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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Stravinsky's Symphonies

In modern musical parlance, the word "cycle" is used to denote a complete batch of something. So even though he didn't describe the Ring as a cycle, Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen is usually referred to today - rightly or wrongly - as Wagner's Ring "cycle".

In orchestral music an orchestra is said to perform a "cycle" it performs all of a composer's works in a particular genre. This usually applies to symphonies. A Beethoven symphony cycle is a performance of all the Beethoven symphonies, for example, and that's perhaps one of the most popular cycles an orchestra might undertake. Cycles of the Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius or Tchaikovsky symphonies are also often done. The Dvořák or Bruckner symphonies less so for some reason, but you get the idea.

I have rather perverse ideas of doing some very different cycles of some of my favourite music. For example, has anyone ever done a cycle of the nine Vaughan Williams symphonies? At the time of writing I'm certain this has never been done in Australia and I'm told that such cycles even in Britain are very rare. The Saint-Saëns symphonies (of which there are five) would also make a fascinating backbone for imaginative programming. And the Carl Vine symphonies (currently eight) likewise.

Of course once I get started on this line of thinking there's no stopping me. The Bax and Stanford symphonies (each wrote seven) are all glorious works and yet almost completely unknown, just begging for their time in the sun. And during my time on ABC radio I presented all eight Glazunov symphonies on air over eight consecutive Saturday evening programs. But there is another composer, one we almost never think about when it comes to symphonies. He wrote five works which use the word symphony in the title, five very diverse works, which show another side of one of the best-known of all 20th century composers. They too would make a fascinating "cycle". His name is Igor Stravinsky.

I don't know about you, but the first time I heard Stravinsky's Symphony No 1 in E flat, Op. 1, and realised it was by Stravinsky, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Composed between 1905 and 1907, this is the final and greatest fruit of the young composer's studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Igor Stravinsky (1903)

Stravinsky's family background put him at the centre of the musical life of St Petersburg. His father, Fyodor Stravinsky, was a singer, a principal bass at the Mariinsky Theatre. As a boy Igor learned the piano and harmony privately. He entered the University of St Petersburg as a law student and while there, in 1900, met Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, the son of the famous composer. Before long the young Stravinsky had become Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's composition student, and he continued to submit works to his teacher for comment even after he finished his university studies.

In the first few years of the new century, Stravinsky learned much from the most famous Russian composer of the day. Rimsky-Korsakov was especially renowned as a brilliant orchestrator and this certainly rubbed off on the beginner composer.

The E flat symphony which Stravinsky composed under the supervision of Rimsky-Korsakov is a fascinating work. Of course it sounds almost as if it could have been written by Rimsky-Korsakov himself; parts of it even sound like Tchaikovsky (who had died the previous decade). But parts of it clearly look forward to his next great work, The Firebird, which was at that point still three years in the future.

Photo published in a Russian newspaper in 1908, shortly before the death of Rimsky-Korsakov. L to R: Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rimsky's daughter Nadezhda, her fiancé Maximilian Steinberg, and Stravinsky's first wife, Yekaerina Gavrilovna Stravinskaya, née Nosenko.

Stravinsky's first symphony demonstrates his solid grounding in Russian romanticism. It was dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov and premiered in April 1907. Stravinsky revised it in 1913 (the year of the premiere of The Rite of Spring) and occasionally used the scherzo movement as a ballet score during his time with the Ballets Russes. [listen]

As history shows, Stravinsky was almost immediately drawn away from writing such conventional works as this. The E flat symphony was in fact his first orchestral work; he was not quite 25 when the work received its first performance. In 1907 and 1908 he composed two shorter orchestral works - the Scherzo Fantastique and Fireworks - and it was when Sergei Diaghilev heard the latter of these that he started to take an interest in Stravinsky, an interest which led to the eventual commission for The Firebird.

Symphonic writing was not something which interested most composers in the period following the first world war and Stravinsky's circumstances and instincts were for many years focused squarely on the theatre. But in 1918 an event occurred which led Stravinsky back to that word "symphony", albeit rather obliquely.

This event was the death of Claude Debussy, who had been an important supporter of Stravinsky when he was thrust into the hurly-burly of Parisian artistic life with the Ballets Russes. Sketches for a memorial work to Debussy date from this time and these eventually became the first version of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, completed in 1920. [listen]

Igor Stravinsky, drawn by Picasso (1920)

The title uses the word "symphonies" in the plural, and it's not a "symphony" in the traditional sense of the word at all. It's a single-movement work only lasting about ten minutes. Stravinsky here used the word "symphonies" in a much older sense, in the sense it was used in the late Renaissance or early Baroque. In this context it means instruments sounding together. The composer described it in religious terms, calling it "an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogenous instruments".

The 1920 version, linked to above, is scored for 24 wind and brass instruments, including the rare alto flute and the even rarer alto clarinet. Stravinsky completely rewrote the piece in 1947 for 23 instruments, using a standard wind and brass section as might be found in a modern orchestra. The later version is more commonly heard today, and it is indeed an austere and fascinating piece. [listen]

The first version of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments was given its premiere in London in 1921 and it wasn't until the end of the 20s that the composer considered using the word "symphony" again for the title of a new piece.

Stravinsky took up residence in Switzerland around the time he started working for Diaghilev. He was still officially a Russian - and later Soviet - citizen but eventually based himself in France from 1920. He became a French citizen in 1934 but his fame by the mid-20s was already truly international. He received a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra and its famous conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, for a new work to mark the orchestra's 50th anniversary in 1931. The work which resulted, the Symphony of Psalms of 1930, remains to this day one of Stravinsky's most popular works.

For a work intended to commemorate the founding of an orchestra, though, the Symphony of Psalms is unusual. For a start it involves a choir, but even more unusual is the instrumentation. The violins, violas and clarinets - a large part of the orchestra's membership - take no part in the piece, and the other sections of the orchestra are of unusual proportions. All up, in addition to the choir, the work is scored for 5 flutes (one of whom doubles on piccolo), 4 oboes, cor anglais, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, 2 pianos, cellos and double basses. The resulting wind-oriented sound (typical of Stravinsky) is moderated to some extent by the weight of the cellos and basses, and the percussiveness of his writing for the two pianos.

The psalm texts sung by the choir are in Latin and over the work's three movements they chart a course from despair to joy. Stravinsky said of the piece, "It is not a symphony in which I have included psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of psalms that I am symphonizing".

Despite being written for the Boston Symphony, the Symphony of Psalms was given its first performance in Brussels under the baton of Ernest Ansermet in December 1930. The Boston orchestra performed it six days later with Koussevitzky conducting. [listen]

Igor Stravinsky (c. 1930)

In the late 1930s Stravinsky's life was in turmoil on several fronts. Tuberculosis struck his family and both his daughter and his wife died of the disease. Stravinsky himself was sick with tuberculosis for many months but eventually recovered. It was during this time, as Europe descended into the second world war, that he was also developing strong connections with the United States. He managed to start a new work in response to a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1938, and again it was a symphony.

With two movements of the new symphony completed, Stravinsky went to America in September 1939 and managed to write the third movement in Cambridge, MA, where he was delivering the Charles Eliot Norton lectures in the 1939-40 academic year. When this engagement was completed he settled on the other side of the country, in West Hollywood, and it was there he managed to write the fourth and final movement of the new work, the Symphony in C.

By the late 30s Stravinsky's muse had largely abandoned the theatre. He was writing completely abstract concert works, and the Symphony in C is one of the most abstract. Written right in the middle of his neo-classical phase, this work in some respects looks back to Haydn, even Bach, although there is no mistaking the Stravinsky touch. It's exactly the same when you can recognise the female nude in a Picasso painting, but for all that connection with reality, the touch of Picasso is unavoidable, and illuminating. Unlike the Symphony of Psalms, though, the Symphony in C is scored for a standard orchestral line-up.

Stravinsky himself acknowledged that the Symphony in C falls very clearly into two halves, the first two movements written in Europe and the latter two written in the United States. The work in a sense documents the last great migration of the composer's life - he became an American citizen in 1945 - and the third and fourth movements are more abstract and less "classical" than the first two. This is borne out in many respects, not least the way the composer uses time signatures. Perhaps uniquely in Stravinsky's output, the first movement of the Symphony in C has no change of time signature from start to finish. By contrast, the third movement contains an incredible number of changes of time signature and this movement, the first of the two written in America, seems to sound like the start of a new life for Stravinsky, although he denied that any of his personal circumstances were reflected in the piece.

Stravinsky himself conducted the first performance of the Symphony in C with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in November 1940, but it was slow to be taken up by other conductors. He later acknowledged that for several years he was the only person conducting the it. [listen]

It was only two years later, in 1942, that Stravinsky began composing his fifth and final work with the word symphony in its title, this time in response to a commission from the New York Philharmonic. Music that had begun life as part of unfinished projects - some film music, a work for piano and orchestra - ended up in the piece. Another influence, oddly enough, was The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky revised in 1943, 30 years after its premiere. Some sections of the new symphony are reminiscent of his earlier modernist style.

The new work, the Symphony in Three Movements, was completed in 1945, and Stravinsky conducted the premiere with the New York Philharmonic in January 1946. For this performance, Stravinsky wrote a program note in which he maintained his usual position that his music meant nothing external to the music itself, that there was no "meaning" to it other than the sounds it produced. But he did admit, most uncharacteristically, that the sounds in the symphony reflected "this our arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope, of continual torments, of tension, and at last cessation and relief". For a nation which had, like every other nation, just come through the horrors of the second world war, these words would have no doubt resonated with the audience on that night in 1946.

Stravinsky is even known to have referred to the Symphony in Three Movements as his "war symphony", and referred to a documentary film on scorched-earth tactics in China, for example, as a stimulus for the dynamic and powerful first movement. [link]

There's more of the tongue-in-cheek elegance of the neoclassical Stravinsky in the second movement... [listen]

...but in the last movement Stravinsky again cited, most unusually for him, extra-musical ideas which stimulated the sounds he produced, specifically things he saw in newsreels during the war, like goose-stepping soldiers and the eventual victory of the Allies. [listen]

Stravinsky's four "real" symphonies - the Symphony in E flat, the Symphony of Psalms, the Symphony in C and the Symphony in Three Movements - constitute a fascinating overview of his career from his student days to almost the end of the neoclassical period (he wrote no symphonies in the serial period which began in the early 50s). The addition of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments to this possible "cycle" is just an interesting detour, but the five works together (three of which I've conducted; I adore them all) make me realise yet again what a powerful and undeniably special composer Stravinsky was, even when working away from the theatre.

Now there's a cycle of works an orchestra's enterprising marketing department could have a lot of fun with!

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2013.

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