleasing, off-the-beat, jazz coda.
The Octet, a turnaround in every way from The Rite of Spring, performed a decade earlier, was surprisingly well received.
Concerto in E flat (Dumbarton Oaks) (1938)
Stravinsky conducted Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto in Cleveland in February 1937, and was not able thereafter to forget the piece. He spent the following summer in Chateau de Montoux near Geneva, composing a concerto inspired by the Bach, the beginning of which is an unmistakable adaptation from Bach’s first theme. This has remained the principal criticism of the work ever since, though the choice should be considered among the excellences of the piece. Its musical invention and craftsmanship are on the highest level.
Dumbarton Oaks is the Washington, DC estate of Robert and Mildred Bliss. They bequeathed it to Harvard University, under whose administration it became the University’s Center for Byzantine Studies. The property is best known today for its magnificent Italian gardens. Stravinsky had known the Blisses before the Concerto commission and they were friends until his death. He saw them in Athens in 1956 and in July of that year he was a guest on their yacht on an excursion from Istanbul to the Black Sea. In the cultural world Mildred Bliss was sans pareil. (Auden once told me that he dreaded being seated next to her at dinner parties because “she converses with me only in Greek or in English words I do not know.”)
The Concerto, written two decades after the Octet, and his last work completed in Europe, is a perfect partner for it. It is traditional in form—fast, slow, fast—and in tonality, E flat, B flat, E flat. Jerome Robbins made a delightful ballet of it in 1972. The original manuscript is in the Dumbarton Oaks library, along with that of Stravinsky’s Septet (1954), also commissioned by the Blisses, and first performed there conducted by Stravinsky. The première of the Concerto was in the Bliss domicile, conducted by Nadia Boulanger, on 8 May 1938.
Symphony in C (1940)
The first movement, in traditional sonata form, is Stravinsky’s longest in a single meter since 1906. But the rhythmic tensions of the piece are one of its wonders. The accented off-beats continue to surprise us no matter how well we know the music. Rests are also surprisingly extended. The rhythmic vocabulary—eighths and quarters mainly, a few half notes, sixteenths as connecting lines and part of an accompaniment figure—are almost as restricted as in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Having mentioned that capolavoro, I should add that the increased use of the dotted figure in the latter part of the movement, and of the dotted-quarter rest, building to the climax, is remarkably Beethovenian. The thematic material is restricted as well, and is as devoid of chromatics as any music of its time. The modulations, with one exception, do not wander to remote keys, but favour the subdominant and dominant, and the excursions through F minor, E, D, E flat minor are brief. The movement’s most striking episode is the ending. Flute and clarinet, two octaves apart, play the first theme legato, over a staccato ostinato figure in violas and second violins that continues unchanged until the final chords. The melody does change, if only by a single upper note involving an octave leap that brings new brightness. Stravinsky seems to be saying that great music can still be composed with the simplest means.
Stravinsky’s elder daughter died of tuberculosis at the end of November 1938. His wife, Catherine, died from the same disease on 2 March 1939. He did not complete the first movement until 17 April 1939, by which time he was stricken with tuberculosis himself and confined to the same sanatorium, Sancellemoz, in the Haute-Savoie, where his wife and daughters had spent so much of their lives. The second movement, Larghetto, was begun there on 27 April. It employs a reduced orchestra, omitting the tuba, trombones, timpani, two of the horns, and one of the trumpets. His sketchbook shows that he wrote most of the movement in quartet-score form. The full draft was finished on 19 July, after very little trial-and-error sketching. The music is elegiac, with long-line, elegantly embellished melodies. The duets between the oboe and violins are graceful and refined beyond any of music of the twentieth century known to this writer, and even the agitato middle section is soft and subdued.
The manuscript score of the second movement survived a perilous wartime adventure. Willy Strecker, the Symphony’s publisher, visited the composer twice in Sancellemoz, to bring each of the first two movements safely back to Schott, Mainz for engraving. On the first visit Stravinsky gave the manuscript of the first movement to him, and tried (unsuccessfully) to establish a connection for future transactions through Luxembourg, Stravinsky being a banned composer in the Third Reich, and Strecker being forbidden to send proofs (and royalties) to him in France. On the second visit, only ten days before the beginning of World War II, Stravinsky parted with the score of the second movement in the same way. (The last two movements were printed in New York during World War II.) When Schott had engraved the second movement, Strecker entrusted the manuscript to the wife of Paul Hindemith to return it to Stravinsky in New York, where she was hoping to rejoin her husband. Somehow, she managed to obtain passage through Italy in 1942 and reach the United States, but the score was not restored to Stravinsky until 1 January 1953. On this date Hindemith directed a matinée concert of his music in Town Hall, to which Stravinsky, “self-confined” to bed with a cold (in order the escape the concert), had sent me as deputy. After it, Hindemith came to visit Stravinsky in his hotel (the Gladstone, on East 52nd Street) and at the end of a vivacious meeting withdrew the manuscript from a valise and presented it to its composer. Though Stravinsky had long since forgotten about the manuscript, he was pleased to see it again, and to my amazement and overwhelming thrill he inscribed it to me as a New Year’s gift.
The third movement was composed in Cambridge and completed in Boston on 27 April. The fourth is dated Hollywood, 17 August. The composer conducted the première with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on 7 November 1940.
Symphony in Three Movements (1942–45)
Stravinsky began the Symphony in 1942, not at the beginning but with the music at two bars before rehearsal  through the second bar of . Composing backwards, so to speak, as he had done in other works, he then wrote the music from the upbeat to the bar before  to a few bars before . The three connecting bars between these two sections repeat the rhythm of the three repeated chords after rests in the first movement of the Eroica Symphony. This is followed in the sketchbook by a draft of the entire first section through the canon for two bassoons of the third movement. Returning to the opening movement, the composer continued to work toward the beginning, adding the music from  to , then the section from  to . Surprisingly, the latter section was composed as a separate piece on pages from a loose-leaf notebook, and later inserted as a continuation of the opening of the Symphony.
A sketch for bars [143–172] is marked “new, with piano”, making one wonder what Stravinsky thought he was composing when he began the piece. His biographer at the time, Alexander Tansman, believed that it was a concerto for orchestra with a solo concertante role for piano. But the New York Philharmonic Symphony had commissioned a “Victory Symphony”, and the end movements are clearly martial in spirit. Indeed, the third movement follows a programmatic scenario of the progress of World War II. It begins with a parody march of goose-stepping soldiers parading in triumph in 1940. The faster, syncopated, and more rhythmic music that follows was inspired by cinematic scenes of the recrudescence of the Allies. The march returns, less aggressively, and finally comes to a halt, symbolizing the breakdown of the Nazi war machine in the winter of 1943 and the stasis at Stalingrad. Here it should be said that Stravinsky followed the conflict with maps on which he flagged the day-to-day positions of the armies on the Russian, Italian, then Western fronts. Once again a proud Russian, he participated in money-raising concerts for the war effort. He wrote the final bars of the Symphony during the surrender of Japan.
The post-Stalingrad music begins with the solo trombone playing a two-note motive twice, each time different in length and a step apart, as if the player were “warming up” in a room by himself. After a pause, the piano plays the same notes, and makes a fugue subject of them. The harp, the featured instrument of the second movement, as is the piano of the first, enters next and plays in duet with the piano. The bassoons and strings form a third, fugal voice, after which an agitated figure leads to the development of the Latin American rhythm heard earlier in the movement but now jubilant.
The second movement was composed in 1943 for the “Apparition of the Virgin” scene in the film of Franz Werfel’s Song of Bernadette, but not used there. Stravinsky and Werfel had been close friends, and the inclusion of the Bernadette music should be thought of as a memorial to the writer. It has no connection with the Broadway-style first and last movements but fits perfectly between them.
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STRAVINSKY, I.: Symphony in C / Symphony in 3 Move...