14 Sep 2012

Stravinsky – Concerto in E-flat Major for Chamber Orchestra (Dumbarton Oaks)

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: flute, clarinet, bassoon, 2 horns, 3 violins, 3 violas, 3 celli, 2 double basses.

Duration: 15 minutes in three movements.

THE COMPOSER – IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971) – Stravinsky made two trips to the United States during his final five years in Paris. Each was a whirlwind tour involving numerous concerts on both coasts with several stops in between. As an international superstar, Stravinsky was in great demand across America as a conductor, pianist and composer. Commissions came from the expected places, like the American Ballet Company, but from surprising sources as well.  

THE MUSIC – Robert and Mildred Bliss lived in a 19th century mansion in Washington, D.C. called Dumbarton Oaks. The Bliss household was a well-known haunt of the capital elite, hosting events that ranged from official state functions to chamber music concerts. In preparation for their 30th wedding anniversary, Mr. Bliss commissioned Stravinsky to compose a new work for the planned celebration. The composer visited the estate in 1937 and became immediately enamored of the beautiful gardens near the house. It has been assumed that Stravinsky used the layout of the grounds to create the musical work’s structure but the true inspiration for his Dumbarton Oaks came from a much older font. Stravinsky wrote the music while living in a town near Geneva where his eldest daughter was waging a terminal battle with tuberculosis. It was a dark personal time, to be sure, but the composer worked on the commission throughout and found refuge in the music of Bach. He admitted to being “greatly attracted to the Brandenburg Concertos” in particular and the similarity of his concerto to Bach’s great cycle of chamber orchestra showpieces is obvious and frequently commented upon. On the issue of whether or not he “consciously” quoted Brandenburg 3 in his own first movement, Stravinsky was a bit more coy and simply stated “I do not know.” Mrs. Bliss was said to be enormously pleased with her husband’s gift, even though the composer was unable to conduct the 1938 private premiere.                                                                         

THE WORLD – Turkish President Kemal Ataturk died in 1938 as did American Civil Rights Lawyer Clarence Darrow. Also that year, Ireland elected Douglas Hyde as its first president and nuclear fission was discovered in Germany by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann.