Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat, “Dumbarton Oaks”: A Sparkling Neoclassical Dialogue

The riot-inducing 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s primal ballet score, The Rite of Spring, changed the course of 20th century music. Yet, ultimately, it was an artistic one-off. The final, cacophonous notes of the Sacrificial Dance faded away, and soon, with the 1920 ballet score for Pulcinella, Stravinsky’s style took another sharp and unexpected turn. Austere, witty, and pared down, the new neoclassicism returned to the balance, form, and symmetry of Bach and Mozart. At the same time, the music sounded fresh and new. According to the composer,

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look of course – the first of many love-affairs in that direction – but it was a look in the mirror too.

Completed in March of 1938, Stravinsky’s Concerto in E-flat, “Dumbarton Oaks,” is another example of sparkling neoclassicism. Set in three movements (Tempo giusto, Allegretto, and Con moto), it follows the model of the Baroque concerto grosso. This form is built on a contrasting musical dialogue between solo instrumental voices and the full ensemble. “Dumbarton Oaks” is scored for a fifteen-piece chamber orchestra consisting of flute, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, three violins, three violas, two cellos and two double basses. As the piece unfolds, each of these instruments have their moment in the spotlight. A spirited conversation unfolds among this cast of quirky musical “characters,” each of which suggests a distinct persona.

There are bright, cartoonish allusions to Baroque vocabulary, with walking bass lines, magical ostinati, and fugatos emerging in the outer movements. Far from concrete, the “home” key of E-flat is elusive. The first two movements conclude with a brief, introspective chorale epilogue. The underlying Baroque rhythmic “heartbeat” is transformed first into a smooth motor, and then, in the final movement, into a brisk, purposeful march.

Stravinsky infused the score with veiled quotes from J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, commenting, “I do not think that Bach would have begrudged me the loan of these ideas and materials, as borrowing in this way was something he liked to do himself.”

“Dumbarton Oaks” was the last piece Stravinsky wrote before emigrating to the United States. It was commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss in celebration of their 30th wedding anniversary. Mr. Bliss was an influential diplomat, and the couple were among Washington D.C.’s most prominent arts patrons. They hosted soirées at Dumbarton Oaks, their estate in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. In 1944, the same location became the site of a conference that led to the founding of the United Nations. It is believed that Stravinsky drew inspiration for the Concerto’s form from the layout of the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, which captivated him during a visit.

While composing the Concerto, Stravinsky suffered the loss of his daughter, Mika, from tuberculosis, a tragedy he remembered as “the most difficult time of my life.” Stravinsky’s own bout with tuberculosis prevented him from traveling to conduct the Concerto’s premiere, which took place on May 8, 1938 in the Music Room at Dumbarton Oaks, led by Nadia Boulanger.

This performance features the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra:

I. Tempo giusto:

II. Allegretto:

III. Con moto:

Five Great Recordings

Featured Image: Wisteria at the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington, D.C., photograph by Michelle Gervais

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

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