Concerto for Piano and Winds

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            Stravinsky burst onto the international musical scene as a Russian enfant terrible, with his epochal three ballets.  Everyone grew to adore those works, and still do.  But, Stravinsky’s restless mind soon gravitated to exceeding diverse musical places, never pausing to establish a consistent, life-long stylistic orientation.  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, The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring stem from Russian nationalism, were followed shortly 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.

            A few years after the end of WWI, Stravinsky’s musical thinking underwent a major shift.  Of course, he was not alone in his generation, for ever since the turn of the century various composers had sought contrasts and answers to the inflated musical ideas of late Romanticism.  Large orchestras gave way to small, varied groups.  Extended tonal harmonies yielded to non-functional harmonies, or other schemes of organizing sound.  Composers were looking everywhere for new directions.

            When art has “gone about as far as it can go” in one style, it simply flops over into something radically different.  And that is roughly what happened to the works of late romanticism, with their extended tonality and growing length—to name only a few traits that simply suffered little further evolution.  This is as true of Stravinsky’s three early ballets as it is of, say, Mahler’s symphonies.  Hemlines go up, and then they go down.  Representational art is followed by abstract art, and then by representation again.  Simplicity and complexity always seem to alternate.

            After the smashing success of the three large, colorful ballets that brought him to the world’s attention, Stravinsky, too, looked to new solutions.  His choices were made clear in his ballet, Pulcinella (1919) the first major work that now is deemed as “neo-classic.”  It was a marked departure from the works that had secured his reputation, and a harbinger of the new, spare style that looked back to the music of the eighteenth century for many of its precepts. Other works that made reference, not to any particular “classical” time, but rather to any apt musical materials of the past, soon followed.  Significant of these was certainly the Octet for wind instruments (1923), a close precursor to the Concerto for piano and winds of the next year.

            At the time Stravinsky, had removed to Paris from Switzerland, where he had sat out the war, and was in financial need.  The war had seriously compromised international copyrights, and thus his income.  So, he embarked upon the composition of works that he could perform himself (he restricted others’ access) to bolster his finances.  Apparently, while a competent pianist, he nevertheless needed brush up on his technique for the challenges of the stage.  Plunging in with some serious practice that included standard piano studies, including Hanon, Czerny, and the like, he both composed and practiced.  The Concerto (but it was clearly not a concerto in the big nineteenth-century conception of the term) was ready in 1924.  Stravinsky’s mastery of orchestra color is a signal trait, and in this case, he eschewed completely the string section (except for the double bass).   Rather, he preferred the incisive attack and timbre of the winds when paired with the percussive nature of the piano.  His great work for wind orchestra, Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), was a key precursor to this æsthetic.  The Concerto received its première in Paris in May of 1924.  Koussevitzky, who had suggested the idea of the work, conducted.

            The first movement of the three opens with the composer’s version of a French overture (compare it with Handel’s of the Royal Fireworks).  Soon, just as in Handel, a motoric allegro section ensues—neo-baroque, rather than neo-classic, might well be a more accurate term.  This middle section is a frenetic, herky-jerky affair in the composer’s best style of the time.   He, himself, referred to it as a “toccata” (a improvisatory-like piece to display the performer’s skill), and that it is.  Its impressive figurations and relentless drive impressively invoke solo baroque keyboard works.  Toward the end there is a kind of cadenza for the soloist that sails without break through varied time signatures: 2/4, 3/4, 2/8, 3/8, 3/16, 5/16, and 7/16.   At this time Stravinsky was interested in ragtime and early jazz, and these displaced accents, and figurations shout it out.  After this impressive solo passage, the implied baroque “overture” returns to conclude, this time with piano arabesques over the winds.           

            A favorite penchant of many composers is to put their most dense, challenging material for the listener in the first movement, and then to surprise in the second with a more accessible, perhaps more “pleasing” second movement.  And so does Stravinsky, here.  Dissonance is minimized, lyricism pervades, and even chromaticism yields to frequent “white notes of the piano” tonalities.   The almost painfully slow, dirge-like first section yields to a cadenza that begins in free and improvisatory fashion, but soon, in a short interlude, is joined by double reed and horn solos, with the piano rather accompanying.  A second cadenza, this time more dynamic and forceful leads to a varied repeat of the opening dirge, concluding with a surprisingly serene, simple C major chord.

            The last movement is a pastiche of a little bit of everything: pop music and French jazz of the time; banal tunes in the orchestra that seem to pop out of nowhere; disjunct little episodes from primæval ballets; and eccentric fugal passages.  Finally, Stravinsky wraps it all up with a brief return to the austere, dissonance-laden “French” overture that began the work, before an eight-bar scamper to conclusion.  Ending with what else?  Again, a simple C major chord.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2018 William E. Runyan