Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Concerto Guide: Stravinsky, Concerto in D for violin and orchestra (1931)

From now on I am going to run into the problem of accessing the scores as many will be still under copyright, such as the one for the present work. You will often see in regard to Stravinsky compositions that they were "revised in 1947" or thereabouts. The reason for this was not necessarily a sudden urge to edit old compositions such as Petroushka or the Rite of Spring, it was rather that, due to the Russian Revolution and a couple of world wars, Stravinsky had lost his copyright for his earlier music and needed to reestablish it. Hence the revised versions, which were copyrighted.

The violin concerto, as we learn from the Wikipedia article, was written in the summer of 1931. There is an interesting note in the article:
Early in the compositional process, Stravinsky devised a chord which stretches from D4 to E5 to A6. One day while he and Dushkin were having lunch in a Paris restaurant, he sketched the chord on a napkin for the violinist, who thought the chord unplayable, to Stravinsky's disappointment. On returning home, however, Dushkin tried it out on his violin and was surprised to discover it was actually quite easy to play. He immediately telephoned Stravinsky to say that it could be played after all. The composer later referred to this chord as his "passport to the Concerto".
Well, ok. That is in fact the first thing the violin plays:

And the first movement ends with a similar chord:

But, as Greg House used to say on House, MD, if you're happy, I'm..... (long pause). Which is my convoluted way of saying, I don't really see how this is a passport to anything. The Violin Concerto is certainly in Stravinsky's neo-classical style, which succeeded his earlier what we might call Russian primitivist modernist style typified by the Rite of Spring. Stravinsky's neo-classical style was instigated by a commission from Diaghilev who wanted a ballet score based on the 18th century commedia dell'arte figures and with an 18th-century-flavored score. Stravinsky was originally cool to the idea, but, looking over some manuscripts from the period, he got interested and produced the ballet Pulcinella:

The music is altered with modified phrasing, rhythms, harmonies and cadences, but the 18th century feeling is very clear. As time went on Stravinsky, while still taking older music for inspiration, departed further and further from the models. The first movement of the Violin Concerto, titled "Toccata" (an 18th century genre featuring a lot of free passage-work) shows how he altered the models. The phrases are a montage of fragments and the harmony is clever and unexpected. But the recurring ritornello-like figures function, as they did in the 18th century, as guideposts through the piece. Here is that first movement in a version I choose because it contains the score of the violin part:

And here is the last movement Capriccio, played by Hilary Hahn:

She kind of plays that to death, doesn't she? Stravinsky managed to be perhaps the last really famous, in a broad sense, composer of classical music by writing music, like this, that, while certainly having some modernist "street cred", also has enough traditional musical fabric, both melodic and rhythmic, to be accessible to most audiences. I suppose that Philip Glass and John Luther Adams do too, but they somehow don't quite seem to get over the bar in that they are not nearly as known generally in the way Stravinsky was.


Anonymous said...

Stravinsky later made this statement about his Violin Concerto: "The Violin Concerto was not inspired by or modeled on any example. I do not like the standard violin concertos - not Mozart's, Beethoven's, or Brahms'. To my mind, the only masterpiece in the field is Schoenberg's, and that was written several years after mine. The titles of my movements, Toccata, Aria, Capriccio, suggest Bach, however, and so to some extent does the musical substance. My favorite Bach solo concerto is the one for two violins, as the duet with a violin from the orchestra in the last movement must show. But the Violin Concerto contains other duet combinations, too, and the texture of the music is more chamber music in style than orchestral."

Bryan Townsend said...

Thank you Anonymous for this interesting quote. Do you recall where it is from?

Like all statements from composers in the last century, especially those from Stravinsky, it must be taken with a few grains of salt. No, of course the Violin Concerto was not modeled on any particular piece, but there are certain elements that give it a neo-classical sound. As a model he prefers Bach to the later composers. Interesting that he singles out the Schoenberg concerto for mention. This suggests to me that the quote is from fairly late, when Stravinsky was gravitating towards the 12-tone method.

Ken Fasano said...

I believe it was on the album notes for the recording of the concerto that Craft and Stravinsky made in the Complete Works series (early 1960s). Of course, by that time, it could be a Craft pseudo-Stravinsky quote. Another quote by Stravinsky (or Craft), when the Schoenberg project was going to be cancelled: "No Schoenberg, no Stravinsky!"

Ken Fasano said...

On the same subject, Schoenberg and Stravinsky never met after 1912, even though they both lived in Los Angeles from WW II on. They both attended the same parties, and apparently Stravinsky, at least, wanted to meet Schoenberg. They were also (I think) in the same room when the "Genesis Suite" was recorded (they both wrote pieces for it). They probably never met, but (Mrs.) Vera Stravinsky visited (Mrs.) Gertrud Schoenberg and (daughter) Nuria at the Schoenberg's home in Los Angeles.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Ken. Now that we are well into the 21st century, I think it is time for a new history of music in the 20th century--one that looks at it from an ideologically-neutral stance (if that is possible!).

Bryan Townsend said...

I have read something to that effect. At the same time, Schoenberg got together to play tennis with George Gershwin quite often, who also lived in the same neighborhood in Hollywood. I had never heard of the "Genesis Suite" before!! Fascinating. Now I have to listen to it. Sounds like Haydn's The Creation crossed with Diabelli's variation project.

Rickard Dahl said...

Well, the concerto, like all of Stravinsky's neoclassical works are a bit mixed in quality I think. There are moments that shine but others get too muddy with the typical neoclassical ugliness. The first movement is especially muddy. The other movements are actually very nice.