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Rehearing Stravinsky’s War Symphony

Readers of this blog will appreciate my keen interest in Valery Gergiev’s performances of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements on the final two days of the New York Philharmonic’s three-week “Russian Stravinsky” festival (cf. my postings of March 29 and May 3). This work, so complexly monogrammed with the composer’s layer upon layer of identity, is one of the most impressive products of his long and ambiguous American exile. Gergiev’s intense understanding of the symphony as a “war symphony” promised a revelatory reading, and fresh insights into the Stravinsky odyssey generally.
Though the Symphony in Three Movements was commissioned by the Philharmonic in celebration of the impending end to World War II – it was even proposed that it be titled “La Victoire” – Stravinsky balked at furnishing a programmatic note. In fact, he did not even write the work afresh. The first movement uses sketches for something resembling a piano concerto. The second recycles harp-and-flute music originally intended for the Hollywood film The Song of Bernadette. The prominence of the piano and harp in all three movements became a binding idea. Both outer movements are notably militant and march-like. Though Stravinsky toyed with the alternate title “Three Symphonic Movements,” the Symphony in Three Movements achieves a consolidated grandeur of intensity. Many writers – beginning with the composer Ingolf Dahl, whom Stravinsky close to write the original program note – have compared it to The Rite of Spring.
More than a decade after conducting the Philharmonic in the first performance (Jan. 24, 1946), Stravinsky confided to Robert Craft that the Symphony in Three Movements was “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.” After furnishing a scenario for the entire finale, he characteristically added: “Enough of this. In spite of what I have admitted, the Symphony is not programmatic. Composers combine notes. That is all.” (To Bruno Zirato of the Philharmonic, Stravinsky had written in 1945: “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.”)
Stravinsky’s first performance of the Symphony in Three Movements (kudos to the Philharmonic for posting it on their website) is notably gutsy. But reviewers listened with Stravinsky’s polemics ringing loudly in their ears. Olin Downes of the Times heard “sterile stuff, at best a reworking of ideas expressed much more vitally in preceding scores” — and he cited Stravinsky’s “long and oft repeated doctrine that this music means nothing at all in either the emotional or programmatic sense.” Irving Kolodin heard music “concerned with musical materials as such.” In the Herald Tribune, Virgil Thomson, a more sympathetic auditor, went off on a tangent: “The present work, if I mistake not, evokes the Romantic Russian symphony, the more obvious sources of its style being early Tchaikovsky and possibly Borodin.”
How the reviewers might have reacted to Stravinsky’s wartime symphony had the composer been less militantly diffident is impossible to surmise. Thomson excepted, they heard what they expected to hear. And I suppose the same is true of me. I knew that for Gergiev the Symphony in Three Movements evoked the war symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich (and that he came to this view before learning of Stravinsky’s “admissions” to Craft). I knew that he experienced the opening flourish as an “alarm.” In rehearsal, I heard him tell the Philharmonic that this rising gesture should be “very brutal.” He told the bassoonists that their brisk dialogue near the opening of the finale could be considered music of “fear.” He asked that certain staccatos be played non-staccato. Rather than precision, he concentrated on harmony, sonority, mood. He achieved a darker, more full-bodied sound than a Boulez or Salonen would seek. The work’s occasional jazzy syncopations were jazzy not for him. The second movement eschewed elegance. A dire mood was sustained.
I wish I could report that the resulting interpretation silenced my reservations about the Symphony in Three Movements. I still find the outer sections of the second movement weak. The middle episode still incongruously reminds me of its cinema source: Bernadette’s spooky vision of the Virgin Mary. Certainly, this is a symphony full of stirring things. Doubtless, it is among the most memorable produced on American soil. But I am not persuaded that the many episodes – the construction is additive – always maintain a high level of inspiration.
Gergiev coupled the Symphony in Three Movements with the Concerto for Piano and Winds (1924) and – ending the festival – The Rite of Spring. My friend David Schiff, in the audience, compared the Stravinsky piano concerto with the roughly contemporaneous piano concertos of Bartok and Prokofiev (I would have added Rachmaninoff’s crafty Rhapsody on the Theme by Paganini). In these cruel comparisons, Stravinsky comes up short. Schiff compared the symphony with the symphonies of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, with the same result.
The Philharmonic’s festival, with no fewer than 16 Stravinsky compositions, furnished an exceptional opportunity to compare Stravinsky with himself. The opportunity proved fascinating and, ultimately, unsettling. The greatest impressions – I speak both of the pieces and of Gergiev’s searing performances – were left by Petrushka and by The Rite of Spring (I did not hear the Firebird or Les Noces).
Writing not long ago [April 8] in the New York Review of Books, Charles Rosen remarked in passing: “Stravinsky followed the few years of oPetrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Les Noces with a turn to neoclassicism: he continued for many decades to produce some of his finest music, but nevertheless the energetic panache of the first years had evaporated.” Surely Stravinsky is one of the most courageously resilient figures in the history of Western classical music. Had there been less cause for resilience – had there been no revolution to evict him from his homeland – he might have left a legacy less intriguingly textured with self-denial and re-invention, more sustained in its elemental energy and riotous panache.

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