In 1938, the American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss marked his thirtieth wedding anniversary by commissioning a new work from Igor Stravinsky. Bliss and his wife, Mildred, hosted the premiere in the lavish music room of their house in Georgetown, an upscale neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The property, dubbed Dumbarton Oaks, provided the lasting nickname for Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra. The composer was ill and unable to attend the May 8 premier performance, but he arranged for Nadia Boulanger (the legendary teacher of composers ranging from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass) to conduct in his place.
The “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto is a quintessential product of Stravinsky’s thirty-year fascination with “neoclassical” style—although, in purely musical terms, it would be more apt to label the score “neo-Baroque.” The orchestration, which calls out soloists from among the small ensemble, reflects the Baroque concerto grosso tradition, especially the diverse solo groups found in Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos; further proof of the Baroque inspiration comes in the first movement, when the violas launch into a formal fugato section. Having the violins and violas divided into three parts each (and omitting second violins) draws a clear parallel with Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3, although the application here is quite different; Bach’s divisi often thickens and enunciates a line, whereas Stravinsky’s separation of voices promotes diffuse, airy textures, such as the churning accompaniment under a bird-like flute solo in the second movement. The energetic finale concludes this modern “Brandenburg” with pulsing beats and shifting accents, an unmistakable Stravinsky sound in any phase of his career.
Aaron Grad ©2013