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Stravinsky (1882-1971) - Symphony in Three Movements

In World War II, men perfected machinery of mass-destruction to match their basest brutality. Amidst ever more appalling horrors, Man responded with Music to match his highest aspirations. Composed in the haven of the USA, Stravinsky's response to “specific cinematographic impressions of the war” earned some disdain, as though he had no right to reflect these reflected experiences. Yet this stricture never applies elsewhere - otherwise there wouldn't be, say, a single Requiem - and anyway he did encounter the Brown Shirts in Munich during the early Thirties. Etched into his memory, this frightening incident became “the root of [his] indignation”, enshrined in this Symphony

Nevertheless, Stravinsky remained a confirmed objectivist, insisting that, “. . . [it] is not programmatic. Composers combine notes. That is all. How and in what form the things of the world are impressed upon their music is not for them to say.” So, should we hear it simply as “pure” music? Well, instead of soul-searching we do find a certain cinematographic detachment, resulting from unremitting concentration on musical processes. Yet there is also something about the relentless drive, obvious in the outer movements and even lurking within the stately-sounding Andante, something that attracts, facinates - and curdles the blood. Should we perhaps reverse Stravinsky's creative process, into a recreative process: absorb it as “pure” music, and then look within to find what it has said about the “things of the world”? 

The style is, roughly, Le Sacre viewed through the glass of Stravinsky's subsequent stylistic forays, notably “Neo-Baroque” and “Greek Classical”, an endlessly involving amalgam of polyphony, linear development, rhythmic transformation, cool elegance - and hair-raising violence (considering the modest forces, this last recalls the explosive qualities of Beethoven). There isn't a melody within earshot, yet Stravinsky performs such manipulative miracles with rudimentary motivic cells that you scarcely notice - until these gel into one of those inimitable “Russian folk-tunes”. And everwhere there's that trademark Stravinsky sound, the product not just of his unique ear for sonority, but also of the very specific “attacks” he notates - a prime example being the long, stabbing crescendo near the beginning, still electrifying me after years of familiarity. 

Stravinsky's doubts about the work's status (“Three Symphonic Movements would be [more exact]”) probably stem from the disparate provenance of its parts. He originally drafted the first movement for a piano concerto while the second, with its prominent harp, was intended to (but ultimately didn't) accompany a vision of the Virgin Mary in the film Song of Bernadette. However, with uncommon perspicacity, he added a third movement closely related to the first, binding them through that common thread of “reaction to events” and the creation of an obbligato relationship between piano and harp by converging them at the finale's “turning point”. The result is, frankly, more of a symphony than many that claim the title. 

1. Overture - Allegro:. . . inspired by a war film, . . . of scorched earth tactics in China.” With a mere six notes, Stravinsky grabs you by the throat, and thrusts you into a seething cauldron of purposeful propulsion. That initial phrase is seemingly the only subject, although Stravinsky simulates sonata form: a horn-call masquerades as second subject, chattering bassoons herald a “development section” permeated by obsessive jabberings, and a varied “reprise” is marked by the “stabbing crescendo”. Finally, only the jabbering remains, a grisly cackling of bass clarinet as the music burns itself out in an ashen chord. 

2. Andante - Interlude (l'istesso tempo): The intended contrast is, I think, obvious. The air is cool and classical: perfumed melody floats over a grounded bass-line. A hesitant chorale announces a more ethereal phase, then re-calls the opening - only now the contours become troubled, its clear blue sky stained by gathering grim clouds . . . 

3. Con moto:The beginning [is] a reaction to newsreels . . . of goose-stepping soldiers. The square march-beat, brass-band instrumentation, [and] grotesque [tuba] crescendo . . . are all related to those abhorrent pictures.” Again there's arguably only one subject, and even that derives from the first movement's theme, with a more episodic variational sequence, à la rondeau, reflecting its more graphic nature. The opening's Nazi arrogance becomes sardonically transformed, and comically grinds to a halt. Calmly, piano and harp start a fugue: “[This] and the end of the Symphony are associated . . . with the rise of the Allies, and the final, rather too commercial D-flat sixth chord . . . tokens my extra exuberance in the Allied triumph.” This is, to say the least and as you will hear, putting it mildly.

© Paul Serotsky
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