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Music in Wartime

Between 1942 and 1945, the three pre-eminent Russian composers wrote music responding to World War II. These responses differ in fascinating and revealing ways.

Both Dmitri Shostakovich and Serge Prokofiev were eyewitnesses to the war; Shostakovich in fact endured the beginning of the siege of Leningrad before being evacuated east along with Prokofiev and other eminent Soviet artists. Prokofiev’s explosive Seventh Piano Sonata (1942), the best-known of his three “War Sonatas,” evokes the actual sounds of war. Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio (1944) exquisitely discloses an interior view of suffering and fortitude. That his wartime voice is interior makes it – however Russian – the more universal. 

Igor Stravinsky, in Los Angeles, composed his Symphony in Three Movements (1942-45) as a “Victory Symphony” on commission from the New York Philharmonic. The finale was inspired by World War II newsreel images – vividly translated into sound, beginning with goose-stepping Nazi soldiers.  But this remains an “armchair” view, activated by a financial incentive.

Today’s PostClassical Ensemble “More than Music” video (posted above) – the third in an ongoing series co-presented by The American Interest – is the premiere screening of “Shostakovich in Time of War,” an ingenious 45-minute film by  Behrouz Jamali in which I take part as commentator. It revealingly juxtaposes Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky – and the performances, including a reading of the Prokofiev sonata by the inimitable Alexander Toradze, are amazing. The video artist Peter Bogdanoff contributes a singular visual rendering of Stravinsky’s finale, applying the pertinent newsreel clips. 

The historian Richard Aldous will be hosting a related Zoom chat with Solomon Volkov (who collaborated with Shostakovich on his memoirs), Angel Gil-Ordóñez, and myself. It will take place Friday, May 15, at 6 pm. If you would like to participate, click here.

Regarding Stravinsky’s “war symphony” – the Philharmonic requested “a new symphony called ‘La Victoire’” to celebrate the impending victory over Germany and Japan. What next transpired is documented in tangled detail by correspondence in the New York Philharmonic Archives. The Philharmonic requested a program note. 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 . . . . . ”

Stravinsky then 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.” 

The work thus described – the Symphony Three Movements – is in fact different in tone from the Apollonian exercises Stravinsky had long pursued. Parts are indisputably militant, march-like, propelled by harshly thrusting energies. Many writers, Dahl included, have likened it to a latter-day Rite of Spring. Another unmistakable influence is the swagger and muscle of big band jazz. (Mere months later, Stravinsky completed an Ebony Concerto composed on commission for Woody Herman.) In Stravinsky’s world premiere recording of the Symphony in Three Movements with the New York Philharmonic, the flying syncopations of the opening measures really swing. 

Stravinsky later acknowledged Broadway, boogie-woogie, and “the neon glitter of Los Angeles’ boulevards” as influences on his American output. But this was nothing compared to a revelation recorded by Robert Craft in response to the question: “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 . . . ”

Although not everything Stravinsky said about himself bears scrutiny, and although not everything Craft said Stravinsky said can be taken at face value, and although Stravinsky’s testimony about applying wartime “newsreels” has been discounted by his biographer Steven Walsh, the proof is in the music: as Peter Bogdanoff’s video confirms, Stravinsky’s movement three narrative is a fit. Accompanied by the specified clips, this explosive finale, with its strutting marches and detonating chords, functions altogether admirably as a film score. In fact, the point of “stasis” midway through makes no apparent musical sense – it is, rather, a programmatic pivot upon which the tide of battle is reversed. George Balanchine’s famous setting of the Symphony in Three Movements winks at Hollywood and Broadway. But he also told his dancers to think of helicopter searches and other signatures of wartime. More recently, the conductor Valery Gergiev has called the symphony’s opening flourish “an alarm” which should sound “very brutal.” In the dialogue of bassoons near the opening of the finale he hears music of “fear.”

In his conversation with Craft, 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 even accepting this hairpin distinction, the compositional process at hand is hardly autonomous. Its programmatic inspiration – the war and its imagery – is fundamental.Or is the Symphony in Three Movements a case of waning inspiration? Aaron Copland sensed in the American Stravinsky a composer who “copies himself.” An anomaly of the Symphony is the prominence of a solo piano in movement one, and of solo harp in movement two. In fact, the first movement originated as an abandoned sketch for piano and orchestra. And movement two appropriates eerie strains created to underscore an apparition of the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette – film music Darryl Zanuck declined to use. Stravinsky rescued these fragments – and therefore composed some passages highlighting the solo piano and solo harp in his finale. But in fact, the pattern of scoring that results is a curious patchwork. And whether the mood and texture of movement two actually fit this “symphony” – for which Stravinsky considered the alternative title “Three Symphonic Movements” – is a good question. 

A final frame of reference: Arnold Schoenberg, in Los Angeles, spurned the frequent autonomy of exile, befriending George Gershwin, teaching his UCLA students, mentoring Hollywood’s leading film composers; his A Survivor from Warsaw (1947) and Ode to Napoleon (1942) confront Hitler and the Holocaust with furious words set as Sprechstimme – a kind of heightened speech. Stravinsky, by comparison, was a poised bystander.


  1. Stravinsky’s frequent denials that music can express the meaning of words, that music can express nothing but itself, is belied by the — apparently intentional — vivid descriptions we find in his music.

  2. Saul Davis Zlatkovski says

    It is said that Stravinsky was motivated by money, but that doesn’t apply to the music he wrote. The Symphony in Three Movements is a masterpiece, and one I enjoy more and more over time. I would love to play it again. Your comments shed a different light on his pairing of the harp and piano, one instrument organic, the other mechanical. That says something symbolic right there.
    I have been gathering music for a WWII and Postwar recital program, and a number of top-level composers wrote works for the harp in this time, the first and most prominent being Hindemith’s Sonata for Harp, which to me has always reflected a sense of Anschluss, Flight and Peace. Others, such as Nino Rota’s Sarabande and Toccata take on a far-greater depth when viewed in the context of a response to wartime.
    It is sad that so many composers resorted to music that reflects the destruction and evil of that war in their music.


  1. […] Here’s an ingenious 45-minute film by Behrouz Jamali that revealingly juxtaposes the music Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky wrote in response to World War II. The video artist Peter Bogdanoff contributes a singular visual rendering of Stravinsky’s finale, applying pertinent newsreel clips. – Joseph Horowitz […]

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