Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes: Concert Music in Search of a Ballet

Igor Stravinsky’s Danses concertantes unfolds as an abstract ballet. Its quirky cast of instrumental “characters” become virtual “dancers” in a witty, neoclassical drama. The titles of its five movements evoke the sections of a ballet. Motion, elegance, and a joyful athleticism abound. Stravinsky had just emigrated to the United States and settled in West Hollywood when, in 1941, he received the commission from Werner Janssen for Danses concertantes. Janssen was an American conductor and …

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Stravinsky’s “Symphonies of Wind Instruments”: A “Liturgical Dialogue”

In the original Greek, the word, symphony, translates as “sounding together.” Igor Stravinsky was referring to this meaning of the word (as opposed to symphonic form) when he selected the title, Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Scored for an ensemble of 24 woodwind and brass players, the piece was composed in 1920, and was dedicated to the memory of Claude Debussy, who died two years earlier. Its 1921 premiere in London, conducted by Serge Koussevitsky, …

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Stravinsky’s “Mavra”: A Neoclassical Comic Opera in One Act

Igor Stravinsky’s one act comic opera, Mavra, is delightfully intimate, colorful, and whimsical. Unfolding in a mere 30 minutes, the opera features two arias, a duet, and a quartet, performed by a cast of four characters. Based on Alexander Pushkin’s poem, The Little House in Kolomna, it has been described as a “satire of petit-bourgeois manners.” The libretto was written by Boris Kochno, a young assistant to the dance impresario, Serge Diaghilev. Set in …

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Stravinsky’s Suites Nos. 1 and 2 for Small Orchestra: Jubilant Miniatures

As the First World War raged throughout Europe, Igor Stravinsky lived in exile in Switzerland. In the years leading up to the war, Stravinsky had created immense and colorful orchestral scores, which included The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913) for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. Now, with changing circumstances, Stravinsky’s music became smaller, with more intimate instrumentation. These included eight charming piano duets with “easy right hand.” Stravinsky composed Three Easy Pieces (1915) …

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Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Poulenc: Three Twentieth Century Pastorales

With roots in the Baroque period, the musical pastorale evokes a serene, bucolic landscape. Often, it rolls along in a gentle 6/8 time and suggests the simple, free-floating melodies and drones of a shepherd’s bagpipes. J.S. Bach’s Pastorella In F Major, BWV 590 for organ, the final movement of Corelli’s “Christmas” Concerto, and the Pastoral Symphony from Handel’s Messiah are famous examples. The sound world of the twentieth century was dominated by …

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Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”: “No Word From Tom,” Dawn Upshaw

Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 opera, The Rake’s Progress, is a morality play with Faustian undertones. Its English-language libretto, written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, tells the story of Tom Rakewell, a man who abandons his fiancée, Anne Trulove, to pursue a life of gambling and debauchery in the brothels of eighteenth century London. Urged on by Nick Shadow, a shady character who turns out to be the Devil in disguise, Tom ends up …

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Stravinsky’s Septet: A Turn to Serialism

The Septet, completed in 1953, marks a stylistic turning point in the musical catalogue of Igor Stravinsky. The first movement is a sparkling and witty celebration of neoclassicism. Its dense, pristine counterpoint seems like a twentieth century retrofit of music from the Baroque and Classical periods. In the second and third movements, the tonal center fades and the music enters the twelve tone world of serialism. For the first time, Stravinsky abandons …

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