Spring Symphonies: 57/60 - Stravinsky: Symphony in C
The tragedies that befell Stravinsky in the years prior to his departure for America are not marked in this work. Like Beethoven, his response to grief was somehow separated from his music adding to the mysteries of authorial intent. In the period of it’s birth (1938 -1940), his wife and elder daughter died from tuberculosis and the composer himself caught the disease and was hospitalised for five months in 1937 too. His mother also died in that period.
He travelled to America setting sail on 1 September 1939 - alone. In America he became part of an extensive circle of European intellectuals who had moved there to escaped persecution or conscription or both. He was soon mixing with the best of them in California. Once settled he married his mistress of near 20 years association . This symphony was a commission which was started in Europe and finished half a world away. Stravinsky remained in America for the rest of his long life, though he is buried near Diaghilev in Venice.
The symphony wasn’t that popular during the composers lifetime - this is hard to understand - at one stage the composer noted that he was the only one conducting it. It is perhaps too long for a concert programmers tastes. It is certainly of the highest quality and doesn’t betray any of the the emotional turmoil Stravinsky must have been going through
The symphony does openly darkly and ominously. Thundering chords repeat and a rather hesitant phrase stutters and then expands and then scampers off into a lighter, brighter places and which has a by the time we get to the traditional repeat of opening themes has gone through so many transitions, embellishments and transformations it’s hard to tell where we are. But it has such sunny disposition it’s hard not to be taken up with it. It gets a bit forthright at times but is mostly charm itself. In those moments where the music strikes up a rather strict demeanour I’m taken back to a rather strict feelings of musical devices being worked through, and worked up in some cases, in Haydn and Mozart - but these are the moments that liberate the music’s sense of joy and play with the form. Everything is there but not quite as it should be: an Alice in Wonderland kind of sonata form.
In the second movement the music is more free and smaller scale - there’s some exquisite writing for oboe and very gentle accompaniment. It has a feeling that Stravinsky has walked us up and down the garden path in his first movement but now returns to a neo-classical world nearer to Pulcinella in terms of grace and pace. Then, somewhat abruptly, we’re in an agitated middle section which reveals how much pent-up energy Stravinsky could apply in a neo-classical framework. The movement ends with delicious woodwind, string, horns spotlighted in gentle and sunny mood.
The allegretto third movement seems to start portentously but any grandeur is trumped by some lovely concertante writing, rhetorical in style which follows. A bit jazzy too - was this the culture of his new home coming out. After some entertainment, the opening is repeated this time to be followed by a languorous section which bursts into life with a real swing. There’s much here to enjoy in the ease with which Stravinsky takes a new look at classical writing and orchestration. In the last minute he completely disconcerts us with a brass led slower section which is like nothing else in the movement in tone and charm, The music closes without the hint of stress.
Bassoons open the finale - marked Largo - there’s something somewhat smooth that Stravinsky’s usual fare (even in his neo-classical period). The brass take the movement to something a bit more athletic and muscular soon picked up by the whole orchestra (there’s something that smells of Copland too). Once at full speed this locomotive is a smooth and elegant, the music is constructed with a classical eye for detail. It echoes the first movement in it’s multiple lines and repeated ideas. The whole generates a great deal of momentum until there are two summative climax each followed by a pause. Thereafter the music deconstructs itself with wit and some of that wistful atmosphere that Stravinsky deployed in his other neoclassical works. It is not a dying but a gentle reprise and a final chord which simply evaporates.
I think any other composer would have said more about themselves in a work written under these circumstances. It is a mark of Stravinsky that what we get is deep worked out music that never seems to be anything more than off the cuff. It’s a work that is well recorded now but I wonder how many of us have sat in it’s presence anything more than occasionally. It is so well put together that the seams are invisible, the writing delicate and endlessly fascinating. It comes from a time when symphonies started to become unfashionable, which is a shame because it deserves to be up there with the very best of them.
Here’s a recording by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Orchestra to savour: