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When Igor Stravinsky moved to the United States in 1939, he was already a familiar figure on the American musical scene. In 1925, he had undertaken his first overseas tour as a guest conductor and pianist, while his first major American commission materialized in 1927 for a ballet (Apollon musagète) to be performed at a festival of contemporary music at the Library of Congress. A couple of years later, Serge Koussevitzky requested a work for the Boston Symphony’s 50th anniversary, resulting in the Symphony of Psalms. Then in 1936, the composer wrote Jeu de cartes for the newly formed American Ballet. It was while working on the premiere of this ballet in New York that Stravinsky was approached by a well-to-do American couple for a rather unusual commission: a chamber concerto to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss were generous patrons of the arts and Dumbarton Oaks, their estate in Washington, D.C., was often the setting for functions ranging from international conferences to chamber concerts. In the planning stages of their anniversary piece, Stravinsky visited Dumbarton Oaks. It has been suggested that the framework of the concerto was inspired by the special formal layout of the gardens there, which he so admired.

Despite its bright, attractive profile, the Concerto was composed during what Stravinsky termed “the unhappiest period of my life.” War clouds were brewing over Europe, and his wife and two daughters were gravely ill with tuberculosis. To be near his dying daughter Mika, Stravinsky took up residence at the Chateau de Montoux near Geneva, and it was here that he began his “little concerto in the style of the Brandenburgs.” By the time he completed the piece, Stravinsky too was undergoing treatment for “the family disease.” Unable to travel, he asked Nadia Boulanger to conduct the private premiere for the anniversary celebrations at Dumbarton Oaks in May of 1938.

Stravinsky himself conducted the public debut in Paris that summer, an event which sparked a heated controversy. At least one French critic attacked the composer for lifting material from Bach, while another came to his defense. But Stravinsky had the last word: “Whether the first theme of my first movement is a conscious borrowing from the Third Brandenburg Concerto, I do not know. But I don’t think Bach would have begrudged me the use of his examples, for to borrow in this way was exactly the sort of thing he liked to do himself.”

— Kathy Henkel