Ode for Orchestra (1943)
By Bernard Jacobson
Written for the concert The Composter’s Advocate: Serge Koussevitzky, performed on March 17, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
To a composer of Stravinsky’s tastes and creative habits, the 1943 commission to write a piece in memory of Natalie Koussevitzky must have been irresistible. All through his career, Stravinsky was in the habit of commemorating recent and more distant deaths in his music, distributing his commemorative favors more or less impartially among composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, and Gesualdo), practitioners of the other arts (Dylan Thomas, Raoul Dufy, Aldous Huxley, and T.S. Eliot), one performer (Alphonse Onnou), and public figures and patrons (President Kennedy, Prince Max Egon zu Fürstenberg, and Helen Buchanan Seeger). He had, moreover, already dedicated one work–the 1924 Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments–to Madame Koussevitzky in her lifetime.
For his tribute upon her death, he pressed into service a movement he had already composed for an abortive Orson Welles project, a film version of Jane Eyre. Written for a hunting scene, this lively music became the central Eclogue of the Ode’s three movements, framed by a Eulogy and a concluding Epitaph. The lively 6/8 bustle of the middle movement may seem inappropriate for a memorial work, but one of the classical functions of the pastoral eclogue was to pay respect to a shepherd after his death, and in any case it was a fundamental aspect of much ancient Greek art to celebrate life even while memorializing death. The result certainly makes for a satisfying and well-balanced 11-minute whole, the propulsive rhythms and fluent counterpoint of the Eclogue nicely complementing the graver tones of the outer movements. A prevailing emphasis on wind and brass sonorities, from the austere fanfare on horns and trumpets that opens the Eulogy to the tranquilly flowing chordal writing for woodwinds and horns toward the end of the Epitaph, recalls the spirit and manner of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which Stravinsky had composed 23 years earlier in memory of Debussy.
In his indispensable monograph on Stravinsky and his music, Eric Walter White notes the curious circumstance that “the first performances of both these memorial works . . . were conducted by Koussevitzky, and in each case the result was unsatisfactory.” The premiere of the Ode seems, indeed, to have been a disaster. One of the trumpet players failed to transpose his part, and so played all his notes in the wrong key; and two systems of score on the last page had been mistakenly copied as one. As Stravinsky wryly commented some time afterward, “They were played in that way too, and my simple triadic piece concluded in a cacophony that would now win me new esteem at Darmstadt. This sudden change in harmonic style did not excite Koussevitzky’s suspicion, however, and some years later he actually confided to me that he preferred ‘the original version’.”