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Programme Notes

Information for Wed 13 Jun 2007 7.30pm

Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 1


Debussy (orch Colin Matthews) Three Préludes Stravinsky Petrushka

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) Symphony in Three Movements (1942–45)

1 Crotchet = 160 2 Andante – più mosso – tempo 1 3 Con moto

‘The more characteristic a work of Stravinsky, the further it is from the symphonic idea’ wrote Robert Simpson in the long-superseded Pelican guide to the Symphony. Although Simpson may have been rather prescriptive in admitting the Symphony in Three Movements into the canon of 20th-century symphonies, he certainly admired this ‘brilliant and original work’, and he was right in the sense that the young Stravinsky’s attempt to write a well-made symphony under the guidance of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov – the E flat specimen of 1905–07 ranked as his official Opus One – has no individuality at all, while the Symphony in Three Movements is an utterly characteristic and dynamic masterpiece of his maturity. The hybrid origins of tonight’s work did, in fact, cause Stravinsky to wonder whether he ought not to have called the result ‘Three Symphonic Movements’. The first movement material, composed in 1942, was originally intended as a dark, tense concerto for orchestra with a role for the piano employed, as it often had been in the Capriccio for piano and orchestra, concertante style. The piano then bowed out to harp in what became the second movement – sketches for Stravinsky’s unlikely (and swiftly terminated) contribution to Franz Werfel’s film The Song of Bernadette (not the only film music to be reworked in an orchestral score –

the Ode’s second movement, a hunting scene, had been intended for Stevenson’s Jane Eyre). The finale was completed some time later, before the New York premiere of 1946.

What unites the Symphony in Three Movements is the powering rhythmic intensity which holds the sectional structure together. It is the most insistent since The Rite of Spring over 30 years earlier and it has its roots in Stravinsky’s response to newsreel images of the Second World War which, in an unguarded moment, he specifically attached to certain sections. In the first movement, the timpani’s ‘rumba’ – ‘associated in my imagination with the movements of war machines’, he told Robert Craft – and the spiky shuffling of piano and strings yield to brighter, more lightly-scored sequences; but the ‘war’ element gains the upper hand in insistent, semiquaver figures for clarinet, piano and strings. These in turn lead to full-orchestral explosions which Stravinsky described as ‘instrumental conversations showing the Chinese people scratching and digging in their fields’ before being overrun by scorched-earth tactics. The writing for woodwind that follows is surely a requiem, although thanks to the movement’s uniform tempo, tension never slackens.


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