Most of us are familiar with the expression, “there is nothing new under the sun.” If you’re an artist, a creator, this is probably an expression you’ve thought about. Do you believe that it’s possible to create something completely new? Or are you content to build on what’s come before?
Over his long life and career, Igor Stravinsky addressed this challenge in a few different ways. We think of his output in terms of three different time periods, and perhaps we can discuss them as three different responses to the problem of new creation. In his first period, Stravinsky composed music that was bold and fearless, and was perhaps too forward-looking. In fact, May 29 of this year will mark the hundred-year anniversary of Stravinsky’s scandal with the Ballets Russes in Paris. His ballet, Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring), caused quite a stir. The word “riot” has been used in descriptions of the event, although it probably wasn’t quite that wild. That ballet, which seemed to many as disturbingly new and different, actually worked quite a few pre-existent Russian folk songs into the melodic mix. Stravinsky’s third period was an exploration of serialism, a compositional technique that had been developed decades earlier. Most famous among the early pioneers of the technique is of course Arnold Schoenberg, a man with whom Stravinsky had a somewhat cool relationship.
It is Stravinsky’s middle period that is of primary concern to us, since one of the pieces from this period is featured on LACO’s latest program, Mostly Baroque. The Concerto in E-flat major, known as the “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, is from Stravinsky’s Neoclassical period. The piece was commissioned in 1937 by a couple, Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss, who were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. They lived on the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Washington DC (now a Harvard University research library and collection open to the public) and , and this is where the world premiere of the piece took place.
A brief explanation about “Neoclassicism,” because the term can be slightly confusing. As its name suggests, Neoclassicism in general is any artistic movement that looks back to the ideals of Ancient Greece and Rome. In the visual arts, the Neoclassical period developed in the eighteenth century, roughly coinciding with the Age of Enlightenment. It’s easy to see Neoclassical elements in the architecture of the time, including many of the structures built in newly independent America. There are numerous examples of this style throughout Washington DC and neighboring Virginia, including Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and the US Capitol Building.
During the Age of Enlightenment, music was also moving towards the symmetry and balance favored by the Greeks and Romans, and away from the overly embellished and ornate Baroque style. Here’s where it gets confusing: in music, this style was not called “Neoclassical”; it was simply called, “Classical.” To be fair, the music of the ancient Greeks and Romans did not come down to us as a performance tradition, so we’re not a hundred percent sure what their music sounded like. Instead, we have fragments of notated music that we can make some assumptions about; we have prose descriptions of music and its many cultural functions; and we have artistic representations of people playing instruments. We make educated guesses as to the sounds of this music, but in the Classical period, composers did not seek to actually mimic these sounds, preferring instead to idealize the ideas of simplicity, equilibrium and orderliness.
So Neoclassicism in music is not a look back to the music of Ancient times. That was the job of Classical music. Neoclassicism in music is an early 20th century look back to the Classical period of Mozart and Haydn. The movement developed as a response to the progressive German modern style (established by Schoenburg), which had moved away from tonality, and therefore away from traditional models of dissonance leading to consonance, and tension to resolution. The decades of Neoclassicism, the 1920s to 1950s, can also be interpreted as a retreat from Modernism in the wake of the First World War (and the Second), which caused a great deal of self-reflection among artists and composers.
Some of the aspects of the Neoclassical style in music included the revival of conventional forms like concertos and dance suites. The intervening period between the Classical and Neoclassical — the Romantic period — was characterized by programmatic music, that is, music that was inspired by extra-musical narratives. The Neoclassical marked a return, in many cases, to anti-programmatic music, a return to absolute music: music for its own sake. Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony No. 1 is a wonderful example of this idea, as is Stravinsky’s Octet from 1923, which features traditional forms in each of its three movements.
The music of Stravinsky’s Neoclassical period was actually influenced quite a bit by JS Bach. Perhaps some of you did a double-take at that sentence, and rightly so. JS Bach was a master of the High Baroque style. Despite a few minor experiments in the newly developing Classical style, JS Bach was decidedly NOT a composer of the Classical Period. Incidentally, the beginning of the “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto is thought to have some motivic ideas in common with one of Bach’s BrandenburgConcertos (the third), and fittingly, Stravinsky’s Neoclassical work shares this evening with Bach’sBrandenburg Concerto No. 5.
Stravinsky’s solution to the problem of finding something “new under the sun” involved looking back to older ideas. From 1910 to 1920, Stravinsky reframed Russian folk music in a progressive, modern idiom. In the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, the composer drew inspiration from Baroque and Classical composers and styles. In the 1950s and beyond, Stravinsky experimented with serialism, a movement and method developed by Schoenburg and the Second Viennese School. In none of these cases, however, could Stravinsky be called derivative or unoriginal. A unique talent and a true artist, Stravinsky found ways to turn things that existed “under the sun” into creations that no one else could have imagined.