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What’s a Stravymphony?

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Stravinsky by Picasso

To guess about Stravinsky’s Symphony in E-flat Major, op. 1, one could prepare by listening to an even earlier work, his Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor, composed 1903-04, when the 21-year-old composer, still nominally a law student in St. Petersburg, was also deeply involved in private study with Rimsky-Korsakov. Hearing the sonata, which was rediscovered in manuscript only after Stravinsky’s death in 1971, you might think mistake it for Rachmaninoff — four movements, 28 minutes long, sounds about right, and Chopin and Tchaikovsky never sound very far away. In 1960 Stravinsky wrote: “It was, I suppose, an inept imitation of late Beethoven,” but it’s hardly like that. More closely related to Stravinsky’s Opus 1 would likely be one of the symphonies of Aleksandr Glazunov (1865-1936), 17 years older than Stravinsky and with a prior claim as Rimsky-Korsakov’s protégé.

Glazunov and Stravinsky seem to have nurtured a lifelong mutual dislike, Stravinsky acknowledging the older composer’s skills and achievement even though regarding him as a “cut-and-dried academician.” Glazunov composed his Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major in 1906, the year Stravinsky’s received its premiere. Glazunov’s may be a more mature work, but Stravinsky’s immature symphony is more friendly. It turns out to be a conventional Russian romantic symphony, most closely resembling Rimsky-Korsakov in style, notably for its straightforward, bright diatonic sound, excessively regular repetition of four-bar themes and motives, and use of Russian folksong melodies. The Trio theme of the 2/4 Scherzo is “Down the Petersky” which is better known in the Nurses’ Dance in Tableau IV of Petrushka; another melody, appearing in the big rondo Finale, might be either a folk melody or Stravinsky’s own, but he used it again in “Chi-cher ya-cher”, the third song (“Caw, caw, jackdaw”) in his Recollections of My Childhood (1913). The Largo slow movement, a dark, expressively chromatic G-sharp minor, somewhat echoes the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. Its orchestral density looks forward, perhaps, to a generation of Soviet symphonic heavies, such as the third movement of Shostakovich’s Fifth.

It was another 14 years before Stravinsky composed a work with “symphony” in its title: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920, revised 1947) in memory of Debussy. The plural suggests a specialized form: successive segments of hymnlike chordal texture offset by thinly contrapuntal, smoothly-moving modal melodies that connect in irregular phrases, and in several characteristic start-and-stop tempi. The richly polychordal, pungent, and totally original harmonic idiom is a visionary tonal experiment that Stravinsky explored in no other work. This seldom-heard 12-minute Symphonies, unique in Stravinsky’s achievement, may represent a stylistic dead end, but it is austerely beautiful, and certainly ranks among his best works.

Stravinsky’s beloved Octet for wind instruments (1922) begins with a “Sinfonia,” a sonata allegro preceded by a slow Introduction; in this case the “symphony” attribution seems merely decorative where “Introduction and Allegro” might have been more appropriate, or omitted entirely.  The wind-orchestra sound that Stravinsky so often favored carried over into the Symphony of Psalms (1930, commissioned by the Boston Symphony), the best-loved of all of his works called “symphony”; it has no relationship to any classical “symphonic” form in the sonata-form sense. (Debussy’s La mer, subtitled “Three symphonic sketches,” already showed in 1905 how remotely from Austro-German models the adjective could be applied.) Symphony of Psalms is a choral treatment, SATB, of psalm verses, with a well-developed ostinato figure of four notes accompanying an invocatory “Hear my prayer” through a longer “I waited for the Lord” in the form of a double fugue, to the third and longest movement, the musicians’ “Alleluia” Psalm 150. The C major “Laudate Dominum” in an organlike sonority at beginning and end, with the penultimate E-flat major incantation in 3/2 over a 4/2 ostinato bass, have made this peroration unforgettable to every type of audience. Stravinsky wrote: “The word Alleluia still reminds me of the Hebrew galosh-merchant Gurian who lived in the apartment below ours in St. Petersburg, and who on High Holy Days would erect a prayer tent in his living room and dress himself in an ephod. The hammering sounds as he built this tent and the idea of a cosmopolitan merchant in a St. Petersburg apartment simulating the prayers of his forefathers in the desert impressed my imagination almost as profoundly as any direct religious experience of my own.” The orchestral complement is unusual and anti-expressive: 5 (picc.)-4-Eng. horn-0-3-cbn., 4-5-3-1, timpani, bass drum, harp, two pianos, cellos, and basses.

We hear Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, a fully successful concert piece (premiered by the Chicago Symphony), less often than other major compositions of his middle years. But its orchestral precision reveals him at the top of his form as a master of clear sound, with every note in exactly the right place. “Conductors of the older generation are afraid of the third movement, and the younger conductors avoid the work because of the unfashionable apple called neo-classicism,” Stravinsky wrote later. He would ascribe its difficult birth to the unhappy year of 1938-39, when within the space of just a few months he suffered the death of his daughter, his wife, and his mother, at a time when he himself was suffering an outbreak of “the family malady,” tuberculosis, and when the threat of European war had driven him to America, coincidentally to give lectures in French at Harvard. (These were later published as “Poetics of Music,” but he didn’t write them himself.) The “in C” seems like a diversion from the emphasis on E minor, and specifically the tonic note E, that is so prominent in the first movement. The Larghetto concertante that follows is like a Bach concerto slow movement in its steady pace and melodic ornamentation. The Allegretto third movement might be difficult because of the many meter changes; the Largo – Tempo giusto finale because of irregular repetitions which add so much energy. Some of the wind sonorities of the finale seem borrowed from the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, especially the penultimate chord of G major over C major, followed by the same chord with E in the bass.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, following only five years later (New York Philharmonic), contains plenty of veiled resemblances to the Symphony in C, such as in the first movement with its chugging repeated notes, and the ending on a soft C major triad with added B. The second movement, Andante, is like the Larghetto of the earlier work in its ornamented, fidgety melodies and graceful counterpoint, and both works like to emphasize oscillating harmonies with heavy accented chords. Symphony in Three Movements is more vigorously rhythmic and orchestrally strident, where Symphony in C is more relaxed and delicate; even so, hearing the repeated motives in one will remind you of the ostinati of the other. The 1945 work requires a larger orchestra, with considerable parts for piano and harp that are orchestral-soloistic, not concertante.

The energy of both symphonies derives from the distinctive rhythmic language — irregular repetitions of similar figures superposed on top of a mechanically regular pulse — that Stravinsky first made famous (or infamous, by the light of some critics) in the very first scene of The Rite of Spring. As so often in Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, one hears a patchwork of successive unrelated ideas, seemingly cut out with scissors, that nevertheless cohere logically through the force of melody and counterpoint. Most of all one knows that these works are genuinely symphonic — forward-moving, developing, narrative in intent with stories to tell that are not at all like Apollo or Jeu de cartes or Scènes de ballet, nor are they much like the Violin Concerto or Dumbarton Oaks, but they are unmistakably Stravinsky’s own. Though hardly neoclassical, the Symphonies of Wind Instruments possesses a symphonic logic, too, with a sound that seems to come from the planet Stravinsky.     

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.

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