Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Movements for Piano and Orchestra (1959)
Tempo = 110
Tempo = 52
Tempo = 72
Tempo = 80
Tempo = 104
A chameleonic composer to say the least, Stravinsky’s musical style underwent more radical transformations during the course of his career than perhaps any other composer to date. His styles are difficult to classify succinctly, but they are widely thought to fall into three identifiable periods: an early ‘Russian’ period, characterised by the use of Russian folk ideas, hard-edged sounds and rhythmic complexity; his subsequent ‘neoclassical’ phase (although he abhorred the term) which saw him look back to Classical and Baroque models and rejuvenate them with modern techniques; and lastly his ‘Serial’ period, in which he finally embraced the twelve-tone techniques that Arnold Schoenberg and his school had explored some years earlier.
While the division of style into distinct periods is, as with every composer, an over-simplification of their musical development, in Stravinsky’s case the changes are readily identifiable. Yet one strand of his musical outlook remained constant through his career: his distaste for over-indulgence and personal expression. In his autobiography of 1936 he wrote: ‘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.’
Later criticised for this polemic, which was essentially a reaction to the indulgent sounds of Romanticism that preceded Stravinsky’s early works, Stravinsky maintained: ‘I stand by the remark, incidentally, though today I would put it the other way around: music expresses itself.’ Indeed, the idea that ‘music expresses itself’ goes a long way to explaining the disparate styles in Stravinsky’s oeuvre, each of which is connected by the fact that it is all ‘music about music’. This is nowhere more evident than in the serial works that make up his final period, where Stravinsky explored his own belief that: ‘Composers combine notes, that's all.’ Even the titles of these late works reflect this anti-expressive attitude: the ‘imaginatively’ titled Movements for Piano and Orchestra comprises five movements which are simply titled by their tempo indications. Having previously used serial techniques only sparingly, Movements is Stravinsky’s first completely serial work, employing the same rigorous twelve-note set – first heard in the piano at the opening – across the five movements. Despite this element of rigid regularity, the movements themselves are contrasted in texture, tempo and timbre, with interlinking interludes, which function as both coda to the previous movement and prelude to the next. At barely ten minutes long, it is a dense and extremely complex work, whose contrasts are as integral to its design as the repeated twelve-note set that anchors it. On its completion, Stravinsky declared: ‘I am becoming not less but more of a serial composer’.
© Jo Kirkbride
Berg’s Lyric Suite contains impassioned music within its complex frame, a work of subtle structure and a sensuous, sonorous beauty. A vibrant directness, and an elegant precision are the hallmarks too of the music – and the conducting – of Oliver Knussen.
Knussen is a powerful advocate for one of his musical heroes, Stravinsky (his supercompressed piano concerto) and brings control and caprice to the fractured festivities of Ives’ mini-tone poem – a bone-chilling winter night enlivened by a barn dance.
Please note that Alexander Goehr’s ‘Marching to Carcassonne’ replaces Oliver Knussen’s new work for piano and orchestra in this programme.