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Like Prokofiev and Arensky – though one wouldn’t know it from the 1922 Octet – Stravinsky was Russian. As Aaron Copland mused in his The New Music – 1900-1960, at first with regret and then with a sense of inevitability:
“Few listeners in the early ’20s...were prepared for the final phases of [Stravinsky’s] conscious adoption of the musical ideals of the early 18th century... Here again Igor Stravinsky led the way. The French musical establishment first became aware of this tendency – referred to in the beginning as the ‘Back to Bach’ movement – with the first performance of the Stravinsky Octet on October 18, 1923 at a Koussevitzky concert in Paris [which Copland attended]. I can attest to the general feeling of mystification that followed the initial hearing. Here was Stravinsky, who had created a neo-primitive style all his own, based on native Russian sources...now suddenly... presenting a piece to the public that bore no conceivable resemblance to the individual style with which he had hitherto been identified. Everyone was asking why Stravinsky should have exchanged his Russian heritage for what looked very much like a mess of 18th-century mannerisms. [It] seemed like a bad joke that left an unpleasant after-effect and gained [him] the unanimous disapproval of the press. No one could have foreseen, first, that Stravinsky was to persist in this new manner of his, or second, that the Octet was destined to influence composers all over the world by bringing the latest objectivity of modern music to full consciousness by frankly adopting the ideals, forms, and textures of the pre-Romantic era. Thus was neo-classicism born.”
Stravinsky himself observed – oh, how rudely he could disarm criticism!: “My Octet is a musical object. This object has a form and that form is influenced by the musical matter of which it is composed. My Octet is not an emotive work, but a musical composition that is based on objective elements that are sufficient in themselves. I have excluded all nuances between the forte and the piano. Form, in my music, derives from counterpoint as the only means through which the attention of the composer is concentrated on purely musical questions. This sort of music has no other aim than to be sufficient in itself. In general, I consider that music is only able to solve musical problems, and nothing else, neither the literary nor the picturesque, can be of any interest in music.”
In rehearsing for the premiere the players were confounded by the work’s rhythmic complexities: enter the composer himself at the 11th hour, to make his debut as a conductor.
Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to musical periodicals in the United States and Europe.