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Category Archives: Stravinsky-Igor

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

It was from this perch in sunny Hollywood that Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto in 1945.  In it, he distilled American jazz through his own compositional lens.  The score (untouched since its first edition in 1946) has this to say about its origin and inspiration:

Ebony Concerto was written by Igor Stravinsky for Woody Herman and his Orchestra.  It was introduced by that orchestra in a memorable concerto at Carnegie Hall, New York, on March 25, 1946, to the acclaim of public and critics alike.

Igor Stravinsky is one of the greatest and most representative figures in modern-day music.  His music has shocked, delighted, amazed, and irritated, but never bored people.  Stravinsky’s revolutionary musical precepts, his constant search for the new, for the true mirror of our changing world, find expression in music that is based on sound musicianship and great genius.  That is why his Firebird SuiteRite of Spring, and Petrouchka, to name only a few of his major works, are modern classics.

That is why Stravinsky was so impressed by the Woody Herman Orchestra and by their recordings of Bijou, Goosey Gander, and Caldonia.  His creativeness, invention, and deep sense of the modern, matched the characteristics of the Herman Orchestra.  A few months after Stravinsky had met Woody Herman, he presented the popular bandleader with Ebony Concerto… a composition that marks an epochal collaboration between the “jazz” and the “modern” schools of thought.

In truth, this origin story is somewhat romanticized.  Another account (see the Chicago Tribune link below) has it that a member of Herman’s band boasted of a meeting with Stravinsky which never actually happened, leading their mutual publisher to arrange the commission for the cash-strapped composer.  Regardless, Stravinsky did possess enough affinity for jazz that he did not hesitate in completing the project.

Listen to the original recording, and notice the delicious clash of styles happening:

Now listen to another recording that Stravinsky conducted, this time with Benny Goodman as the soloist:

The astute listener in possession of a score will have noticed that in both recordings, Stravinsky does not take his own printed tempos.  The interpretations on these recordings have now become standard.

The tunes mentioned in the program notes give great context to what inspired Stravinsky.  Here is Bijou:

And here is Caldonia:

For further reading on the Ebony Concerto, visit the Center for Jazz Arts, the Chicago Tribune, New York City Ballet, and Boosey & Hawkes.  Get a partial look at the score here.

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

Shortly after Claude Debussy died in 1918, Stravinsky began sketching a piece in his honor.  He called it Symphonies of Wind Instruments, yet it was not a typical symphony.  Instead, Stravinsky meant the term in the more ancient sense of a group of instruments sounding together.  He thus constructed the piece in one movement as a disjunct procession of these varied instrumental groupings.  It first appeared publicly as a fragment from the end of the piece in piano reduction in the Parisian publication La Revue musicale, part of an issue dedicated to Debussy’s memory, in 1920.  The complete version was premiered under Serge Koussevitzky that same year, but gave Stravinsky little satisfaction in performance: he said that “Koussevitzky executed the work, in firing-squad fashion.”   It lay unpublished and largely unperformed until Stravinsky fled Europe and moved to Hollywood.  There, he substantially revised the piece between 1945 and 1947.  This revised version, which retains the dedication to Debussy’s memory, is the most often performed today.

The defining feature of Symphonies of Wind Instruments is Stravinsky’s use of the various instruments to create distinct symphonies of sound.  These groups often contrast and rarely overlap.  Tempo is another important factor in the piece.  Stravinsky uses three main tempos (essentially quarter note = 72, 108, and 144), always maintaining the eighth-note pulse within each one when using mixed meters.  These often change abruptly, but they are related by the ratio 2:3:4, and so easily performable exactly as Stravinsky asks.  Both the instrumentation blocks and the tempo sections usually end abruptly and without transition, creating a block form that is typical of Stravinsky’s broader output.  The general form of the piece has flummoxed analysts for nearly a century, with no two scholars able to agree on an exact formal plan.  The changes in orchestration and tempo, though, provide clues.  The piece is in two main sections, divided at rehearsal 42 (the first fermata).  Before that, Stravinsky introduces six different musical blocks and three types of transitions that are shuffled around and stated in various orders, never overlapping save for a broader transitional section at rehearsal 11.  After 42, only two of those blocks and a new transition type get any treatment, with the final chorale-like block occupying most of the second half.  Thus, Symphonies of Wind Instruments makes an overall move from activity and variety to stasis and sameness.  In the process, Stravinsky uses at least 37 different combinations of instruments.

The Netherlands Wind Ensemble plays the 1947 revision of the Symphonies in a very well-conceived video presentation.  Like the piece itself, the video focuses only on certain musicians at any given time:

Symphonies of Wind Instruments has inspired much scholarship, but little agreement.  Analyses have been attempted by Edward Cone, Thomas Tyra, Robert Wason, Jonathan Kramer, Jeremy Matthews, Alexander Rehding, and many others.  Less scholarly accounts of the piece can be found at Wikipedia, Boosey & Hawkes, the Kennedy Center (which did not check all of its facts!), the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, and the LA Philharmonic.  For a conductor’s perspective, read about David Vickerman’s quest to find the perfect tempos on a recording.  These are just a handful of the dozens of internet articles about the piece, so go explore!

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

Stravinsky wrote the Octet (he also called it the Octuor) in 1922.  He conducted its premiere in Paris the following year. Its instrumentation is unusual, with 1 flute, 1 clarinet, and 2 each of bassoons, trumpets, and trombones.  About this, Stravinsky said: “The Octet began with a dream, in which I saw myself in a small room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some attractive music . . . I awoke from this little concert in a state of great delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose.”  With its use of older forms like sonata and theme and variations, it marked the beginning of his Neoclassical phase, which was to last for most of the next three decades. Coming after intensely rhythmic and primitivist works like The Rite of Spring, the Octet sounds like a mockery of classical forms.  The first movement opens with an adagio introduction typical of classical sonata form, but utterly different in its melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic conceptions.  The sonata begins in earnest with a clear, allegro thematic statement.  It unfolds in typical sonata fashion: exposition, development, recapitulation.  The exact moment of recapitulation is hard to place: Stravinsky not only mirrors the restatement of his themes in the 2nd half of the movement, he also deceives the listener by stating only part of the primary theme toward the end, before finally giving the theme one last full airing at the very end of the movement.  The second movement is a fairly straightforward theme and variations.  It segues directly to the third, a rondo of sorts that is based on a Russian dance rhythm.

Here is but one performance:

For another perspective, listen to this recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1947 at Tanglewood.  Also, take a look at Bernstein’s markings in the score (of a later edition), via the New York Philharmonic archives.

Musicians love to talk about the Octet.  It has its own, extensive Wikipedia article, complete with a history and a formal analysis of each movement.  It was the subject of a doctoral dissertation at the University of North Texas in 2007, dealing specifically with the trumpet parts.  It is featured on the Wind Repertory Project.  This Boosey & Hawkes blurb has some great contemporary quotes on the piece (one of which I used above).  Stravinsky himself wrote an essay about it for the premiere, which he published in 1924.  This other essay refers to that.  Since the Octet has such legendarily fun bassoon parts (my favorite bit is the cascade in the 2nd movement, although the beginning of the 3rd also gets me every time), it’s only fitting that the principal bassoonist of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra would write a fantastic and detailed blog post about her experience with the piece.  Finally, it has a place in the Classical Archives.

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.

From the CUWE program archive:

In 1910, Igor Stravinsky (b.1882 in Russia, d.1971 in New York) premiered The Firebird ballet with the Ballet Russe, and it became an international success.  Although he was not well known before this, Stravinsky became one of the most famous modern Russian composers.  He is also acclaimed for his ballets Petrouchka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).  Stravinsky received little early musical training, and it was not until he studied under the great Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov that his musical talents became ignited.  Stravinsky arranged three suites that highlighted excerpts from The Firebird ballet.  This afternoon, we will be playing the “Berceuse and Finale” from the suite.  Based on a Russian folktale, The Firebird tells the story of Prince Ivan’s encounter with “a fabulous bird with plumage of fire.”  The bird gives Ivan a magic feather that he may use in the face of danger.  Afraid of being turned to stone by an evil King, Ivan uses the magic feather and the Firebird appears to help him.  In the “Berceuse and Finale”, the Firebird frees all who have been turned to stone, and Ivan wins the hand of a lovely princess.

author unknown (not me), from the Spring 2004 “Russian” concert program.

That pretty much says it all.  Below are some links.  Bear in mind that this piece is performed so often that most links are advertisements for performances or recordings of the work!  I will do my best to omit those below.

Score excerpts from the ballet on Google Books.

The ballet and concert suites on Wikipedia.

The folk tale upon which the ballet is based, also on Wikipedia.

Program notes from Pomona College.

Extensive program notes on the ballet from the Kennedy Center.

Igor Stravinsky on Wikipedia.

Igor Stravinsky in the Time 100, remembering the greatest figures of the 20th century, by composer Philip Glass.

The “Lullabye and Final Hymn” (“Berceuse and Finale” as we know them) conducted by the man himself, Maestro Stravinsky at age 82!!  Things I love about this performance: Stravinsky’s minimal and nearly affect-less conducting; the endless tempo in the Lullabye section; Stravinsky’s only change of facial expression at the very end of the Finale; the comically short quarter notes in the final section (which we will not replicate!); the fact that Stravinsky walks with a cane, but does not need it when conducting.  Enjoy this true gem of a video!

The complete ballet, company and orchestra unknown:

This was a Senior Choice for hornist Justine Ordinario ’09.