This week GMN exclusively release the latest volume in David Atherton's pick of Stravinsky's orchestral and chamber music. The cinema, jazz, Broadway musicals and a fledgling American ballet company all have a part to play in this third volume of Atherton and the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Stravinsky Collection. From the loud and brassy Scherzo à la russe to the reflective Orpheus, this disc is an insightful & delightful survey of Stravinsky’s Hollywood years. And for Premium users only, there's an early opportunity to stream two of the key works in his final Stravinsky volume due out next year - Movements and Symphonies of Wind Instruments.
|Stravinsky Collection Vol 3
Listen to the complete disc:
Scherzo à la Russe.
Scènes de ballet.
Stravinsky Collection Volume 3
On 30 September 1939, less than a month after Britain and France had declared war on Germany, the S.S. Manhattan steamed into New York harbour, counting Stravinsky and Toscanini amongst its heavy load of passengers. Stravinsky had travelled to the United States in order to deliver the prestigious Norton lecture series at Harvard University and to fulfill a number of conducting engagements. But, unlike his previous three visits to the States, there turned out to be no return voyage this time. By the Spring of 1941, he had a new life, a new wife, Vera Sudeykina, and a new home in West Hollywood. For a man pushing 60 years of age, this was quite a shift, both personally and culturally. Although known in the U.S., his fame did not guarantee the normally attendant fortune. He was still very much regarded as a composer of “difficult” music and as such could barely hope to live entirely from earnings garnered from commissions of new works and performances of his old works. It didn’t help matters that the U.S. wasn’t playing by the same copyright rules as Europe. And while conducting engagements helped his situation somewhat, he had neither the inclination nor the reputation to challenge Toscanini on the rostrum, and was far from spent as a creative and innovative composer.
Stravinsky’s home life on the West Coast was peopled largely by fellow European (mainly Russian) émigrés such as Josef Szigeti, Artur Rubinstein and Rachmaninov. Unlike these three, however, Stravinsky could not rely on being a superlative performer for his daily bread and so turned to American culture and its institutions for inspiration and income.
The cinema, jazz, Broadway musicals and a fledgling American ballet company all have a part to play in this third volume of David Atherton and the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Stravinsky Collection. It provides a snapshot of the composer’s reaction to the American experience of World War II: its escalation from a European war to global conflict, and the eventual onset of peace.
Stravinsky, while quite a fan of the movies, seems to have had little luck composing music for them. As a meticulous composer who had been far from averse to writing ballet music to order, it might have seemed a natural genre for Stravinsky. But perhaps the threat of others tinkering with his music may have warded him off. He appears to have been stung by the use of The Rite of Spring for Disney’s Film Fantasia where he (after the event) felt his early masterpiece had been somewhat mutilated. Whatever the reason, any number of movie music projects fell by the wayside, leaving Stravinsky to tinker with the remnants himself. Scherzo à la Russe was written for the great jazz populariser, the Paul Whiteman Band, for a radio broadcast in 1944 – Whiteman had conducted the first performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue twenty years previously – and began life, according to Stravinsky, as music for a war film set in Russia. This loud, brassy, lively piece evokes the Russia of Petrushka rather more than it does the jazz era, and the version for symphonic jazz band version soon gave way to the full symphony orchestra version performed here.
From jazz band to Broadway and the Scènes de ballet, composed hot on the heels of the Scherzo and completed in August 1944. Stravinsky was offered and accepted $5,000, a tidy sum at the time, to write a short ballet for inclusion in a Broadway revue The Seven Lively Arts. The welcome dollars came by way of the theatrical impresario Billy Rose, himself no slouch at the music desk having written a good many hit songs including Me and my Shadow and It’s only a Paper Moon. Scènes de ballet consists of eleven sections, each with a specified dance for the leading man, ballerina or corps de ballet. With its mimicking of Broadway clichés, the sentimental and swelling melodies, playful or brash interludes and touches of jazz and the blues, the piece has been dismissed as little more than a portrait of Billy Rose as Diaghilev; Broadway rendered as dignified art. The composer had at one point described the work as “featherweight and sugared” but the music is consistently entertaining, inviting, and always recognisably Stravinsky. Nevertheless, Rose himself found parts of the orchestrated work uninviting, and it was cut dramatically for its Broadway run. A famous legend attached to the work concerns a telegram sent by Rose to Stravinsky during previews of the revue: "Your music great success. Could be sensational success if you would authorise Robert Russell Bennett retouch orchestration. Bennett orchestrates even the works of Cole Porter”. Stravinsky’s reply: “Satisfied with great success".
It’s a short stroll in New York City from Broadway, along 55th Street to the City Center of Music and Drama, where Orpheus was first performed in April 1948, but unlike the Scènes de ballet, this unusual ballet was a great success, satisfying the critics and public no end. The original production of Orpheus is regarded as a touchstone of modern dance and was instrumental in creating one of the most innovative ballet companies in American history. It was commissioned by Lincoln Kirstein, a cultured, erudite, dedicated, passionate – and wealthy – man whose time and money were spent valuably on the arts, most notably on ballet. Luring the great choreographer, Georges Balanchine from the Ballets Russes to the United States in 1934, they formed numerous companies culminating in the Ballet Society in 1946. Stravinsky and Balanchine were old friends and collaborators and worked hand-in-glove on Orpheus. On the strength of the production, City Center invited the Ballet Society to become its permanent ballet company – the New York City Ballet, which to this day has Orpheus’s lyre as its emblem.
The harp takes the place of the lyre in Stravinsky’s score, assuming not only its familiar accompanying role but also as soloist at points. Set in three scenes, the ballet follows a variation on the familiar legend of Orpheus’s attempt to retrieve his beloved Eurydice from the underworld. Braving hell’s horrors and charming death, he reneges on his promise not to look at Eurydice until above ground, whereupon she falls dead and he is torn to death by the Bacchantes – Apollo appearing at the close to claim the lyre and raise Orpheus’s song heavenwards. But there is no rousing Can-Can à la Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, instead Stravinsky had in mind the subtle, sophisticated sound-world of Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The score is marked by languorous, exquisite periods of restrained, softly-voiced music, occasionally agitated, as dictated by the action, rising to violent frenzy worthy of The Rite of Spring only at the death of Orpheus at the end of the second scene.
The Four Studies for orchestra hark back to a period immediately after The Rite of Spring when Stravinsky was sketching ideas on a scale far removed from the grandeur and bombast of The Rite. No sooner had Stravinsky finished his Three Pieces for String Quartet in 1914 than he began orchestrating them, a process that lasted four years. In 1928 he completed the Four Studies by orchestrating a fourth piece, his Study for Pianola (1917). The first is a little clockwork squib of repeated, limited melodic fragments. The second was inspired by the internationally famed music-hall entertainer, Harry “Little Titch” Relph. Stravinsky had seen Relph perform his bizarre, spasmodic dance in 1914 in which the diminutive performer’s 28 inch boots flipped into stilts in a moment. The third movement, Canticle, has a religious flavour reminiscent of plainsong, while the last, Madrid, was composed initially for use as a piano roll by the Aeolian Company of London and was influenced by the many mechanised instruments encountered when the composer visited Madrid in 1916 – yet another example of Stravinsky reacting to his environment in an imaginative and innovative fashion.
© Martin Ross