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Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) reluctance to continue indefinitely to plow a particular musical field even though it had been yielding bountiful, and marketable, crops was an intrinsic quality of one of the most inquiring, facile, courageous mentalities in the annals of music. Further, the composer was not one to think that he had to sow only new seeds; in the case of serial music it is apparent that he was perfectly willing to till the soil planted by the second Viennese school – Schoenberg, Berg, and particularly, Webern. Even so, Stravinsky came late to the 12-tone method; in fact, not until Schoenberg and his two disciples were dead did he begin to move in their direction. Even then the process was cautious, as can be observed from the following quotes which trace his steps. The first is from an interview he gave in Paris in May 1952:

“Serialism? Personally I find quite enough to do with seven notes of the scale. Nevertheless, the serial composers are the only ones with a discipline I respect. Whatever else serial music may be, it is certainly pure music. Only, the serialists are prisoners of the figure twelve, while I feel greater freedom with the figure seven.” The foregoing opinion apparently did not close, but rather opened the door to Stravinsky’s examination of serialism, which, according to the composer’s close associate, Robert Craft, turned out to be of the Webern rather than the Schoenberg brand. Craft has written:

“In the years between 1952 and 1955 no composer can have lived in closer contact with the music of Webern. Stravinsky was familiar with the sound of the Webern Cantatas and of the instrumental songs at a time when some of these works had not yet been performed in Europe. The challenge of Webern has been the strongest in his entire life. It has gradually brought him to the belief that serial technique is a possible means of musical composition.”

Confirmation of Stravinsky’s regard for Webern came in June 1955 in his own words: “The 15th of September 1945, the day of Anton Webern’s death, should be a day of mourning for any receptive musician. We must hail not only this great composer but also a real hero. Doomed to a total failure in a deaf world of ignorance and indifference he inexorably kept on cutting out his diamonds, his dazzling diamonds, the mines of which he had such a perfect knowledge.” This expression from a musician of Stravinsky’s celebrity must have been deeply felt, yet his first forays into serialism – Agon, the Canticum Sacrum, etc. – were somewhat tentative. Only with Threni (1958) and the present Movements (1959) did Stravinsky complete the transition to serialist, although, not surprisingly, he treated the method with a freedom one could expect of one of our century’s most confirmed individualists.

Unlike Capriccio, which was a product of his own desire to write a piano work, Movements was composed on commission – by a Swiss industrialist for his pianist wife Margrit Weber, for the sum of $15,000. Mrs. Weber premiered the work at a Stravinsky Festival in New York’s Town Hall on January 10, 1960, the composer conducting. Although Herr Weber had asked for a work of between 15 and 20 minutes, Stravinsky fulfilled the commission with a highly compressed, concise piece lasting about 10 minutes. According to the Stravinsky/Craft Dialogues and a Diary, the Webers must have demurred somewhat about the Stravinskian economy, for, after receiving a letter from them while in Japan, the composer commented that he would “have to add another minute or two of music.”

Still, Movements is Spartan in all of its components. The piano is prominent throughout, but not in a solo concerto sense. Rather, it assumes the principal role in each of the many chamber music ensembles whose instrumentation constantly changes. There are five movements linked by four piano-less interludes that anticipate in tempo the section to follow. The frequent meter changes and polyrhythmic combinations (which Stravinsky said are meant to be heard vertically) give the music an amorphous quality, thus they veil the highly organized serialism that is the antithesis of formlessness.

-- Orrin Howard, who annotated Los Angeles Philharmonic programs for more than 20 years while serving as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute regularly to the Philharmonic program book.

DETAILS:

Orchestration:
2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), oboe, English horn, clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, harp, celesta, strings, and solo piano.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 8, 1982, with soloist Michel Béroff, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting.