Studies in musical abstraction signed Stravinsky

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Progress. © Charles Thibo

The master – a student? What could he possibly learn? He had written superb ballets, enchanted and scandalized the audience, he had proved time and again that he was one of the leading voices of his time, perhaps the paramount representative of Russian music in exile: Igor Stravinsky.

And still, the master felt like experimenting with sounds, and as such he was still learning. In 1914 Stravinsky wrote “Three Pieces for String Quartet” and in 1921 an “Etude for Pianola”. In 1928 Stravinsky’s arranged the four pieces to be performed by an orchestra and called it “4 Etudes pour Orchestre”. The score  calls for three flutes and piccolo, three oboes and english horn, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba, piano, harp, timpani, and strings. It is written in four movements:

I. Dance. Con moto
II. Eccentric. Moderato
III. Canticle. Largo
IV. Madrid. Allegro con moto.

Not the usual setup.

Compositional continuity

The piece saw its premiere on November 7, 1930, in Berlin, conducted by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, a friend of Stravinsky. It has Stravinsky’s signature all over it, and enthusiasts of the ballets “Rite of Spring” and the “Firebird” will hear familiar elements. Pierre Boulez has performed it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and recorded it along with “Firebird”. The two compositions reflect Stravinsky’s ideas about harmony in such a striking manner that initially I had not realized the end of the ballet and the beginning of the “Four Studies” on Boulez’ recording..

The first three  movements have been labeled by Philip Huscher “crystallized examples of [musical] abstraction”. Huscher wrote the program notes for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and he goes on by explaining that “the first is a stylized Russian dance, its melody limited to just four notes repeated in various permutations over an irregular pulse. Eccentric was inspired by the English clown Little Tich, who entertained Stravinsky in London […] The third, Canticle, is a static litany – a wonderful kaleidoscope of ever-changing, yet unmoving parts.”

Echos of the streets of Madrid

The last movement has a totally different origin. In 1916, two years after he had completed the score of the three pieces originally intended for a string quartet, Stravinsky traveled to Spain and passed many evenings in local taverns listening “to the preliminary improvisations of the guitarist and the deep-voiced singer with astonishing breath control singing her long Arab cantilena embellished with fioriture”, as he recalled. Later, when asked to write something for the pianola, he produced a little piece inspired by those Spanish sounds and it is interesting to compare this with a part of Luigi Boccherini’s Quintet No. 6: “La musica notturno della strada di Madrid”, written at the end of the 18th century.

A travel back in time – the tense period before the outbreak of World War II, the Roaring Twenties, the last hours of Stravinsky’s (imperial) Russia and the far away nostalgia from the streets of Madrid – what an accomplishment to unite these disparate elements in one composition. The master has not stopped learning.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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