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Stravinsky, the New York Philharmonic, and Program Music

As Igor Stravinsky’s impregnable twentieth century reputation fades with time, both the man and the composer seem ever more elusive. A recent visit to the New York Philharmonic Archives, preparing for the Philharmonic’s upcoming Stravinsky festival with Valery Gergiev, reinforced the density of the Stravinsky conundrum.
Stravinsky was born in St. Petersburg. His father was an important opera singer. His teacher Rimsky-Korsakov composed operas, not symphonies. That is: his musical upbringing was rooted in the stage: Russian opera and ballet.
Exiled by the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky lived in Switzerland, France, the US. One 1937 Chicago headline reported, “Stravinsky, in German, Says He’s French.” In Los Angeles, Stravinsky became an American citizen. He is buried in Venice.
Stravinsky’s writings in exile – which in fact were written by others, in French and English – excoriated Russia as backward and “anarchic.” “Music,” he famously pronounced, “is given to us to establish an order in things; to order the chaotic and the personal into something perfectly controlled, conscious and capable of lasting vitality.” In the same breath, he insisted that music was “essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.” Music was unencumbered by the extra-musical. Stravinsky’s own music, according to the composer, was impersonal and abstract. It was not to be “interpreted.”
Then, in 1962, Stravinsky returned to Russia at the age of 80 and discovered himself incurably Russian after all. His pronouncements about music and about himself – always tendentious or otherwise implausible — now included:
–“A man has one birthplace, one fatherland, one country – he can have only one country — and the place of his birth is the most important factor in his life.”
And, even more astonishingly:
“I regret that circumstances separated me from my fatherland, and that I did not give birth to my works there and above all, that I was not there to help the new Soviet Union create its new music.”
In short, Stravinsky was susceptible to a psychology of exile. Stripped of his homeland, denied his “Russianness,” he compensated as best he could (a story I have told in my book Artists in Exile). In retrospect, ambivalence, ambiguity, even (as the music historian Richard Taruskin has stressed) insecurity prove hallmarks of this proud and private man. And his music was not immune to the aftershocks of exile.
In the 1960s, Eric Walter White, in a seminal Stravinsky study, could approvingly quote Lawrence Morton’s opinion that Stravinsky’s Tchaikovsky pastiche The Fairy’s Kiss was an improvement on Tchaikovsky: “Tchaikovsky’s faults – his banalities and vulgarities and routine procedures – are composed out of the music, and Stravinsky’s virtues are composed into it.” (Personally, I find The Fairy’s Kiss a beautiful work. I more admire the Pathetique Symphony.) How much more telling, today, seems Aaron Copland regretful observation of 1943: “I don’t think [Stravinsky] is in a very good period. He copies himself unashamedly, and therefore one rarely comes upon a really fresh page – for him, I mean.”
All this leaped to mind at the New York Philharmonic Archives the other day when I perused the eventful correspondence occasioned by Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, premiered by the Philharmonic in 1946. At least initially, the orchestra specifically intended to commission “a new symphony called ‘La Victoire,'” celebrating the impending victory over Germany and Japan. Stravinsky accepted the commission. Once the work was scheduled, the Philharmonic requested a program note from the composer. Stravinsky replied: “It is well known that no program is to be sought in my musical output. . . . Sorry if this is desapointing [sic] but no story to be told, no narration and what I would say would only make yawn the majority of your public which undoubtedly expects exciting descriptions. This, indeed would be so much easier but alas . . . . . ”
Eventually, Stravinsky asked the Philharmonic to publish a program note by the composer Ingolf Dahl. Dahl’s note, duly printed in the Philharmonic program book, was itself of the species to “make yawn the majority.” A specimen: “The thematic germs of this [first] movement are of ultimate condensation. They consist of the interval of the minor third (with its inversion, the major sixth) and an ascending scale fragment which forms the background to the piano solo of the middle part.”
But Stravinsky obliged the Philharmonic with a brief “Word” conceding: “During the process of creation in this our arduous time of sharp shifting events, time of despear [sic] and hope, time of continual torments, of tention [sic] and at last cessation, relief, my [sic] be all those repercussions have left traces, stamped the character of this Symphony.”
To complete my story: decades later, Stravinsky was asked by Robert Craft, “In what ways is the [Symphony in Three Movements] marked by world events?” Stravinsky answered:
“Certain specific events excited my musical imagination. Each episode is linked in my mind with a concrete impression of the war, almost always cinematographic in origin. For instance, the beginning of the third movement is partly a musical reaction to newsreels I had seen of goose-stepping soldiers. The square march beat, the brass-band instrumentation, the grotesque crescendo in the tuba – all these are related to those repellent pictures. In spite of contrasting musical episodes, such as the canon for bassoons, the march music predominates until the fugue, the beginning of which marks the stasis and the turning point. The immobility here seems to me comic, and so, to me, was the overturned arrogance of the Germans when their machine failed at Stalingrad. The fugal exposition and the end of the Symphony are associated with the rise of the Allies, and the final, albeit too commercial, D-flat chord – instead of the expected C – is a token of my extra exuberance in the triumph. The rumba in the finale, developed from the timpani part in the introduction to the first movement, was also associated in my imagination with the movements of war machines . . . ”
And Stravinsky added, inimitably: “Enough of this. In spite of what I have admitted, the symphony is not programmatic. Composers combine notes. That is all.”
But it is not all. From the moment I read Stravinsky’s “cinematographic details,” I heard the Symphony in Three Movements with new (and better) ears. Five years ago, for Pacific Symphony, I collaborated with the video artist Peter Bogdanoff on a “visual presentation” for the six-minute finale of the Symphony in Three Movements, culling newsreel footage faithfully following Stravinsky’s scenario. The result, it seems to us, confounds the notion that Stravinsky’s concert music is notably unfreighted with extra-musical baggage. Stephen Walsh, in his recent Stravinsky biography, dismisses the relevance of Stravinsky’s “supposed” testimony to Craft about the martial imagery informing the outer movements of his WW II symphony. But soldiers and tanks are not irrelevant to the potential affect of this stirring score (surely one of the finest works from Stravinsky’s spotty American period). In fact, the “stasis” interrupting the finale had never made obvious musical sense to me. It self-evidently makes programmatic sense.
These Stravinsky questions and thoughts form a backdrop to the New York Philharmonic’s May 1 “Stravinsky Odyssey” program, at the Morgan Library – when I’ll have occasion to discuss the “meanings” of the Symphony in Three Movements with Valery Gergiev, and to invite him to ponder our “visual presentation.” I’ll also be showing the visual presentation at Philharmonic pre-concert talks for Gergiev’s performances of the Symphony in Three Movements on May 7 and 8.
Stravinsky was a born theater composer, attuned to dance and physical gesture. Like many another composer, he found physical imagery a vital accessory to creativity. It is no wonder that George Balanchine so successfully choreographed the Symphony in Three Movements – in which (as he told his City Ballet dancers) he found images of helicopters, searchlights, and other markers of war.


  1. Robert Berger says:

    Interesting article, but Rimsky-Korsakov in fact wrote three symphonies, which are almos never performed, but which have been recorded by such well-known conductors as Yevgeny Svetlanov and Neeme Jarvi etc.
    The second,or “Antar” symphony, is programmatic and is in a similar exotic vein to Scheherezade. Gergiev did it with the New York Philharmonic several years ago.

  2. Patricia Contino says:

    Stravinsky is my favorite composer, yet I do not understand the reasoning behind this festival. Why does Stravnisky have to be “Russian?” Maybe I have been listening incorrectly all this time, but “Apollo,” “Orpheus,” “Dances Concertantes,” “Symphony of Psalms,” and “Symphony in Three Movements” never struck me as Russian-sounding. Must they be? I always thought they were beautiful and haunting – without any subtext.
    Is this festival a way of justifying Stravinsky’s staying in the west at the time his contemporaries Prokofiev and Shostakovich suffered so greatly and terribly in the Soviet Union? Will the Balanchine/Stravinsky collaboration come to be regarded as an accident of history?
    Putting nationalistic labels on music is a dangerous thing. Of course the conductor curating this festival doesn’t think that way, and rich patrons and administrators from the west look the other way as long as tickets sell and reviewers coo. Just think if the NYP had not alienated their one former music director who knows Stravinsky’s music so well…then this would be both a celebration of Stravinksy and Pierre Boulez’s 85th birthday.

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