Stravinsky Works for Piano and Orchestra


“Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible.” That is how Stravinsky, in his 1962 Expositions and Developments, described his farewell to the “Russian” theatrical works of his youth. Hindsight also shows that the transition to a new stylistic manner was carried out using (virtually without exception) piano and wind instruments— from Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920) written in memory of Debussy to Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1924).

And yet, none of this was immediately manifest to Stravinsky at the time. All Stravinsky’s music was composed at the piano—and, as his piano and two-piano reductions show, more for the piano than one might credit—so that the final instrumentation of a piece often emerged surprisingly late on in its composition. It seems that, at one point, Octet was intended for piano, wind ensemble and timpani, whilst the Piano Concerto was not originally projected as either a piano or a wind or even a concertante work! “At the beginning of the composition I did not see that it would take the form of a concerto for piano and orchestra. Only gradually, while already composing, did I understand that the musical material could be used to most advantage in the piano, whose neat, clear sonority and polyphonic resources suited the dryness and neatness which I was seeking in the structure of the music I had composed.” And, “the short crisp dance character of the Toccata, engendered by the percussion of the piano, led to the idea that a wind ensemble would suit the piano better than any other combination.”

Stravinsky wasn’t originally intending to play the Concerto himself (as eventually transpired), but at the same time it wasn’t written with any great soloist in mind, so, there was no pressure on him to indulge a particular virtuosity. He’d already said of his Octet that he’d used winds rather than strings which “serve better the individual sensibility of the executant.” In the Piano Concerto it is the lines of the music, its structure, its “mechanism” that he wished to highlight.

The Concerto is in three movements. The first consists of a dotted-rhythm eighteenth- century overture framing a sonata-allegro, with stylistic references not only to the eigh- teenth-century musical conventions but also to rag-rhythms and jazz. The second movement begins with a broad, solemn (to use Stravinsky’s own epithet) theme which is taken up by the full orchestra. Commentators have often derided the somewhat thick orchestration of this tutti. But surely the point of this movement (pace Beethoven’s G-Major Concerto) is that the piano, especially in its cadenzas, “poeticises” the orchestra so that the closing dialogue of the movement is one of Stravinsky’s most beautiful inventions. The final movement is a Toccata where “anything goes”—fugato passages, marches, “Czerny studies” (exactly what Stravinsky was practicing at the time to improve his piano technique), and jazzy bits including a “soft-shoe shuffle.” As in the first movement, there are few “nuances”: this is music of articulation and accentuation, rhythmic precision, punch and wit.

Unlike the Concerto, Capriccio (1928-1929) was always intended for piano and orchestra, a deliberate vehicle for Stravinsky the pianist / composer after his success with the Concerto. However, by the end of the 20s, his stylistic preoccupations had moved to the nineteenth century. He described his thoughts whilst writing the piece as dominated “by that prince of music Carl Maria von Weber, whose genius lent itself to this manner,” and by Men-delssohn—the “Beau Brummels” of music, as he called them.

After Apollo (1927-1928) Stravinsky was once again obsessed by strings, and the orchestra of Capriccio reinstates them— including a solo string quartet, as befits a work where “individual” expression is again admitted and celebrated. (He’d used double- basses in the Concerto but only to reinforce the bass line.)

The last movement (Allegro capriccioso) was written first and pays homage also to Tchaikovsky whose music was very much in Stravinsky’s mind after his recent ballet Le Baiser de la fée (1928) based on that composer’s work. To this, Stravinsky added a freeform first movement, whose primary musical material is a pattern of rhythms and accents (the precise articulation of which I learned as much from the composer’s own recording as piano soloist as from the score); and an Andante rapsodico which begins with Bach and ends with Liszt! “Some of the piano writing in my Capriccio is cimbalomist in style, especially the cadenza in the second movement which is a kind of Rumanian restaurant music.” The pianistic style of Capriccio is utterly different from that of the Concerto and, in fact, Stravinsky refused to play them both in the same concert: “the difficulty of the change of technique involved in such pieces is enormous.”

By the time of Movements (1958-1959) we are in an altogether different world of sound and gesture. Although the work was originally entitled Concerto for Piano and Groups of Instruments, the piano is entirely removed from any virtuoso status to a position at the centre of a web of lines, timbres and rhythms. As opposed to the “non-nuanced” music of the Concerto, this score abounds in almost manically precise performance indications. The work is strictly serial, and Stravinsky was inordinately proud of his compositional ingenuity in this piece. The opening statement of the full series is announced by the piano in all registers of the keyboard’s range. Spatially, the pianism, like the orchestra, is Webernesque. (In a live performance it even looks Webernesque—you see the pianist at the start play an E-flat with the right hand, whilst the left crosses over to play a higher F-flat!) The “movements” are connected by purely orchestral “interludes” which were added by Stravinsky after the commissioner of the piece had said the work wasn’t long enough. Actually, they are some of the glories of the work, though, when the request for more music came in and was satisfied, Stravinsky’s wife Vera laughingly remarked to her husband, “so much for overall conceptions of form!!” Until it “clicks,” Movements is one of Stravinsky’s most impenetrable works, but it well repays the effort.

© Paul Crossley