Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Stravinsky - Symphony In Three Movements

A composer's creative process while undertaking a new work can take a different course than originally planned. Igor Stravinsky's Symphony In Three Movements is a good example. Shortly after Stravinsky's immigration to the U.S., he received a commission for a new work from the New York Philharmonic in 1942.  Stravinsky used material originally conceived as a sound track for a motion picture, as well as material from an incomplete piano concerto. He rewrote and added new music to create his symphony, which was not completed until 1945. It is the first major work Stravinsky completed after his cane to the U.S.

Stravinsky was also working on a re-scoring of his ballet The Rite Of Spring during this time. While he eventually abandoned the re-scoring, the rhythmic and harmonic style of the new symphony was influenced by the earlier work.  The symphony was premiered in 1946 by the New York Philharmonic conducted by the composer.

I. Overture; Allegro -  Stravinsky referred to this work as his War Symphony and in the book Dialogues And A Diary gave his explanation of the events that gave inspiration for the first movement:
The first movement was likewise inspired by a war film, this time a documentary of scorched-earth tactics in China. The middle part of the movement, the music for clarinet, piano, and strings, which mounts in intensity and volume until the explosion of the three chords was conceived as a series of instrumental conversations to accompany a cinematographic scene showing the Chinese people scratching and digging in their fields.
The first movement begins with loud and strident chords and octaves. As this movement was derived from music that was originally for a piano concerto, the piano plays a prominent part in the movement. Among the booming of timpani, the dynamics of the music gradually subsides and the movement comes to a middle section that has the woodwinds play duets in pairs with the piano and strings. The nervous and edgy music from the beginning returns and rumbles its way to the end of the movement, a mysterious chord quietly played by the orchestra over the chattering of the bass clarinet.

II. Andante; Interlude: L'istesso tempo - The relative quiet of this movement is in contrast to what has preceded, although the harmonies are still somewhat nervous. The harp plays a prominent role in this movement and lends a feeling of tenuous calm to the movement. There is no break between this movement and the last.

III. Con moto -  Harsh, swelling chords erupt into the beginning of the last movement. Stravinsky flits from motive to motive until a fugue is heard that is scored for piano, trombone and harp. Again, Stravinsky describes what inspired the music:
The third movement actually contains the genesis of a war plot, though I recognized it as such only after completing the composition. The beginning of that movement is partly, and in some to me wholly inexplicable way, a musical reaction to the newsreels and documentaries that I had seen of goose-stepping soldiers. The square march-beat, the brass band instrumentation, the grotesque crescendo in the tuba these are all related to those repellent pictures.
In spite of contrasting episodes, such as the canon for bassoons, the march music is predominant until the fugue, which is the stasis and the turning point. The immobility at the beginning of the fugue is comic, I think and so, to me, was the over- turned arrogance of the Germans when their machine failed. The exposition of the fugue and the end of the Symphony are associated in my plot with the rise of the Allies, and perhaps the final, albeit rather too commercial, D-flat sixth chord. 
Stravinsky was a composer that usually had nothing to say about the inspiration for his music, so after he uncharacteristically said so much about the symphony (more than quoted here), it is consistent with his personality that he would add the following disclaimer:
But enough of this. In spite of what I have said, the Symphony is not programmatic. Composers combine notes. That is all. How and in what form the things of this world are impressed upon their music is not for them to say.


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