Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Eb major, op. 1

performed by the Columbia Symphony under the composer’s baton

To think that this is the first Stravinsky piece we’ve touched in our more-than-two-years here… better late than never.

For those of you who think of Stravinsky as a wild, imaginative crazy person of ballet suites and story music, you might want to think again. Think of him (and this not at all well-founded, just an interesting way [I think] to think of it) as the Russian Schoenberg. Why?

Well, before Schoenberg went off and did the biggest thing to be done in music in centuries, he was a whole-hearted, dedicated Romanticist. If you have any doubts of his Romantic inclinations, listen to his Verklärte Nacht or Gurre-Lieder. They’re solidly Romanticist works and it was only (maybe marginally, but still) slightly later that he began to do things like he did with his op. 11, a work which I have recently actually begun to analyze as part of my post-tonal theory studies with wonderful professor in America. (I’ll have to go back and talk about that piece all over again eventually).

Anyway, I guess what I meant to say there was that Schoenberg came from ‘traditional’ beginnings, and while many people would consider his music radical and cacophonous, the man was a delicate, artistic genius. Stravinsky came from a similar pedigree, and today’s work shows us that. The work, as you may have noticed, is his op. 1, and what a hell of an opus one it is. While many people may gawk at (do they, though?) this early work as almost a piece of juvenilia, less significant than his far more influential and career-making works, this piece is a wonderful thing to listen to!

It was published during Stravinsky’s apprenticeship with Nikolai-Rimsky Korsakov, the man with whom it seems every Russian music person studied. His influence is to me the most logical, straightforward and apparent. With the name ‘Stravinsky’ on it, the last person you might think of is a rather old (by this point) Russian master, but that’s where he came from, and as Wikipedia states, the work is also “broadly influenced” by others, like “Glazunov, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner.” Two of those names are not surprising. How could you not be influenced by Tchaikovsky, and lesser maybe, by Glazunov, but Wagner is a bit more outside that comfort zone.

Anyway, the piece also bears a dedication to RK, “To my dear teacher N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov.” There was a private performance of the piece in 1907, and the first public one in 1908, and Stravinsky recalled that both RK and Glazunov described the orchestration to be “too heavy,” which is not at all an impression I have of this piece, so I’d be interested to hear what the original was like. In 1914, a revised version was conducted by Ansermet, which was the version that the composer used from then on.

It’s quite a big, hefty work, very string-y to me. Aside from some big brassy moments and little woodwind-y moments, there’s lots of big, rich strings. It runs at around 40 minutes, but feels, somehow, to be about half that. It is bright and motivic and outstandingly charming.

The first movement begins cheerily, with bare cellos, blossoming into a celebratory, outstandingly optimistic playful thing. The first theme of this sonata movement is really simple and clear and pleasant. The second theme, with a solo clarinet, is more spacious, slowly-spaced and broad. It feels almost like the opening theme taken at half-tempo or changed somehow. But honestly, although he sticks to the sonata-form structure and does the ‘traditional’ things, this really is music you can sit back and let wash over you and really enjoy, like the sun on the beach and the wind in your face. It changes texture and personality here and there, with quiet moments between strings and woodwinds, rich brass moments, pizzicato, and all the rest. Does any of this come as any surprise from the student of a master orchestrator? There are a few mighty climaxes of the movement, where things really soar. Overall, a great start to an opus one.

The second movement is the scherzo, and while the first few bow strokes sound dramatic and tense, it is in reality a very light, playful, almost miniature kind of a movement coming after the first, and the shortest of the symphony. It’s adorable. This movement apparently got programmed on its own a few times because of its charm. The woodwinds, especially solo flute, take over here and lead this charming little dance of a movement. The trio section is left mostly for strings before a march-like section appears. We then get back to the almost Sleigh Ride kind of cheer of the woodwinds. This movement too makes delightful use of the orchestra in very colorful ways. It reminds one of Prokofiev’s Classical symphony.

The third, Largo, is the longest of the piece, at around 14-15 minutes, but not even it drags. It is captivatingly beautiful, a delicate, mildly somber string opening featuring a few solo lines from winds, bringing us the first sign of clouds in this otherwise very sunny piece, but even then, not really sad. It soon has its moments that swell to stirring beauty, contrasted with delicate solos. There’s probably an interesting study in this movement of maintaining interest with tension and release and use of themes, because this movement, while slow and tender at times, holds my attention throughout.

The final returns very much to the character of the opening movement, of joy and youth and vitality and sunshine. It brings a smile to the face, and is the crunchiest, most glorious thing we’ve heard so far, regal, almost military, triumphant. There’s more clarinet and flute and pizzicato, but also percussion. It’s clean, crisp, and the textures and sounds in this movement, while nothing outrageous, are still fresh and captivating. Nothing is ever old or stale in this entire symphony, and this finale, in rondo form, is full of energy and smiles.

This may not be a work of earth-shattering, mold-breaking inventiveness; it didn’t change the world, but it’s got tons of personality. You know you’ve had a fantastic career when your later work overshadows into oblivion a piece as charming and approachable as this one. It also doesn’t ‘fit’ with the image most people have of Stravinsky as the composer of many other far more challenging, riot-inducing works, but I would be thrilled to hear it in the concert hall. It has its distinctive Russianness, partly due to the use of some Russian folk tunes, but what’s overall most apparent is the skill, the talent that Stravinsky has to work with, and it’s this palate of imagination, color, texture and rhythm that will be put to such incredible use in his later, more famous works.

As of now, we’re solidly into the 20th century with our Russian symphony works, and that means that after this point, we’re going to be sneaking slowly into the works of the Soviet era. There will be no history lectures, but things start to change quite a bit after this.

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2 thoughts on “Igor Stravinsky: Symphony in Eb major, op. 1

  1. I am not very familiar with Stravinsky yet – I know the Sacre du Printemps, L’Oiseau du Feu and Pétrouchka performed under Boulez – but it is worth a try. Composers with a Romanticist heritage and moving on tonsomething new keep my senses busy. 😃

    1. I’d say those are undoubtedly his most famous works, but others, like the Pulcinella suite, and his late (serial) works, (if you’re into that) are worthy of attention. He had such distinct periods of composition!

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