What do you do when you drive around a sharp curve and suddenly see the road coming to a dead end in front of you? The obvious answer is to turn around and find another route forward.
Around 1920, Igor Stravinsky and other composers confronted a similar challenge. Romanticism had hit a wall. The colonialist expansion of nineteenth century Europe was disintegrating in the post-battlefield daze of an apocalyptic World War. In the almost hundred years between Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s epic 15-hour-long Ring Cycle, music had progressed in one general direction: bigger, louder and longer. Now it had finally reached its limit. A new Zeitgeist was in the air.
Neoclassicism, a label which Stravinsky despised, represented a return to the cool, pared-down structural efficiency of music before the Romantic era. Detached, dry and witty, this music blends Classical and Baroque form with the distinct sound of the twentieth century. Prokofiev (the “Classical” Symphony), Poulenc, Milhaud, and others moved in a similar direction.
Composers have been known to say some outlandish and highly debatable things about music. This quote from Stravinsky’s 1936 autobiography may fall into that category, but it’s still thought-provoking and suggests a decidedly anti-Romantic philosophy of music:
For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.
By the 1950’s, Stravinsky would move on to the twelve-tone serialism pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg (listen to Stravinsky’s Agon). But for now, let’s stay with three fun examples of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period…music which looks back in order to move forward:
Pulcinella was a 1920 ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s score is based on music which was attributed to the Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Later it was discovered that some of the music was written by contemporaries of Pergolesi. Here is what Stravinsky said about Pulcinella:
Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too.
Take a moment and listen to the music as it was originally written. Then listen to the way Stravinsky uses these Baroque blueprints to create completely new music.
This is Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orquesta de Cámara Basel:
- Sinfonia (0:00)
- Serenata (1:48)
- a: Scherzino b: Allegretto c: Andantino (4:41)
- Tarantella (8:56)
- Toccata (10:49)
- Gavotta (con due variazioni) (11:39)
- Vivo (15:27)
- a: Minuetto b: Finale (16:51)
At times the Pulcinella Suite seems like a caricature of the music on which it was based. It’s filled with sudden surprising dissonances, little rhythmic jabs and strange new voices, like the conversation between the trombone and the double bass (15:27). Every time I play Pulcinella, I’m amazed by those moments when the music seems to briefly suspend time (for example 10:32 at the end of the Tarantella and in the last bars of the Finale). Then there’s the drama of the Minuetto, which slowly builds anticipation, setting up the exuberant joy of the Finale.
Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major was written in 1931 for Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin. All of the movements open with the same distinctive chord, each time presented in a slightly different configuration. Like a Baroque concerto, a single atmosphere and tempo permeates each movement. There is also an interactive dialogue between the violin, groups of instruments and the full orchestra which suggests a traditional Concerto grosso (here is some Vivaldi for comparison). You’ll hear walking bass lines (in the first and last movements listen to the tuba and trombone lines comically rising and falling), sequences, contrapuntal lines and other details which seem to be holding up a giant sign saying, “I’m a Baroque Concerto.”
Here is a live performance with Gil Shaham:
- Tocatta (0:00)
- Aria I (5:58)
- Aria II (10:18)
- Capriccio (15:43)
Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks” was commissioned in 1937 for the thirtieth wedding anniversary of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. It was named after the couple’s estate in Washington D.C. Listen to the dialogue between instruments and enjoy the sense of rhythmic groove. There’s something fresh and almost innocent about the opening of this piece.
Here is Robert Craft conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s:
- Tempo giusto (0:00)
- Con moto (8:01)