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Composed: 1932; 1935
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 pianos

Following the titanic upheavals of World War I and the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky added a demanding performance sub-career to his schedule in the 1920s, conducting and playing mostly his own music. During that time he composed two concerted works and two solo pieces for his own use, and commanded high fees as a performer uniquely one with his repertory.

The following decade his son Soulima began to concertize himself, playing the same Stravinsky pieces. In November 1932 the composer started the Concerto for Two Pianos as a piece for him to play in joint recitals with his son. He broke off work on it to compose Perséphone – one of his hybrid theater pieces – for dancer Ida Rubinstein, and he did not finish the Concerto until 12 days before its premiere in Paris three years later.

Stravinsky prefaced the premiere performance with a talk about his unusual concept of a concerto for two solo instruments sans orchestra. He stressed the competition element in the etymology of the word “concerto” and indicated that in his new piece, two equally important pianos contended with each other in concertant roles.

Competition is certainly immediately evident in the muscular athleticism of the Con moto opening movement, which Stravinsky considered to be in sonata form. It is driven by toccata-style repeated notes and scales, with modestly jazzy suggestions over an ostinato bass in the middle, developmental section.

In his pre-concert talk, Stravinsky said that he labeled his second movement Notturno not in “the sense in which Field and Chopin characterized those dreamy formless fragments they call Nocturnes; my meaning is closer to that of Nachtmusik so popular with 18th-century composers.” Much later he said that is “not so much night music as after-dinner music, in fact, a digestive to the larger movements,” as reported by Robert Craft in Dialogues and a Diary. His original comment seems more pertinent to the notes, while his later remark – if it is indeed his and not Craft’s – addresses their attitude. The movement is more harmonically organized than the other parts of this very linear work, and melodically ornamented with 18th-century abandon, but it also has a bit of cocktail sass, particularly in its flip ending. (And only the opening movement is larger in time, though the others are weightier in purpose.)

The four compact variations are blatantly virtuosic, with attention grabbing octaves and buzzing flights of rapid notes. The order of the last two movements was originally reversed, and the theme of these variations is the subject of the fugue in what is now the finale. Stravinsky was proud of this fugue – the whole work, in fact, which he thought “perhaps my ‘favorite’ among my purely instrumental pieces” – and it is a gem, polyphonically rigorous and dashingly energetic. Stravinsky was studying Beethoven’s variations and fugues while he worked on this piece, and the structure of this finale – with its free reprise of the prelude and inversion of the fugue – seems based on the finale of Beethoven’s Op. 110 piano sonata.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.