Anti-German Sentiments in Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments

Stravinsky is often associated with Russian nationalism. Yet attributing the entirety of his music to Russian influence over-simplifies the majority of his work. Stravinsky himself acknowledges that he was not even particularly fond of his origins, despite the significant impact they made on his music.1 In fact, Stravinsky was equally influenced by French music directly after World War I. After moving to Paris in 1920, Stravinsky progressed from the Russian style he had been known for to the “Neoclassical” stage of his writing, beginning with Pulcinella in 1919.2 This difference not only demonstrated a musical divergence from his earlier works, but was also an indirect way for Stravinsky to demonstrate his anti-German sentiments after the war. Stravinsky’s sudden shift to writing in a “Neoclassical” style, demonstrated especially in his Concerto for Piano and Winds (1924,) indicates a desire to disassociate himself from the Germanic tradition by aligning himself with the clean, efficient writing promoted by the French composers.

Given Germany’s devastating attacks on Russia in WWI, contributing to the Russian revolution which resulted in his losing his property in Russia, Stravinsky had legitimate reasons for despising Germany and developing an affinity for French culture. He was very outspoken in his negative views on Germany, though he generally avoided directly implementing his political views in his music.3 Stravinsky’s actual relations with the French began even before the war, however, with his partnership with Sergei Diaghilev. Looking to bring Russian art to Paris, Diaghilev initiated a partnership with Stravinsky, collaborating with him on many works including Le Sacre du Printemps and Pulcinella.4 Stravinsky actually moved to Paris in 1920, shortly after beginning his “Neoclassical” phase in Pulcinella. His new style of composition directly correlated with French, and therefore “anti-German,” sentiments regarding music. The Concerto provides a clear example of Stravinsky rejecting norms within the Germanic concerto tradition, opting instead to write in the manner praised by his French contemporaries.

Both the instrumentation and the length of the work signify a move away from the traditional Germanic concerto into the more contemporary French style. By choosing to write exclusively for winds, Stravinsky is embracing the Debussian idea of writing a “less cluttered kind of music.”5 Stravinsky himself, describing the Octet he also wrote exclusively for wind instruments, stated that the timbre created by wind instruments was crucial in realizing “the certain rigidity of form [he] had in mind more than other instruments,” acknowledging that string instruments were “more vague.”6 The traditional German orchestra was composed largely of strings, and the use of winds in any concerto or symphonic work was used mostly for color, not usually for melodic or harmonic content. The briefness of the work is also an indication that Stravinsky was wishing to disassociate himself with the vast compositions of the Germanic tradition. Compared with the expansive concerti of Beethoven and Brahms, often featuring opening movements lasting over 20 minutes, Stravinsky’s concerto contrastingly lasts under 20 minutes in its entirety.

The work also features formal and stylistic aspects which distinguish it as a distinctly French work. The first movement follows a distinct Sonata form in mm. 33-313, complete with cadences (with m. 64 and m. 210 signifying the entrance of the second theme with Imperfect Authentic Cadences in the relative key of C Major, and mm. 173-178 featuring a dominant lock signaling the Recapitulation,) a cadenza (mm. 262-283,) and a coda (mm. 284-313.) Yet, the movement is also bookended by material that is seemingly unrelated to the rest of the work. This Largo introduction in mm. 1-32, featuring material later repeated in second half of the coda in mm. 314-328, is actually the most “French” section of the work, as the slow tempo and dotted rhythms are typical elements of a 17th-Century French Overture.7 As opposed to the concertos of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, Stravinsky shies away from contrasting themes in the movement, instead relying on a consistent, driving rhythm and character. The relentless 16th notes, scalar passages (mm. 59-69,) complex counterpoint (mm. 70-86,) and lack of tempo variation are all elements typical for Bach, a composer that the French always held in the highest esteem as atypical of German ideals.8

 The Concerto, among many of Stravinsky’s other works, faced horrible premieres in both Paris under the direction of Koussevitzky and in Germany under Furtwängler.9 Clearly, Stravinsky was not writing this music for the sole reason of pleasing his audiences and making money (a skill he later demonstrated well with his Tango for Piano in 1940.)10 The music that Stravinsky wrote during his “Neoclassical” period was clearly important to him for reasons other than popularity. Though not often played either in his lifetime or afterwards, the Concerto provides a clear example of Stravinsky’s purpose for writing music. The work not only demonstrates Stravinsky’s ever-evolving compositional style, but also represents his political voice through its French compositional elements.

 

1 Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, trans. Arthur Knodel and Ingolf Dahl, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970,) 93.

2 Roman Vlad, Stravinsky, trans. Frederick Fuller, (London: Oxford University Press, 1978,) 75.

3 Stephen Walsh, “Stravinsky, Igor,” Oxford Music Online (2015,) accessed December 14, 2015, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/52818pg4#S52818.4

4 Roman Vlad, ibid., 12.

5 Claude Debussy, “Three Articles for Music Journals in Morgan,” Source Readings in Music History, volume 7, The Twentieth Century, ed. Oliver Strunk (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 163.

6 Igor Stravinsky, “Some Words About My Octet,” in Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, ed. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, 2nd ed. (Belmont: Thomson, 2008), 389.

7 George Gow Waterman and James R. Anthony, “French Overture,” Oxford Music Online (2015,) accessed December 14, 2015, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/10210.

8 Jean Cocteau, The Cock and the Harlequin, 2nd ed., trans. Rollo Myers (London: Verso, 1926), 10. Cocteau, one of the harshest critics of “anti-French” music, nevertheless joins Debussy and Ravel in praising Bach.

9 Igor Stravinsky, Themes and Conclusions, (London: Faber and Faber Lmt., 1972,) 226.

10 Stephen Walsh,“Stravinsky, Igor,” ibid. Facing economic hardship in America, Stravinsky composed the Tango exclusively for commercial purposes.