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Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

Concerto in D for Strings

Edo de Waart, conductor

The breadth of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s influence on the history of Western music is difficult to exaggerate. That he was the twentieth century’s greatest composer remains the contention of many. Living from 1882 to 1971, Stravinsky absorbed virtually every significant musical innovation of the twentieth century, from neoclassicism to serialism, each of which consequently became a part of his arsenal of compositional techniques. In his own words: “I stumble upon something unexpected. This unexpected element strikes me. I make note of it. At the proper time, I put it to profitable use.”

Stravinsky composed the Concerto in D Major for String Orchestra in 1946 on a commission from the Swiss conductor and arts patron extraordinaire Paul Sacher. Sacher, the benefactor responsible for a great many seminal masterpieces of the twentieth century (among them Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and his Divertimento for Strings, Strauss’s Metamorphosen, and works by numerous other major composers), requested a work to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his Basel Chamber Orchestra. The Concerto in D (also referred to as the Basle Concerto) represented Stravinsky’s first European commission following his emigration to the United States; it was completed on August 8, 1946, in Hollywood.

The concerto illustrates Stravinsky’s neoclassical style—an aesthetic, prevalent during the early twentieth century and pioneered particularly by Stravinsky, characterized by a preoccupation with the musical principles of the Classical period. Though its sound is distinctly modern, the concerto, like Stravinsky’s other neoclassical works, favors melodic and formal clarity over what composers in the early twentieth century saw as the dramatic excesses of Romanticism. The harmonic language is essentially tonal, swaying back and forth between D major and D minor. Its three-movement design (fast-slow-fast) echoes the Baroque concerto grosso, likewise its transparency of texture and piquant counterpoint. The spirited opening Vivace resembles Classical sonata form. The dulcet Arioso exhibits a Haydnesque wit in its punctuation of the violins’ lyrical melody with V-I cadences in foreign keys. The finale is a rondo—a further salute to the Classical style—but departs considerably from the eighteenth-century manners of Haydn and Mozart. The movement’s angular rhythmic character has in part lent the concerto to numerous ballet settings, including Jerome Robbins’s The Cage in 1951.

The Octet for Winds, completed in 1923, represents Stravinsky’s first essay in neoclassicism. The composer articulated the expressive goal of the work’s unconventional wind instrumentation in his 1924 article “Some Ideas about My Octour,” serving likewise to illuminate the neoclassical aesthetic: “Wind instruments seem to me to be more apt to render a certain rigidity of the form I had in mind than other instruments—the stringed instruments, for example, which are less cold and more vague.” Stravinsky further described the octet as, “not an ‘emotive’ work, but a musical composition based on elements which are sufficient in themselves.”

Like the Concerto in D Major more than two decades later, the effervescent octet relies on standard Classical forms: a sonata-form sinfonia (as, among other things, the introductory movements of Bach cantatas were typically called) followed by a theme and variations (including a fugato variation) and a concluding rondo. Stravinsky himself conducted the work’s world premiere, at the Paris Opéra, marking the first time the composer and sometime conductor led a first performance of any of his works. The octet portended a new direction for Stravinsky’s musical language that befuddled listeners. In discussing the advent of neoclassicism, Aaron Copland writes,

“Here again Igor Stravinsky led the way. The French musical world first became aware of this new tendency—referred to in the beginning as the ‘back-to-Bach’ movement—with the first performance of the Stravinsky Octet on October 18, 1923. I was in the audience on the night of its premiere…and can attest to the general feeling of mystification that followed the initial hearing. Here was Stravinsky, who had created a neoprimitive style all his own, based on native Russian sources—a style that everyone agreed was the most original in modern music—now suddenly, without any seeming explanation, making an about-face and presenting a piece to the public that bore no conceivable resemblance to the individual style with which he had hitherto been identified. Everyone was asking why Stravinsky should have exchanged his Russian heritage for what looked very much like a mess of eighteenth-century mannerisms. The whole thing seemed like a bad joke that left an unpleasant after-effect and gained Stravinsky the unanimous disapproval of the press. No one could possibly have foreseen, first, that Stravinsky was to persist in this new manner of his or, second, that the octet was destined to influence composers all over the world in bringing the latent objectivity of modern music to full consciousness by frankly adopting the ideals, forms, and textures of the pre-Romantic era.”

Patrick Castillo ©2012

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Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky

Octet for Winds

Edo de Waart, conductor

The breadth of the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s influence on the history of Western music is difficult to exaggerate. That he was the twentieth century’s greatest composer remains the contention of many. Living from 1882 to 1971, Stravinsky absorbed virtually every significant musical innovation of the twentieth century, from neoclassicism to serialism, each of which consequently became a part of his arsenal of compositional techniques. In his own words: “I stumble upon something unexpected. This unexpected element strikes me. I make note of it. At the proper time, I put it to profitable use.”

Stravinsky composed the Concerto in D Major for String Orchestra in 1946 on a commission from the Swiss conductor and arts patron extraordinaire Paul Sacher. Sacher, the benefactor responsible for a great many seminal masterpieces of the twentieth century (among them Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta and his Divertimento for Strings, Strauss’s Metamorphosen, and works by numerous other major composers), requested a work to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his Basel Chamber Orchestra. The Concerto in D (also referred to as the Basle Concerto) represented Stravinsky’s first European commission following his emigration to the United States; it was completed on August 8, 1946, in Hollywood.

The concerto illustrates Stravinsky’s neoclassical style—an aesthetic, prevalent during the early twentieth century and pioneered particularly by Stravinsky, characterized by a preoccupation with the musical principles of the Classical period. Though its sound is distinctly modern, the concerto, like Stravinsky’s other neoclassical works, favors melodic and formal clarity over what composers in the early twentieth century saw as the dramatic excesses of Romanticism. The harmonic language is essentially tonal, swaying back and forth between D major and D minor. Its three-movement design (fast-slow-fast) echoes the Baroque concerto grosso, likewise its transparency of texture and piquant counterpoint. The spirited opening Vivace resembles Classical sonata form. The dulcet Arioso exhibits a Haydnesque wit in its punctuation of the violins’ lyrical melody with V-I cadences in foreign keys. The finale is a rondo—a further salute to the Classical style—but departs considerably from the eighteenth-century manners of Haydn and Mozart. The movement’s angular rhythmic character has in part lent the concerto to numerous ballet settings, including Jerome Robbins’s The Cage in 1951.

The Octet for Winds, completed in 1923, represents Stravinsky’s first essay in neoclassicism. The composer articulated the expressive goal of the work’s unconventional wind instrumentation in his 1924 article “Some Ideas about My Octour,” serving likewise to illuminate the neoclassical aesthetic: “Wind instruments seem to me to be more apt to render a certain rigidity of the form I had in mind than other instruments—the stringed instruments, for example, which are less cold and more vague.” Stravinsky further described the octet as, “not an ‘emotive’ work, but a musical composition based on elements which are sufficient in themselves.”

Like the Concerto in D Major more than two decades later, the effervescent octet relies on standard Classical forms: a sonata-form sinfonia (as, among other things, the introductory movements of Bach cantatas were typically called) followed by a theme and variations (including a fugato variation) and a concluding rondo. Stravinsky himself conducted the work’s world premiere, at the Paris Opéra, marking the first time the composer and sometime conductor led a first performance of any of his works. The octet portended a new direction for Stravinsky’s musical language that befuddled listeners. In discussing the advent of neoclassicism, Aaron Copland writes,

“Here again Igor Stravinsky led the way. The French musical world first became aware of this new tendency—referred to in the beginning as the ‘back-to-Bach’ movement—with the first performance of the Stravinsky Octet on October 18, 1923. I was in the audience on the night of its premiere…and can attest to the general feeling of mystification that followed the initial hearing. Here was Stravinsky, who had created a neoprimitive style all his own, based on native Russian sources—a style that everyone agreed was the most original in modern music—now suddenly, without any seeming explanation, making an about-face and presenting a piece to the public that bore no conceivable resemblance to the individual style with which he had hitherto been identified. Everyone was asking why Stravinsky should have exchanged his Russian heritage for what looked very much like a mess of eighteenth-century mannerisms. The whole thing seemed like a bad joke that left an unpleasant after-effect and gained Stravinsky the unanimous disapproval of the press. No one could possibly have foreseen, first, that Stravinsky was to persist in this new manner of his or, second, that the octet was destined to influence composers all over the world in bringing the latent objectivity of modern music to full consciousness by frankly adopting the ideals, forms, and textures of the pre-Romantic era.”

Patrick Castillo ©2012

Intermission
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Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No. 3, Eroica

Edo de Waart, conductor

In May 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Beethoven had admired as the embodiment of the ideals of the French Revolution, crowned himself Emperor. “So he is no more than a common mortal!” an outraged Beethoven exclaimed to his confidant Ferdinand Ries. “Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” On the composer’s desk lay the manuscript to his recently completed Third Symphony, “intitolata Bonaparte;” Beethoven angrily scratched out the dedication with a knife, tearing a hole in the paper. When the grand symphony was published in 1806, it appeared as Sinfonia Eroica, “…composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand Uomo” (heroic symphony…composed to celebrate the memory of a great man).

Befitting the grandeur of the composer’s inspiration before his eventual disillusionment, the Eroica Symphony loudly broke new ground for the symphonic form; it is not hyperbolic to credit the Eroica with changing the course Western music at large. Indeed, for Beethoven, where Napoleon disappointed, his musical vision would soar. The Eroica is one of the first works to distance Beethoven from the influence of Haydn and Mozart, as evidenced by the baffled critical responses it elicited. One reviewer wished that “Herr van B. would employ his admittedly great talents in giving us works like his symphonies in C and D, his ingratiating Septet in E-flat, the ingenious Quintet in C, and others of his early works that have placed him forever in the ranks of the foremost instrumental composers”—works, in other words, that continued the tradition of eighteenth-century Classicism. Beethoven had something else in mind: in 1803, he had declared to a friend, “I am not satisfied with what I have composed up to now. From now on I intend to embark on a new path.”

With the Eroica, Beethoven realized his intention. Among the symphonic repertoire, it is without precedent in magnitude and in the degree of virtuosity required of the orchestra. Each of its four movements is an individually colossal statement; together, they form a work twice as long as many early symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. Surrounded by similarly epic works in various genres, including the Waldstein and Appassionata Sonatas, the Razumovsky Quartets, the Fourth Piano Concerto, and the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Eroica is the signature work of what has become known as Beethoven’s “heroic” period.

The symphony’s iconic opening gesture of two forceful E-flat major chords sets the tone for the monumental opus that ensues. The cellos introduce the first theme: a seemingly innocuous melodic arpeggiation of the same E-flat major chord—but, agitated by urgent syncopations in the first violins, the melody dips strangely to C-sharp, placing the listener immediately on notice that convention will not contain Beethoven’s imagination.

What strikes the listener as the Allegro con brio unfolds is the combination of its majestic sonority and thematic coherence with the constant, jarring defiance of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic expectations. A propulsive sequence of two-beat chords over the movement’s triple-meter tempo (with the true downbeat never accented) sets up a grand restatement of the theme by the full orchestra; this passage is outdone at the end of the exposition with an utterly disorienting series of dissonant sforzando chords. The development section is equally bewildering, not least of all for the notorious “wrong” entrance by the first horn, which quietly anticipates the recapitulation two measures before the rest of the orchestra. (In intended commiseration with Beethoven, Ries asked during a rehearsal, “Can’t that damned horn player count?”—nearly earning him a box on the ears from the temperamental composer.)

The second movement is a funeral march for the mythical hero at the center of the symphony. The theme appears first in the violins, pianissimo e sotto voce, and then is taken over with especial poignancy by the oboe, accompanied by somber triplet drumbeats in the strings. The sobriety of this music is only modestly relieved by a gentle secondary theme.

A contrasting middle section in C major takes a moment of lyrical respite to an exultant climax of trumpets and timpani. The march returns, quickly giving way to a contemplative fugue on an inversion of the earlier secondary theme.

After further drama, marked by numerous harmonic twists and turns, the movement ends quietly defeated. Hector Berlioz would later write of this affecting Adagio assai, “I know few examples in music of a style in which grief has been so consistently able to retain such pure form and such nobility of expression.”

The caffeinated energy of the scherzo draws a measure of anxious expectancy from the whispered staccato of its opening measures. Its eventual fortissimo outburst is resplendent, leading some commentators to hear it as the hero’s resurrection. Indeed, the horn chorale in the trio section is a triumphant transfiguration of the second movement funeral march theme.

The finale provides the culmination of the Eroica’s magnificent scope, solidifying the symphony’s spirit of heroism that would come to define this period of Beethoven’s career. It is a set of variations on a theme Beethoven had previously used in The Creatures of Prometheus and in his Fifteen Variations and a Fugue for Piano, op. 35 (henceforth often called the Eroica Variations). The theme itself—whose melody and bass line Beethoven extensively works over throughout the movement—is not only repurposed material but, considered on its own, frankly unremarkable.

But in the theme’s straightforwardness lies its potential, and especially so given the breadth of Beethoven’s imagination: for, just as in such works as the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies—whose melodic ideas cannot themselves be called inspired, while Beethoven’s treatment of them is transcendent—the magic resides not in the bricks and mortar but in the monument. How fitting a conclusion indeed do these variations provide—an obvious melody, put through the paces of a traditional Classical form but thereby transfigured beyond what any but a visionary on the order of Beethoven could have foreseen—for a landmark symphony conceived on the premise of heroism and revolution and whose mammoth compass would chart a new horizon in Western music history.

Patrick Castillo ©2012

About This Program

Approximate length 2:00

The 2012-13 season began with a program of masterworks by two of Western music’s most notorious geniuses. Stravinsky's Concerto for Strings and Octet for Winds, respectively featuring the SPCO's strings and wind players, are signature works of the composer's Neoclassical style. The program concluded with Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, one of the grandest statements of the symphonic literature.