15 Feb 2012

Stravinsky – Scherzo à la russe

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drums, xylophone, tambourine, triangle, suspended cymbal, harp, piano, strings

Duration: 5 minutes.

THE COMPOSER – IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) – Stravinsky settled in West Hollywood in 1941, having fled Europe for America, a place he considered “still orderly” in comparison to France and Russia. His rudimentary grasp of English and lack of familiarity with the American musical landscape made his first few California years a challenge. Many unsuccessful projects mark this period including attempts at jazz, a Broadway dance number, at least one popular song and a few film scores.  

THE MUSIC – It was one of the abandoned movie ventures that lead to the creation of Scherzo à la russe. Originally designed for a war film with a Russian setting, the Scherzo sounds as though it were actually composed to be part of Petrushka with its playfully folk-infused character. Stravinsky saw an opportunity to resurrect the piece when he received a commission from the famous Paul Whiteman Band for some “symphonic jazz” to be heard on a 1944 radio performance. The arrangement Stravinsky designed for Whiteman’s unique ensemble of 6 saxophones, 8 strings and assorted other winds, brass and percussion is indeed masterful but, in truth, has very little actual jazz in it. After the broadcast Stravinsky, still eager to find the right setting for his fun little Scherzo, created the full orchestra version in 1945 that has proven the most effective with audiences. Stravinsky himself led the 1946 premiere of this iteration in San Francisco and though the work might not belong on the first page of Stravinsky’s catalogue, it is a charming example of his brighter wartime efforts, of which so few have a regular presence on symphony stages these days. It is illustrative that Stravinsky’s willingness to take on such varied “commercial” projects in America did not include any degradation of his personal artistic standards. The craft and genius were nearly always present, regardless of how far afield he tried to range.                    

THE WORLD – The Philippines gained its independence in 1946 and Italy shed its monarchy to become a republic. The verdicts of the first Nuremberg Trials were read in October. 1946 also saw the film premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life.

THE CONNECTIONScherzo à la russe was last performed by the Utah Symphony on the Masterworks series of the 1980-81 season. Robert Henderson was on the podium.