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“I conducted the first performance of the Octet myself, and I was extremely nervous about doing it,” Igor Stravinsky once confessed. The premiere on October 18, 1923, at the Paris Opera house occurred at the beginning of his conducting career. In addition, the neoclassical style which Stravinsky had recently adopted greatly disappointed his contemporaries. According to Jean Cocteau, the Octet was received with a scandal du silence.

The 22-year-old Aaron Copland witnessed the first performance and described the “general feeling of mystification that followed the initial hearing. Everyone was asking why Stravinsky should have exchanged his Russian heritage, and a neoprimitive style all his own, for what looked very much like a mess of 18th-century mannerisms. The whole thing gained Stravinsky the unanimous disapproval of the press. No one could have possibly foreseen, first, that Stravinsky was to persist in this new manner of his, or, second, that the Octet was destined to influence composers all over the world in bringing the latent objectivity of modern music to full consciousness by frankly adopting the ideals, forms, and textures of the pre-Romantic era.”

The unusual scoring of the Octet, which combines four woodwind and four brass instruments, was inspired by a dream Stravinsky had one night in Biarritz in late 1922. He began to compose the work immediately and finished it in Paris the following May. The result was an emotionally restrained score based on traditional forms, filled with lively wit and elegant counterpoint. The opening Sinfonia marks the composer’s rediscovery of sonata form. Stravinsky liked to compare its slow pastoral preamble to the introductions which prefaced late Haydn symphonies. The sonata-allegro proper in E-flat features a spiky march-inspired theme and a metronomic free-forall for winds.

The second movement represents Stravinsky’s first musical essay in variation form. The waltz episode was composed first. Stravinsky then derived the 14-bar theme at the beginning of the movement from the waltz because, as he said, “I recognized it as an ideal theme for variations. I then wrote the rubans des gammes (ribbons of scales) variation as a prelude introduction to each of the other variations.” Stravinsky considered the final fugato variation in 5/8 time the most interesting episode in the entire Octet and noted, “The point of the fugato is that the theme is played in rotation by the instrumental pairs (flute-clarinet, bassoons, trumpets, trombones) which is the combination idea at the root of the Octet.” To create his fugato subject, Stravinsky inverted the intervals of his theme.

The rondoesque finale grows out of a flute cadenza at the end of the fugato. Its clean staccato lines were inspired by the clarity and economy of J.S. Bach’s Two- Part Inventions for keyboard. In the end, the movement abandons its crackling energy and impertinent attitude to conclude with the languorous syncopations of what sounds like an exotic Latin dance. — Kathy Henkel