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Length: c. 15 minutes
Orchestration: flute, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 21, 1976, Sidney Harth conducting (Ojai Festival)
“My Concerto in E-flat... was begun almost immediately upon my return to Europe after Jeux de cartes, in the spring of 1937. I had moved from Paris to Annemasse in the Haute Savoie to be near my daughter Mika [Ludmila] who, mortally ill with tuberculosis, was confined to a sanatorium there. Annemasse is near Geneva, and [conductor] Ernest Ansermet was therefore a neighbor and also a helpful friend at this, perhaps the most difficult time of my life. [Ludmila died in 1938.] I played Bach regularly during the composition of the Concerto, and was greatly attracted to the “Brandenburg” Concertos. Whether or not the first theme of my [first] movement is a conscious borrowing from the third Brandenburg, however, I do not know.” — Igor Stravinsky
Stravinsky's close association with the U.S. began in 1936, when he wrote Jeux de cartes for the new American Ballet (later American Ballet Theatre) and choreographer George Balanchine. After completing the score the composer arrived in New York early in the following year to assist in supervising rehearsals, whereupon he was immediately commissioned to write this very different – intimate, but no less witty – score for Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary.
Robert Woods Bliss held various diplomatic positions, including being ambassador to Sweden and to Argentina. His wife, Mildred, was a knowledgeable art collector, most notably of pre-Columbian sculpture, and their treasures were housed in their early 19th-century mansion, Dumbarton Oaks, in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. The house, its contents, and the gardens were left by the Blisses in 1940 to Harvard University. In 1944 Dumbarton Oaks hosted the conference that would lay the groundwork for the United Nations; today, the mansion is a research center for the study of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art.
Stravinsky was to have conducted the premiere of the Concerto, but his own bout of tuberculosis kept him from traveling from Paris. It was thus under his friend Nadia Boulanger that the premiere took place at Dumbarton Oaks on May 8, 1938.
The three movements are played without pause. The first is a bubbly affair, mostly in 16th notes, with the solo winds (all the instrumentalists are in essence soloists) bounding and bouncing everywhichwhere. The opening theme of Bach’s Third Brandenburg is concealed – in plain sight, so to speak – in the viola part of the opening measure but becomes more obvious as the movement progresses. Eight measures of quiet chords join the first movement to the second, a lyrical Allegretto “of an intense purity of line where the different instrumental strands... stand out with startling three-dimensional clarity in their atmosphere of enveloping silence,” in the words of Stravinsky biographer Eric Walter White. The Italian composer Alfredo Casella was convinced that Stravinsky had been inspired in this movement by a phrase from the first act of Verdi’s Falstaff. Stravinsky’s response was, presumably, a shrug of the shoulders. This movement is joined to its successor by slow, quiet chords, leading into the finale, launched by the marching horns, cellos, and basses as prelude to some zesty counterpoint for the entire ensemble, with a smart fugato climax.
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.