Stravinsky: Symphony In C

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Symphony in C

1: Allegro
2: Larghetto Concertante
3: Largo
4: Allegro non troppo

Stravinsky’s Symphony in C was composed in difficult circumstances. He had been living with his family in Paris since 1934, while continuing a long-term affair with Vera de Bosset. His wife Katya had long since become aware and eventually, accepting of his infidelity. In 1938, Katya, already stricken with cancer, contracted tuberculosis, which she passed both to her husband and their daughter Lyudmila. They were all confined to a sanatorium where Lyudmila died in November 1938, followed within months by her mother. Then in June 1939 Stravinsky’s own mother died. This was surely the most wretched period of his life.

Stravinsky sketched the first two movements of what became the Symphony in C in the sanatorium in response to a commission from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A further sign of his standing in America came with the offer of a lucrative post at Harvard. Stravinsky’s star was waning from the height of his fame in Europe, and so he was only too happy to accept the post.

Politically the time was ripe to leave Europe, although Stravinsky was not in personal danger from the rise of the Nazis as were Jewish composers such as Schoenberg. He was essentially an apolitical conservative. Understandably for someone who had been cut off from his homeland and culture by revolution, he sought order above all. This probably explains his rather unfortunate admiration for Mussolini throughout the 1930s. If he was in any doubt that the winds were blowing against him, he would have received a rude awakening in 1938 when the Nazis included his work in their exhibition of “Degenerate” Art. This, coupled with his desperate financial straits (the Chicago commission was the only one on the table at the time) made emigration an attractive prospect. Thus in September 1939, as war broke out, Stravinsky boarded a boat for the United States. He resumed work on the symphony in New York. In early 1940 Vera followed him, and became his second wife.

Some of the philanthropic wives of Chicago who were bankrolling the commission had withdrawn their money from the commission when they found out how much Stravinsky would be earning for a year’s lectures at Harvard. Nevertheless, the symphony was completed in 1940 and premiered in November that year in Chicago. Its reception was lukewarm, and it remains something of a Cinderella among his works. Stravinsky would observe drily in later years that it only received as many performances as it did because he conducted them.

Stravinsky frequently and controversially changed his compositional style throughout his career. Many of his contemporaries accused him of adopting a series of masks in place of displaying a consistent artistic voice. With hindsight it becomes more obvious that beneath the constant shape shifting on the surface of his music there is an unswerving purpose and personality. Stravinsky’s approach to the past is more similar to our times than his own. It is seen not as a lineage to be continued, but a vast resource to be appropriated, quoted, distorted or adapted as suits the composer’s purpose. Although this symphony takes as its starting point the archetypes of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, it pursues its own course, transforming and distorting its found model to produce something that still sounds like it could have been written by no-one else.

The middle movements nod more to baroque models than anything classical. The third in particular caused Stravinsky some trouble. He attempted to write something that would perform the same function as a Haydn minuet or a Beethoven scherzo without being reminiscent of either. The finale begins forcefully, but concludes in an unexpectedly sombre mood. There is here a strong scent of Stravinsky’s devout Russian Orthodox faith: its ritualistic air suggests perhaps a prayer both for the three women he had lost and the continent he had left behind.

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