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