IGOR FEDOROVICH STRAVINSKY was born on June 18, 1882, in Oranienbaum, now Lomonosov, Russia, and died in New York City on April 6, 1971. The full orchestral score was completed on September 25, 1931, and the first performance took place on October 23 of that year with Samuel Dushkin as soloist and the composer conducting the Berlin Radio Orchestra. With Serge Koussevitzky conducting, Dushkin gave the first performances in the US at Boston Symphony concerts in January 1932. Tossy Spivakovsky was the first violinist to play the work with the SFS, with Pierre Monteux conducting, in November 1948. Gil Shaham was soloist in the most recent performances, in June 2013, with Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium. The orchestra consists of two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and high clarinet in E-flat, three bassoons (third doubling contrabassoon), four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, eight first and second violins, six violas, four cellos, and four basses. Performance time: about twenty-two minutes.
The idea that Stravinsky should write a violin concerto was born in the minds of Willy Strecker, head of the German publishing house of Schott & Sons (an agent for Serge Koussevitzky’s Édition Russe de Musique, which had handled most of Stravinsky’s work since Petrushka), and of Samuel Dushkin, a Polish-born violinist who lived in Paris. Strecker agreed to put the matter to Stravinsky. The composer was reluctant at first, being suspicious of virtuosos in general. He also had doubts about his ability to write something at once brilliant and practicable for the violin, an instrument with which he did not feel at home, but Strecker assured him that Dushkin, a cultivated musician as well as an accomplished instrumentalist, would be available to offer advice. Dushkin, for his part, was taken by the idea that he might be Stravinsky’s collaborator as Joseph Joachim had been for Brahms and Ferdinand David for Mendelssohn. At any rate, a meeting was arranged at the Streckers’ villa in Wiesbaden, composer and virtuoso proved to like one another, and work was under way as soon as Stravinsky’s concert schedule allowed. The two men met at various times in Paris, at the Stravinsky house just outside Nice, and in Voreppe, a village near Grenoble, where Stravinsky wrote the finale while Dushkin learned the first three movements. Dushkin recalled that one day at lunch in a Paris restaurant, Stravinsky “took out a piece of paper and wrote down [a] chord and asked me if it could be played. I had never seen a chord with such an enormous stretch, from the E to the top A, and I said ‘No.’ Stravinsky said sadly, ‘Quel dommage’ [What a pity]. After I got home, I tried it, and, to my astonishment, I found that in that register, the stretch of the eleventh was relatively easy to play, and the sound fascinated me. I telephoned Stravinsky at once to tell him that it could be done. When the concerto was finished, more than six months later, I understood his disappointment when I first said ‘No.’ This chord, in a different dress, begins each of the four movements. Stravinsky himself calls it his ‘passport’ to that concerto.”
To begin with, the passport, plus three further upbeating chords for the soloist with plucked cellos and basses, opens the way to a bright toccata. It is march-like at first, but extra beats and elided ones deliciously subvert the tread that the trumpets, so neatly supported by horns and bassoons, want to establish. Actually, it turns out that the trumpets are not so serious on this issue of steadiness either. Here, too, it seems that the question of upbeats and downbeats remains unsettled. Characteristically, Stravinsky presents material that partakes of all the clichés of stability in the most mercurial way possible. Nothing, when it comes back, is ever quite the same.
However much Stravinsky leaned on Dushkin for help with the violin part—and Dushkin’s collaboration is acknowledged on the first page of the printed score—the orchestral sound and the whole idea of how to use solo and orchestra together is unmistakably Stravinsky’s own. The orchestra is not actually so very small (though the number of strings is kept down), but the work sounds as though scored for brilliant chamber orchestra. There are very few bars for anything like the full band, and those that do occur mostly involve short chords for accent and punctuation. The violin soloist, moreover, finds herself constantly in the role of chamber musician, duet partner, and even accompanist. Stravinsky’s flair for making fresh presentations of the familiar is nowhere so evident in this concerto as in matters of color and texture.
The two arias in the middle of the concerto are in sharp contrast to each other as well as to the bright, eighteenth-centuryish poppings and bubblings of the outer movements. Aria I, like the Toccata, begins with the passport chord plus three more chords of upbeat. The gesture leads here to music whose pulse is actually faster than that of the first movement. The spirit is that of sublimely elegant salon music, but the middle section surprises us by extending the idiom, embracing a gentle gravity so characteristic of Apollo—or Apollon musagète as it was first called—Stravinsky’s ballet score of 1927-28. Aria II is the concerto’s slow movement, a latter-day view of an expressively embellished Bach adagio. Charles Rosen has called Stravinsky the greatest melodist among twentieth-century composers; this aria is eloquent support for such a claim. If the passport chord was a long and poignant sigh at the beginning of Aria II (though with a sharp cutting-edge), at the start of the Capriccio-finale the soloist touches the sound for no more than one fourth of a second. It is a springboard from which dazzling D-major scales are launched, themselves leading to further amusements and delights, including the charming outrage of the concertmaster’s offer to compete with the soloist in fleetness and agility.
Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.
More About the Music
Recordings: Isaac Stern, with Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (Sony) | Itzhak Perlman, with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)
Reading: Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works, by Eric Walter White, Second Edition (University of California Press) | The Music of Stravinsky, by Stephen Walsh (Clarendon Press of Oxford University Press) | Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions, by Richard Taruskin (University of California Press, two volumes) | Stravinsky in Pictures and Documents, with text by Robert Craft and illustrations selected by Vera Stravinsky (Simon & Schuster)