Stravinsky (3) The 1930’s

STRAVINSKY in the 1930’s


Stravinsky in the thirties turned out not to be that different from Stravinsky of the twenties, nor that much different from the Stravinsky of the forties for that matter. From a historical perspective one is apt to look for changes according to the calendar but the chance date of an anniversary rarely affects anything. Of course there may be changes but nothing like the changes he had already made after 1913.


The 1920’s are generally summed up as “the Roaring 20’s”; The Jazz Age; the Charleston and the black bottoms, the flappers and Rudolph Valentino. All good labels.  The 1930’s on the other hand gave us the Great Depression and the Clouds of War. In the world of music this was reflected by a more serious approach, a growing move towards neo-romanticism from the likes of William Walton in England with his first symphony and an emerging school of American composers like Roy Harris and Samuel Barber, frequently inspired by the presence of the now muted Sibelius.


None of this seemed to affect Stravinsky very much and so this composer of many styles was carrying on much as he had been doing. He was in the middle of his neo-classical period attracted to classical subjects. From Graeco-Roman he now, in 1930, turned his attention to another symphony, an expression which, for Stravinsky, had no bearing on sonata form as one understood the word. This time it was to be the Symphony of Psalms, based on the Old Testament, a three-movement choral symphony. It was commissioned by Koussevitsky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Stravinsky, a religious man, had had in mind for some time the psalm-symphony idea. The three movements are played without a break. The texts are sung by the chorus in Vulgate Latin. Mind you, if you can distinguish between classical Latin and fourth century Vulgate Latin, you are a better homo than me Gungus Dinus. Stravinsky said that “it is not a symphony in which I have included Psalms to be sung. On the contrary, it is the singing of the Psalms that I am symphonizing.”


One noticeable development was more a nod towards an early composer without sexing up that composer’s work. Suddenly he was writing works with titles giving the key, Violin Concerto in D and Symphony in C. This was Stravinsky saying, “Hello, I can write traditional music you know”. The violin concerto, written in 1931, is a nod towards Bach and was written for the violinist Samuel Dushkin who lent his expertise to its composition. It is not your traditional violin concerto of the Brahms or Max Bruch ilk but more a chamber work lasting some 22 minutes, seemingly influenced by his own Soldier’s Tale and the devilish quality of the soldier’s fiddle. It is set in four movements rather than the traditional three, with titles such as Toccata, Aria and Capriccio. Each movement opens with the same chord, undeniably Stravinsky leaving his calling card. Its first performance was in Berlin under Klemperer.


It was his teaming up with Dushkin in 1931 that turned Stravinsky towards chamber music in the years from 1931 to 1934. Duo Concertant is another neo-classical composition dating from 1932 for violin and piano which he dedicated to Dushkin. The pair gave recitals together across Europe for some years following. Other chamber works of the early thirties included “Suite Italienne” , based on Pulcinella and written for the cellist Piatigorsky and Suite Pastorale written for violin (Dushkin) and piano with a version also for wind quintet and piano.


One influence from these early years of the thirties may come as a surprise, Benito Mussolini. Stravinsky is said to have remained a confirmed monarchist all his life and loathed the Bolsheviks. In 1930, he claimed, “I don’t believe that anyone venerates Mussolini more than I. I have an overpowering urge to render homage to your Duce. He is the saviour of Italy and – let us hope – Europe”. Later, after a private audience with Mussolini, he stated “I told him that I felt like a fascist myself.” On the other hand, when it came to the Nazis, Stravinsky’s works were placed on the proscribed list of “Entartaete Musik”, Degenerate Music, better described as ex-communicated composers, particularly Jewish or communist ones. There was a special section reserved for Stravinsky who lodged a formal appeal to establish his true Russian credentials and, demeaning himself, declared, “I loathe all communism, Marxism, the execrable Soviet monster, and also all liberalism, democratism, atheism, etc..” It did him little good. All that his appeal could infer was that he wished to dissociate himself from the others who were there. His fawning of Mussolini is in absolute contrast to that of Arturo Toscanini, who, stood as a fascist candidate in 1919 and then fell out with the party. He refused to display Mussolini’s photograph or conduct the Fascist anthem at La Scala. He raged to a friend, “If I were capable of killing a man, I would kill Mussolini.” He vowed not to return to Italy until the fall of Fascism”.


The status of the Swiss Family Stravinsky was to change in 1934 and it became the French Family Stravinsky instead. Why then, you may ask, after residing in France since 1920.? According to two of my authorities Stravinsky needed French citizenship to apply to apply for a vacancy which had occurred in the Académie Française. However, this is flawed and here I must be fair to Stravinsky. He applied for French nationality in 1934 for whatever reason.



Stravinsky was a man ahead of his time but even he was not to know in 1934 Paul Dukas, composer of the popular Sorcerer’s Apprentice as well as a brilliant symphony (illustrated by Matthew), was going to die the next year. His death left a vacant seat in the Académie Française much coveted by Stravinsky. However the appointment was at the behest of the members of the Académie, not the French government. On the whole the Académie are a conservative lot and would not have been keen to have someone who has just become French, thinking they can just barge in to become an immortel. Damn it, it’s a bit like Gérard Depardieu becoming Russian, just the other way round. So who did get the hot spot? Hands up any of you who have heard of Florent Schmidt and could name a work of his. No.   Well he wrote over 130 opuses and, as I have previously related, he lost his glasses in the Rite of Spring riot.   Actually they were pince nez and difficult to stay on during a dust up. Florent Schmidt came from Alsace Lorraine   but despite his name he is as French as

Arsène Wenger, who hails from the same area. He was rated highly until 1940 but then dropped out of favour. He wrote a ballet, La Tragédie de Salomé, in 1907. The rhythmic syncopations, poly-rhythms, percussively treated chords, bitonality, and scoring of Schmitt’s work are said to anticipate the Rite of Spring. Stravinsky acknowledged that Schmitt’s ballet gave him greater joy than any work he had heard in a long time. The two fell out with each other in later years, and Stravinsky reversed his opinion of Schmitt’s works. Stravinsky was somewhat miffed not to have been elected. Schmidt’s election would have done nothing to improve that relationship.

In 1934 the French Family Stravinsky moved back to Paris and resided at the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Now that is no garret for some bohemian artist. It is an area you can live in, money being no object. It is one of the most fashionable streets in the world, home to virtually every major global fashion house. Yes, and also having at No 55 the Elysée Palace, official residence of the President of the Republic.

Now Stravinsky returned to sung melodrama with dance. In 1933 Ida Rubinstein commissioned Pénélope, a kind of Orpheus story with Pénélope hitching up with Pluto in Hades for three months a year and coming back to earth for the following nine months. It is not played very often and it is difficult to obtain a CD without having the Firebird and the Rite of Spring included for the umpteenth time. It was one of Stravinsky’s gripes in an interview given in 1934 in London to the Gramophone magazine that people wanted to listen to the same old stuff being churned out instead of the latest compositions.

The Concerto for Two Pianos was Stravinsky’s first work after becoming a French citizen and completed in1935. It is considered to be one of his major compositions for piano during his neo-classical period. He had begun work on the first movement of the Concerto in 1931 after his violin concerto. He had in mind something to be played by him and his son if they found themselves in a city with no resident orchestra. He had some difficulty in the composition and turned to the Pleyel company to build him a double piano with one keyboard fixed to the back of the other so that Stravinsky could play both parts whilst composing. The inspiration for the concerto is said to have come from the variations of Brahms and Beethoven.

Much of Stravinsky’s commissions were now coming from America although he was not to reside there till 1939. A particularly felicitous period in his catalogue follows although one would never guess that Stravinsky was going through the most painful of experiences in his private life at the time. First came the ballet “Jeu de Cartes” (The Card Game) commissioned by George Balanchine and mounted by him for the first Stravinsky Festival given by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1937. Stravinsky, himself a keen poker player, wrote it in three, not acts, not scenes, but deals. At the start of each deal, the same theme is announced as the cards are shuffled before intrigue and deceit follow. There is a lot of bluffing in this game and in the music also. Stravinsky parodies and combines various fragments from Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Strauss’ Fledermaus with musical allusions to Beethoven, Ravel and Tchaikovsky. Musically the blood is actively flowing again compared to the anaemia of the statuesque classical dramas which had more recently dominated his output. Co-incidentally, Arthur Bliss wrote a ballet “Checkmate” based also on a game of chess for the Vic-Wells in 1937. It is curious that Stravinsky’s ideas seemed sometimes to follow what others had just been doing.

Following Jeu de Cartes came the Concerto in E flat, better known as Dumbarton Oaks. It demonstrates Stravinsky’s ability to create something completely modern whilst paying homage to the musical past. It was commissioned by Robert Woods Bliss, a wealthy American diplomat, for his and his wife’s 30th wedding anniversary. It was first performed in their home, Dumbarton Oaks, in Washington DC. Bliss had by then retired from the foreign service but had had a distinguished career, including postings in St. Petersburg and Paris. The work was completed in Paris in late March 1938. It is based on Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, and is in three short movements. The first performance took place on the Bliss’s anniversary in the Great Hall of Dumbarton Oaks, a 19th century Georgian-style mansion. Stravinsky was laid up with tuberculosis at the time and unable to travel. Bliss came out of retirement during the war to work for the State Department. Dumbarton Oaks was used to host two international conferences in 1944 which he organized and that led to the setting up of UNO. The Bliss’s later made a charitable donation of Dumbarton Oaks with its collection of Byzantine and medieval art and its research library to Harvard University.


The third work in this group was the Symphony in C commissioned by Mrs Woods. On disc it is usually coupled with his Symphony in Three Movements but there is a whole world war which separates the two. The symphony in C is half and half. Half was composed in France and Switzerland against the background of sickness and bereavement. The second half was written in 1939 after Stravinsky became resident in America. The symphony is in the traditional four movements and is entirely abstract. One writer refers to it as in the ‘pure music’ styles of Bach, Haydn and Beethoven, which is about as moronic as it is oxymoronic. Whether it should rank as a symphony or ballet is to be discussed by Matthew but Martha Graham did choreograph the work in the late 1980s. Just to confuse matters, she named the ballet “Persephone” which it is not and only used three of the movements.


Stravinsky disclaimed any link between his personal experiences and the symphony’s content. The domestic background to this particular period was one of acute tragedy and suffering. His wife, Katya had long suffered from tuberculosis. He could only recall living in Paris as the unhappiest time of all. Both he and his eldest daughter, Ludmila, in turn contracted the disease from which Ludmila died in 1938. Katya, died of tuberculosis a year later, in March 1939. Stravinsky himself spent five months in hospital, during which time his mother died. These three hammer blows of fate are virtually Mahlerian. It does not seem to have had any perceptible effect on Stravinsky’s music compared to, say, that of Josef Suk and the Asrael symphony.


The outbreak of war in September 1939 was in no way the reason for Stravinsky going to America. With hindsight one knows of the collapse of France in June 1940 but Stravinsky was not leaving to scupper off for the duration. He had undertaken a lecturing post at Harvard and the widowed Stravinsky was not emigrating as he set off alone at the end of September . Vera de Bosset with whom he had shared a steady fifty-fifty relationship for twenty years followed him in January, and they were married in Massachusetts in March 1940. Pretty fast off the mark. Now the American years, half of Stravinsky’s compositional life, were about to begin.