Program Notes


BORN: June 18, 1882. Oranienbaum (Lomonosov), Russia

DIED: April 6, 1971. New York City, NY

COMPOSED: Begun in April 1942, with work being completed on August 7, 1945.

WORLD PREMIERE: January 24, 1946. Stravinsky conducted the New York Philharmonic-Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1946. Stravinsky himself was on the podium. MOST RECENT—April 2015. Pablo Heras-Casado conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, bass drum, piano, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 21 mins

THE BACKSTORY Except for the not-quite-one-minute Greeting Prelude for Pierre Monteux’s eightieth birthday, the Symphony in Three Movements was Stravinsky’s last work for big orchestra and in the big-orchestra style. That was a style in which Stravinsky had not worked for years. At the work’s premiere, the densely packed orchestral sonority came in for a good deal of comment, as did the unbridled physical energy of the first and third movements. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was widely assumed that the old Stravinsky was dead, and the rugged sounds and exciting syncopations of the new Symphony raised hopes that the effete Parisian neoclassicist had, thank heaven, reverted to his sacrale Russian roots. (Of course the brash—and so American—final chord was much remarked upon, disapprovingly.)

Tautly concentrated and quite short, the Symphony in Three Movements nonetheless feels big, like a symphony. At the same time, Stravinsky achieves a sense of symphonic breadth and pace without making development of themes in the familiar sense the mainstay of his dialectic.

The work is made of blocks set unmitigated, unmodulated, side by side; here, in fact, is a connection with Stravinsky’s past. The first movement falls into three large divisions, roughly in the proportions 2:3:1. The first of these sections is in the big-band style; the second is more chamber-musical in character; the third reverts mainly to the manner of the first, but, carrying over some elements of the second, functions as well as a synthesis of the opposing elements.

Within each section Stravinsky moves abruptly from point to point. In the first minute, the arresting opening gesture for almost the full orchestra is followed by a passage of stalking horn and trumpet calls against chugging clarinet chords, and that by a passage for strings and piano. But along with these jolts, or underneath them, Stravinsky sets things that bind, connections established by nicely placed reminders of certain harmonies or melodic contours or sonorities. Even the tempi of the tutti and solo-like middle sections, though they feel very different, share a common pulse.

Stravinsky stated that this first movement was designed originally as a work with an important solo piano part. In the second movement, Stravinsky gives a prominent part to the harp, and it becomes the task of the finale to provide a piano-harp synthesis.

In his program note for the premiere of the Symphony he insisted that the work was absolute music. But in 1963, in Dialogues and a Diary, he admitted specifically the influence of movies in the first and third movements, of a documentary on scorched-earth tactics in China in the former, of newsreel footage of goose-stepping soldiers in the latter. Moreover, the last part of the finale was associated in his mind with “the rise of the Allies after the overturning of the German war machine.”

THE MUSIC Whatever the inner and outer sources, Stravinsky gave us a work of remarkable brilliance and power. The first movement rocks with a fierce accent, pungent harmony, and rapidly clangorous sound. In the Andante, Stravinsky follows (or perhaps doesn’t) Beethoven’s frequent example of offering something more of an intermezzo or a bridge than a fully worked movement. The finale is reached, without a break, by way of a seven-measure interlude that, with an amazing economy of means, sets the scene for the harmonies and textures to come. After the transparent sonorities of the second movement—they are too hard-edged to be called delicate—Stravinsky returns to the massive tones of the first movement. One of the finale’s mini-chapters is a fugue whose jagged intervals suddenly look ahead to the Stravinsky of the late 1950s and 1960s. Stravinsky, by the way, suggests the possibility that this fugue is in some way the continuation of the one started, then “abandoned . . . like a very hot potato,” in the corresponding movement of the Symphony in C. The abundant physical thrust of the first movement returns, too, and the finale, as Stravinsky’s “program” indicates, concludes in assertive triumph.—Michael Steinberg

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.

LISTEN AGAIN: Michael Tilson Thomas with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Sony)

(September 2019)

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