Concerto in Eb ("Dumbarton Oaks")

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            Stravinsky’s reputation as one of a handful of the most respected and influential composers of the twentieth century has been secure almost from the beginning of his career.  Yet, as he grew older, the bold changes in the nature and sources of his musical style stand as almost unique among his peers.   We may speak of Brahms’ or Tchaikovsky’s “style,” and although both certainly showed clear evidence of musical growth from youth to maturity, most folks have a rough idea of what any particular composition by either of them may sound like.  Sure, Beethoven went through his stylistic “periods,” but his artistry evolved from beginning to end more or less as a continuum of advancing growth and mastery in a coherent personal voice.  Not so, with our Stravinsky.   The fundamental conceptual and technical basis for his compositions underwent distinct and radical changes as he moved from one “period” to another, from youth to old age.  His smashing early successes with the ballets stemming from Russian nationalism--The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring--were followed shortly thereafter by a more severe, experimental style around WWI.  By about 1920 he turned to neo-classicism, which dominated his approach until around 1950, followed by more experimental changes until the last decade of his life, during which he astounded all by adopting a personal approach to twelve-tone and serial procedures.  The latter style, of course, had been championed by Schoenberg and his followers for almost half a century, but certainly not Stravinsky—until he did!  He cheerfully confessed to his musical “kleptomancy.” The real Stravinsky wore many guises, but they all represented a unique musical genius, who regardless of style and labels, always shone through as perhaps the singular composer of the century.

            But what of this so-called “neo-classicism,” a term used in a rather blanket fashion to lump together his works in roughly those three decades between 1920 and 1950?  There is a useful generalization to the term, but not much.   It would seem to indicate a return to the general principles of musical composition of the “classic” musical period—we’re talking Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, here.  But in actuality, Stravinsky’s compositions during this time, and in this style—and that of other significant composers, as well—represent a broader and more diverse use of music from the past.  His intellect was far ranging, and his interests scooped up inspiration from some of the most significant accomplishments of Western Civilization--and from much more than just music, alone.  His compositions from the “neo-classic” period, indeed, take inspiration, borrow techniques and forms, and transform myriad aspects of music from centuries of the art—not just the “classic” times of the late eighteenth century.  And that which he found, he always funneled through his remarkable craftsmanship and personal creativity to produce entirely new musical ideas and procedures.   Nothing was taken and used unchanged; nothing was slavishly copied; and nothing easily suggests its source.  He pounced on the most disparate of musical ideas and transformed them to suit his entirely new ends.  A form here, hidden under new sounds, or an apparently simple sonority there, functioning now in absolutely innovative ways.  His lean, abstract, reductive musical mind grabbed techniques from the past, and created stunning original music with them.  And, it must be said, the casual listener, without guidance, would oft times find it hard, indeed, to sense the old, as it informed the new.

            The Concerto in Eb, subtitled Dumbarton Oaks, was commissioned in 1937 by one of Washington, DC’s “power couples,” Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss, on the occasion of their thirtieth wedding anniversary.  The composition’s subtitle refers to their estate outside of Washington, a beautiful home and gardens, now owned by Harvard University as a library and center for the study of art and landscape architecture.  It was the site of the historic conference in late 1944 that led to the founding of the United Nations.  Mr. Barnes was a career diplomat with the State Department, and Mrs. Barnes—who funded it all—was an heiress to the Fletcher’s Castoria fortune (some may remember the latter nostrum with distaste).  Given its première in the sumptuous, expansive, music room in the mansion in 1938, it is one of two chamber concertos by the composer. Owing to Stravinsky’s hospitalization at the time with tuberculosis, the eminent teacher of music composition, Nadia Boulanger conducted.  Scored for a small orchestra of strings, one flute, one clarinet, one bassoon, and two horns, it was inspired by Bach’s evergreen Brandenburg Concertos.   Stravinsky, of course, was more than “inspired” by Bach’s six concertos, and seized upon a variety of the distinguishing characteristics of those quintessentially baroque concertos. So, in reality, we could, with some justification, refer to the Dumbarton Oaks concerto as “neo-baroque.”  So much for the precision of historians. 

            While clearly “modern” in sound, and especially representative of Stravinsky’s style at the time, his concerto is informed with baroque elements:   It’s in three movements; scored for a small orchestra, all members of which shine as soloists from time to time; employs steady, brisk tempos in the outer movements; and in a fashion typical of both Stravinsky and Bach, is built around a saturation of short, incisive motives that create a tight unity.  The first movement begins with crisp, sparkling woodwind color, punctuated by strings—a sound familiar to all from the early ballets of Stravinsky. The composer goes on throughout to constantly manipulate the clear orchestra colors that have always characterized his work—right from The Firebird on.  While it takes some concentration to pick out the various motives that are manipulated in this busy contrapuntal texture, most listeners can just “feel” the unity as they constantly cascade one upon the other.  Indeed, analysis is not needed.  Somewhat after the middle of the movement, that most of baroque of techniques surfaces, the fugato (a rather informal kind of fugue).  The theme starts in the violas, is picked up by violins, and joined by the double basses.  All of this in an almost motoric--very baroque—rhythm, punctuated by the composer’s signature—and very contemporary—shifts of accent and meter.

            The second movement is, as one would expect, somewhat more relaxed in tempo, but still with a pronounced steady, “walking along” gait.   And even more so than in the first movement, the motives are incisively chiseled and easy to follow—the texture is even lighter and solo oriented.  New ideas are introduced as we move along, but the main motive is almost constant, somewhere in the texture.   And, notably, as in the first movement, lush, soft, sonorous chords signal the end.

            The last movement begins with the emphatic “marching” staccatos familiar from so many of Stravinsky’s other neo-classic works, including the Symphony of Psalms and L’Histoire du soldat.  Sections of solos alternate with larger groups; new ideas alternate with the “marching” rhythm of the opening—all in best baroque fashion.   Almost as an afterthought, emphatic, repeated staccato chords bring it to a close.  And what about the so-called “key of E-flat” that entitles the work?   Well, it is certainly not in the traditional meaning of key, but rather best thought of as “on” E-flat,” or centered “around” E-flat.  A key that asserted, rather than built.  Go on to compare the easy-to-hear scales and intervals of Stravinsky with the dense dissonance of the new music of Schoenberg and others from earlier in the century. Or Dumbarton Oaks’ relatively simple rhythms with those of the same composers.  All of this, as well as the infusion of so many baroque characteristics, is clear evidence of Stravinsky’s genius of crafting “new wine in old bottles.”  There were many new ways forward after the over-extended style of post-romantic music and the ensuing, complicated responses.  But, Stravinsky’s spare, wry, Janus-faced approach of the two decades of his “neo-classicism” achieved a rare innovative integrity.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan