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Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, basses, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: September 6, 1972, with soloist Roger Woodward, Lukas Foss conducting
When Stravinsky moved from Switzerland to France in June of 1920, the composer could little foresee the tremendous changes that were to occur in both his personal and artistic lives. In February 1921 he met the artist Vera de Bosset (Mme. Serge Sudeikin), who was to become his companion for 50 years, the first 18 of which caused the composer to lead a double life with regards to his wife and family. In the artistic realm, Stravinsky, now a Russian exile as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, found himself in a Paris dominated intellectually by the French neo-catholic movement known as neo-Thomism, based upon the tenets of medieval scholasticism stemming from the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Neo-Thomism emphasized the work of art as an artifact of order, form, discipline, and, above all, labor and craftsmanship in the service of something distinct from or transcendent of the emotions of the artist; in short, the universal. This “neoclassical” movement was a reaction to the perceived disorder, formlessness, and lack of discipline of an aesthetic that fostered an artist’s individual expression of emotions spiraling out of control; in a word, Romanticism.
Upon entering this ripening intellectual environment and realizing that he was physically, artistically, and spiritually cut off from the Russian folk song that had permeated his work up to this point, Stravinsky chose to re-think his aesthetic position and began to formulate a philosophy of art. This change in his musical thinking took place during the brief two-month period between completion of his Symphonies for Wind Instruments (generally acknowledged as the last work of his “Russian” period) on November 30, 1920, and the fugato of the Octet for Wind Instruments on February 1, 1921.
This aesthetic shift is most notable with regards to Stravinsky’s appropriation of 18th-century forms as working models, and his new emphasis on both wind instruments and the piano to realize the clarity of absolute music free from associations outside of itself. In the words of Stravinsky scholar and biographer Stephen Walsh, “In all Stravinsky’s early neo-classical works the use of classical form is referential rather than organic, and is best interpreted, like his other ‘classical’ devices, as symbolic.” Regarding his use of wind instruments to best realize the sound of his new ideas, Stravinsky put it this way: “wind instruments seem to me more apt to render a certain rigidity of form I had in mind than other instruments… the difference of the volume of these instruments renders more evident the musical architecture.”
Stravinsky completed the Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments on April 21, 1924. After hearing a private run-through in Paris, the conductor Ernest Ansermet related to a friend: “I’ve just heard Stravinsky’s Piano Concerto, admirably played by the composer. It’s a very important work… in the line of the Octet but in a more monumental style and à la Bach!” True to an 18th-century concerto, Stravinsky’s is made of three movements – fast with slow introduction, slow, fast – but that’s as close as it gets. In light of this statement, we will let no less an authority than Béla Bartók have the final word: “The opinion of some people that Stravinsky’s neoclassical style is based on Bach, Handel, and other composers of their time is a rather superficial one… he turns only to the material of that period, to the patterns of Bach, Handel… Stravinsky uses this material in his own way, arranging and transforming it according to his own individual spirit…. Had he tried also to transpose Bach’s or Handel’s spirit into his work, imitation and not creation would have been the result.”
Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.