30 Sep 2011

Stravinsky – Symphony No. 1 in E-flat Major, op. 1

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubles piccolo), 2 oboes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, strings

Duration: 34 minutes in four movements.

THE COMPOSER – IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) – While still very much a student in 1905, Stravinsky was given encouragement by his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov to begin work on a piece for full orchestra, the young man’s first foray beyond the piano. Russia was in the beginning stages of a failed revolution that year following the embarrassing conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War. Stravinsky was arrested once during a student demonstration and held for several hours, a chilling experience that he never forgot.  

THE MUSIC – The Symphony in Eb was to be Stravinsky’s first official opus number but the work shows as much of Rimsky-Korsakov’s hand as his own. As work progressed, Stravinsky consulted with the old master often for advice and the result displays more of the younger man’s ability to assimilate creatively than simply create. Not merely a pat homage to his teacher however, the Symphony No. 1 channels the full spirit of the Russian high romantic era. In addition to Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky can be heard, as can Glazunov. There are also elements of Strauss in the score, not to mention the ever-present influence of Wagner, a difficult thing for any fledgling composer of the time to ignore. All of this referencing might lead the listener to wonder, “Where is Stravinsky himself in all of this?” If not obvious in the skeletal and muscular make-up of the piece, his budding voice is hidden in the connective tissues that bind the whole. Some of the transitions and irregular phrases seem strange at first glance but, with the benefit of our distant scholarly perspective, make perfect sense as seeds of his future individualism. The gift of time and detailed study also allow us to hear the masterworks that where still to come in 1905 – a bit of Firebird here, a hint of Petrushka there. The Symphony in Eb is indeed the music of major composer before his prime, but its unabashed youthful energy makes it significant beyond its “first” status.                      

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1905, Norway declared its independence from Sweden, Franklin Delano Roosevelt married his 5th cousin (once removed) Eleanor Roosevelt and Novocain was introduced by German chemist Alfred Einhorn.