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.