The Duo concertant, Igor Stravinsky’s only work originally conceived for violin and piano, grew out of his collaboration with the violinist Samuel Dushkin, for whom the composer also wrote his Violin Concerto.
The composer was surprised at how much he enjoyed his close collaboration with the violinist when working on the Concerto. He had, until then, not really been interested in writing a work for violin and piano, finding the coupling of an essentially lyrical instrument with a percussive one unappealing. But, as the composer wrote in his 1935 autobiography, Chronicles of My Life, “A deeper knowledge of the violin and close collaboration with a technician like Dushkin had revealed possibilities which I longed to explore.”
The Duo was originally conceived as a sort of concerto without orchestra. Stravinsky, worried about an upcoming tour of the United States and Europe with Dushkin, wanted a work that he could use in smaller cities whose orchestras couldn’t cope with his idiom.
The other impetus behind the Duo concertant came from a biography of the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch that Stravinsky had been reading. Its pronouncements on poetry resonated with the philosophy that underlay Stravinsky’s neoclassical works, of which the Duo is a good example. “My object,” wrote Stravinsky, “was to create a lyrical composition, a work of musical versification, and I was more than ever experiencing the advantage of a rigorous discipline which gives a taste for the craft and the satisfaction of being able to apply it – and more particularly in a work of lyrical character.”
Of the work’s movement titles, all but one are poetic, rather than musical, terms (the exception is the Gigue, the Duo’s fourth section). The opening Cantilène, with its unsettled piano part and spiky figurations for the violin, hardly evokes the lyricism Stravinsky wrote about, but this alternates with longer-breathed lines for the violin, giving a foretaste of the more relaxed nature of the first Eglogue, where the violinist plays a drone over a propulsive accompaniment.
The second Eglogue reveals, with the closing Dithyrambe, Stravinsky’s lyricism in full bloom. The violin spins out a chaste melody over an elegantly ornamented piano part, conjuring the shades of many a slow movement from the 18th-century baroque concerto. It ends without warning, giving way to a high-spirited Gigue, a dance whose form Stravinsky again borrows from the baroque. The closing Dithyrambe affects an even more austere atmosphere than the second Eglogue. Here, the lyricism Stravinsky strove for in the Duo is abundantly and quite beautifully realized.
Dushkin and Stravinsky gave the Duo concertant its premiere in Berlin – hardly a city known for a poverty of orchestras – on October 28, 1932. The pair also performed the work during a visit to Los Angeles, about which Stravinsky scholar Stephen Walsh writes in his essay on Stravinsky in L.A..
-- John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA. He has also annotated programs for the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles Opera, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.