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Sir Eugene Goossens conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
Those who find themselves out of sympathy with the more hieratic aspects of Igor Stravinsky’s “neoclassic” post-Sacre style, or who are baffled by the explorations of serial technique displayed in the works written after 1950 will find the Symphony in Three Movements something of a “haven of refuge.” For there are a number of works in Stravinsky’s output which represent a genuine creative synthesis of certain styles and techniques that he would seem to have been pursuing virtually as ends in themselves. The Symphony in Three Movements, like the Symphony of Psalms, can be said to represent one of these “way stations,” wherein the perceptive listener can establish a frame of reference in relation to the familiar work of the youthful Stravinsky (in particular Le Sacre du Printemps) and that of the “middle period” Stravinsky of the 1930’s and 1940’s. It is even possible to “read into” the chromatic elements exhibited in the Symphony in Three Movements the first hints of the road that would lead the composer to explore the seemingly (for him) alien world of 12-tone and serial music. The fugato subject in the finale provides an instance in point.
The most immediately striking aspect of the Symphony in Three Movements on first hearing is the wealth of coloristic and harmonic dynamism found in the first and last movements, together with the patterns of rhythmic tension we have so long regarded as Stravinsky trademarks. There is no stage or programmatic text implied in this score. Yet it is “gesture music” par excellence. Having witnessed what dance treatment has done for the so-called “absolute” music of the Basle Concerto for strings via Jerome Robbins’ The Cage, it is fascinating to speculate on the balletic possibilities for this Symphony in Three Movements. Be that as it may, this is music with considerable aural excitement and no little intellectual fascination.
It was written for the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and it was with that ensemble in Carnegie Hall that Stravinsky conducted the world premiere on January 24, 1936. Stravinsky’s orchestra might be described as the “enlarged classical” type, with the enlargements mostly in the percussion and plectral department - bass drum, piano, harp. The latter two instruments play prominent and interesting roles throughout.
The first movement has been styled Overture (Allegro). The composer’s friend, Ingolf Dahl, writing in the Summer 1946 issue of the League of Composers publication, Modern Music, tells us: “The over-all plan of the first movement is one of two outer ‘tutti’ sections framing a central ‘solo’ part. The approximate time proportion of those three sections is 2 : 3 : 1. The third section brings a modified return of some of the motivic material of the first and second in reverse order.” The Andante second movement serves as an intermezzo, serenely classic in mien, wherein flute and harp are the chief protagonists. Without pause we are plunged into the turbulent opening pages of the Con moto third movement. “The movement,” asserts Dahl, “opens with stamping beats in luminous C Major, as if in affirmation of the chord which closed the first movement. The following parts are organized in free sectional arrangement which at first impression seems to give the movement a somewhat episodic character. But closer hearing reveals how neatly these sections are balanced. In discussing their relationships we should remember that Stravinsky calculated his works in terms of time-units, and thus we find, in spite of shifting tempi, più mosso sections, etc., the astonishingly simple proportions (in minutes) of 1 : 2 : 1 : 1 : 1. A chart could clarify most easily how in these five sections motion and rest, loudness and softness, polyphony and chordal structure, repetition and non-repetition are weighed against each other and brought into equilibrium.”
Regarding the expressive aspects of the Symphony in Three Movements, Stravinsky - an avowed and unrelenting enemy of programs as applied to absolute music - has said: “But during the process of creation in this our arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope, of continual torments, of tension, and at last, cessation and relief, it may be that all those repercussions have left traces in this Symphony. It is not I to judge.”
Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto, composed for Woody Herman’s Band, would seem in some respects to be a chip from the floor of the workshop that produced the Symphony in Three Movements. Yet, in its brief span - also three movements - it has quite a special identity of its own. Scoring is for 6 saxes, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, guitar, harp, piano, bass, and percussion. The first performance by Woody Herman’s Band was at a New York Carnegie Hall Concert on March 25, 1946. The three movements are Moderato, Andante, Moderato. The Spring 1946 issue of Modern Music offers a delightful summation of Ebony Concerto by Dinald Fuller: “The piece is of course expertly contrived for the group; the sonority is delicate yet full and varied. Stravinsky has succeeded amazingly in combining jazz elements with the lighter side of his late neo-classical manner. The gay but restrained first movement wavers insidiously between styles, seems often about to become out-and-out jazz yet remains something completely itself. The slow movement, like a reconsidered blues, ponders its unhappiness with gentle concern. I should, however, have liked more excitement in the finale, where a bit of sound and fury would have been effective. The Concerto seems a touching yet very wide-awake rumination on what once gave Stravinsky material for a very rowdy Ragtime.”