Violin Concerto in D Major (1931)

By Maya Pritsker

Written for the concert The Neoclassical Mirror, performed on Nov 21, 2003 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Igor Stravinsky did not like the term “neoclassicism.” “The word is overused. It means nothing at all,” stated the composer in an interview in 1930, a year before his Violin Concerto was written. The term stayed however, and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto is considered a fine example of neoclassical style. Though like any great work of art, there is much more to it than any one term can offer.

During the 1920s, Igor Stravinsky continued his quest for an “architecturally” constructed music, devoid of psychological content or descriptiveness, and based on strictly musical technique. In almost every interview during that time he talks about his interest in structure, geometry, and order. “My goal is form,” was his motto.

Where did this aversion to psychological content and open emotionalism come from? Was it the influence of Russian “eurasianism” with its utopian belief in the resurrection of the ancient tribal “accord,” which rejected individual feelings and desires, as opposed to (quoting his talk with Romain Rolland) “decadent” German culture? Was this interest in pure form the result of Stravinsky’s separation from his homeland, which he saw for the last time just a few days before the outbreak of the World War I, thus losing an important cultural ground? Did the desire to “run away from romanticism” come as a natural move of the historical pendulum (or, rather turn on the art spiral), which Stravinsky recognized earlier than other composers? Or was it the result of his natural inclination towards clarity and balance? After all, he grew up in St. Petersburg, where classicism reigned supreme in architecture as well as in other arts and experienced a quasi-revival in Diaghilev’s Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) circle, with which Stravinsky was involved since the late nineteenth century.

No matter what the reasons behind this stylistic development, during the 1920s Stravinsky wrote an impressive chain of compositions in which he explored new possibilities using old principles, forms and procedures; first and foremost, the polyphony of Bach and his predecessors. (The list starts with Pulcinella and includes Symphonies for Wind Instruments, Serenade in A, Oedipus Rex, and Apollon Musagète, among others.) Baroque and classicism became, using Stravinsky’s own words, starting points for his own creative work, and he proved that “the composer can re-use the past and at the same time move in a forward direction.”

By the year 1929, Stravinsky, who since 1920 had lived in France (after moving there with his wife and three children from Switzerland), was well known in Europe and America, which he first visited in 1925. Around that time, his publisher suggested that the 47 year old composer write a concerto for the violinist Samuel Dushkin, a Polish Jew by origin, a New York student of Leopold Auer and an adopted child of the American composer Blair Fairchild, who eventually paid for the commission. Stravinsky hesitated. He did not play violin himself and did not write violin virtuoso pieces, though in his Histoire du Soldat (1918) he uses a violin solo as an impersonator of the devil. For several years until Oedipus Rex (1927), he even avoided strings in his scores altogether because of a certain suspiciousness he had of the warmth and romantic expressiveness of their sound.

Stravinsky set to work after Paul Hindemith assured him that his lack of experience could only help in creating something original, and Dushkin, who had turned out to be an intelligent and cultural person, expressed eagerness to be on hand to give advice. In December of 1931 Dushkin played the Concerto for the first time. The premiere took place in Berlin with the Berlin Broadcasting Orchestra. Stravinsky conducted. Ten years later, one of Balanchine’s greatest ballets was created using this score, which should not have come as surprise since the music is brilliant instrumental theater, full of gestures, dynamic exchanges, pulsating meters and capricious irregular rhythms. It also contains some of the composer’s most beautiful lyrical music.

The Concerto is laconic: the four contrasting movements last a total of 22 minutes. The movements’ titles – Toccata, Aria I, Aria II and Capriccio – point to a baroque model, though they were added after the completion of the score as a compass for listeners. However, the composer, as always, does not rely on existing schemes. He listens to demands of his thematic material, follows its own logic and builds unique structures.

The seed for the composition, its “passport” as Stravinsky called it, is a dissonant chord, which opens each movement (and some sections inside) like a call for attention, a signal for a curtain opening. The theater allusion is justified by what follows: Toccata themes pop up as characters in commedia dell’arte and the mood is energetic and bright with a touch of humor and irony. Stravinsky combines baroque melodic “gestures” (such as melismatic figurations or scales) with his signature asymmetrical rhythms. “Horizontal” competition of groups of instruments, typical for the old Concerto Grosso, is spiced up with modern contrasting juxtaposition of distant registers and timbres. Starting the Toccata movement with a loud dissonance, Stravinsky ends it with an unexpected triumphant consonant chord. Sometimes the music – with all of these flitting episodes of different character – seems almost polystilistic. A very modern piece was created out of some old principles.

The Aria I is a two-part polyphonic invention, but its theme, first “sung” by solo violin, is unusually wide in range, and the middle section brings in some dark shadows. However, even this hint of drama is brushed away in the very last bar by a brief, light and “smiling” violin passage.

A sarabande from a Bach suite comes to mind during the first bars of Aria II: expressive violin cantilena floats above a slow succession of chords. The strings, which where used quite economically in previous movements (Stravinsky still preferred the sharp coolness of the winds), dominate here, thus producing one of the rare examples of warmth and melancholy in Stravinsky’s music.

The Capriccio, with its syncopated rhythms, obsessive ostinati and a vivid row of contrasting themes/masks brings back the mood of Toccata, but the blend includes a more evident element of jazz. As one Berlin critic pointed out after the Concerto’s premiere 72 years ago, Stravinsky created an “amusing, incredibly witty music of inspired refinement, music of a thousand touches, and scored as only Stravinsky knows how.”