Bach functioned as the musical conscience of the early 20th century. One need only to point to renderings of Bach’s music by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven; the Romantic rediscoveries by Mendelssohn; the Bach-Busoni arrangements for modern piano; orchestrations of Bach preludes and fugues by Schönberg and Reger; and much more. But perhaps no one was more enkindled by Bach than Stravinsky.
Shortly after the end of World War I, composers began to turn away from the immense sonorities, exaggerated emotions and extreme length of much of the music of the late 19th century. In 1920 the first modern chamber orchestra was organized in Düsseldorf, and a string of new concerti grossi began to appear. That same year, Stravinsky composed Pulcinella, regarded as one of the first great masterpieces of Neo-Classical style. This "New Classicism," coined by composer Ferrucio Busoni, seemed to be saying that the music of the future might well learn from the lessons of the distant past.
Bach Orchestral Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069
3 trumpets, timpani, 3 oboes, bassoon, violin I, violin II, viola, cello, bass, harpsichord
Bach’s orchestral suites surprise us with their unusually appealing, almost light-hearted style. However, they also invite many unanswered questions. Bach scholars have been debating for decades as to whether the suites date from the composer’s time in Cöthen (1717-23), or before then, or from Leipzig (after 1723). Although the surviving sources can provide us with no information as to when the early versions of the four orchestral suites were written, research generally regards the Orchestral Suite No. 4 as the earliest of the four, on the basis of stylistic features. It is posited that its first version was written in Weimar around 1716. Nonetheless, the genesis of the Orchestral Suite No. 4 began in December 1725, when Bach recycled the overture of an earlier version of the suite, which has not survived, as the opening chorus of the cantata BWV 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens.
With the sequence of movements – Ouverture, Bourrée I & II, Gavotte, Menuet I & II, Réjouissance – Bach departs from the established model for the suite in his time, founded on an alternation of slow and fast movements, each in its own meter. He seeks variety in other ways. He begins with an Ouverture of rather expansive dimensions compared to the remaining movements; both the dotted rhythms of its majestic opening and the entwining imitative parts of the contrasting second section recall French models. None of the standard dance movements of the suite follow, but rather a pair of bourrées. Although this lively rustic dance is generally expressive of joy, Bach shifts the second Boureé into the minor before returning to a more blithe mood with the reprise of the first Bourrée. After an animated and jolly Gavotte, Bach returns in the Menuet I and II to the blueprint of an alternating pair of movements; in both he dispenses with the trumpets and timpani, further reducing the scoring of the second (Trio) to strings alone. The brisk last movement, marked 'Réjouissance', no longer resides in the realm of dance music, but forms a finale in free form, full of joyful ebullience.
John Corigliano Fancy on a Bach Air (1996)
Fancy on a Bach Air began in celebration and ended in memoriam. My cousin introduced me to his colleague Robert Goldberg and his wife Judy, avid music lovers both. We became fast friends. When, later, they asked me to compose a piece for their 25th wedding anniversary, I suggested that instead of a single writer they ask a group of composers to write variations. And what better theme to choose than the venerable melody of the variations that bore their name? Bach would surely approve.
Their close friends Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax agreed to play the variations. Then tragedy struck. Robert succumbed to a virulent cancer and died all too soon. Judy’s spirit and love led her to transform what might have been a requiem into a celebration of her husbands’ life, and Ma and Ax performed the set of Variations preceded by the Bach theme in Boston where the Goldbergs live.
My "Goldberg Variation," Fancy on a Bach Air, is for unaccompanied cello. It transforms the gentle arches of Bach’s theme into slowly soaring arpeggi of almost unending phase-lengths. Its dual inspiration was the love of two extraordinary people and the solo cello suites of a great composer – both of them strong, long-lined, passionate, eternal, and for me, definitive of all that is beautiful in life. - John Corigliano
Igor Stravinsky “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto in E-flat (1938)
1 flute, 1 clarinet, 1 bassoon, 2 horns, 3 violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos, and 2 double basses
The Concerto in E-flat was commissioned in 1937 by American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife, Mildred, to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in 1938. The Blisses, generous patrons of the arts, lived on their estate, Dumbarton Oaks, in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Stravinsky visited Dumbarton Oaks in 1937 while in the planning stages of this composition. Its first, private performance was at Dumbarton Oaks on May 8, 1938 in the music room, site of many performances. Nadia Boulanger, French composer and teacher, conducted. Stravinsky, too ill to attend, recovered sufficiently to conduct the public premiere in Paris on June 4, 1938.
Dumbarton Oaks, written in the neoclassical style, seems specifically meant to invoke the spirit of Bach. Stravinsky wrote: "I played Bach very regularly during the composition of the concerto and I was greatly attracted to the Brandenburg Concertos. Whether or not the first theme of my first movement is a conscious borrowing from the third of the Brandenburg set, however, I do not know. What I can say is that Bach would most certainly have been delighted to loan it to me; to borrow in this way was exactly the sort of thing he liked to do himself." However, as Michael Steinberg points out "when Stravinsky alludes to some specific style, he evokes its manner (even its mannerisms) rather than its substance. The more vividly he cites the external habits of Bach’s music, the more he impresses us that the real substance and method are uniquely his own."
The three short movements, about the length of a typical concerto by Bach or Vivaldi, are played without pauses, linked by quiet chords. In all three, short motifs are developed in complex counterpoint, and both outer movements include a fugue-like episode near the end. Rhythmically the music is industrious and firmly direct, similar to its Baroque models, while the ostinati, shifting meters, syncopations, are distinctly Stravinsky.
Pulcinella, Ballet in One Act with Song (1920)
soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, 2 flutes (one doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, trumpet, trombone, solo string quintet, and orchestral strings
In 1917 Sergei Diaghilev, the famed impresario of the Ballets Russes, successfully staged The Good-Humoured Ladies, set to keyboard works of Domenico Scarlatti as orchestrated by Italian composer Vincenzo Tommasini. Two years later, Diaghilev turned to Ottorino Respighi to arrange music of Gioachino Rossini for a similar stage work, La Boutique fantasque, and in 1920 he approached Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (with whom he had collaborated on The Three-Cornered Hat), to adapt music for a third such ballet, this time drawing upon compositions of Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710–1736). Preoccupied with another project, de Falla declined, so Diaghilev turned to fellow Russian Igor Stravinsky, who had shocked Paris a decade earlier in three collaborations with the Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. “When he said that the composer was Pergolesi, I thought he must be deranged,” Stravinsky later remembered. Finally, Stravinsky promised to at least take a look.
"I looked, and I fell in love," the composer recalled. Stravinsky was further attracted by the prospect of working with the young Pablo Picasso, who was to design the sets and costumes for the new project, and with the choreographer and dancer Léonide Massine.
For the ballet’s story, Diaghilev chose an episode from a book of stories concerning Pulcinella, a traditional comic hero of the Neapolitan commedia dell’arte. The plot involves Pulcinella—with whom various young women are in love—switching places with a double to avoid being killed by the girls’ suitors, who then dress up as Pulcinella and present themselves to their sweethearts. Pulcinella arrives on the scene and arranges marriages for all involved, including himself.
Meanwhile, Stravinsky had been sifting through the pile of manuscripts he thought to be the works of Pergolesi. However, recent musicological research has shown that much of the music Stravinsky selected for use in the ballet—including the familiar opening movement and the work’s jubilant finale—derived from trio sonatas by a little-known Italian composer, Domenico Gallo (1730–c. 1738). Two movements came from keyboard works of Carlo Ignazio Monza (?–1739), while the frenzied Tarantella came from a Concerto Armonico by Dutch nobleman Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer (1692–1766). Stravinsky also drew upon excerpts from operas and cantatas, including the ballet’s second number (Serenata), a tenor aria from Pergolesi’s 1735 opera Il Flaminio.
In a manner distinctly different to him, Stravinsky’s work commenced. "I began by composing on the Pergolesi manuscripts themselves, as though I were correcting an old work of my own," he later wrote. "I knew that I could not produce a 'forgery' of Pergolesi because my motor habits are so different; at best, I could repeat him in my own accent." What Stravinsky created was something uniquely his own. He left the eighteenth-century bass lines and melodies alone, but rather he superimposed new spicy harmonies or "wrong notes," occasionally expanded or shortened phrase lengths, added non-18th century instrumental effects ranging from trombone glissandi to string harmonics to virtuosic and rangy writing for the contrabass. "The remarkable thing about Pulcinella," Stravinsky later said, "is not how much but how little has been added or changed."
The ballet had its premiere at the Paris Opera House in May 1920. Pulcinella was a triumph--"one of those productions," the composer reported, "where everything harmonizes, where all the elements ― subject, music, dancing, and artistic setting form a coherent and homogeneous whole." Pulcinella was not just a success in Paris; it was a crucial step in the development of Stravinsky’s musical style and career. "Pulcinella was my discovery of the past," he later wrote, "the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too." Yet only the music endures today. In 1922, Stravinsky compiled an orchestral suite that has become popular in the concert hall.
- Ryan Turner (2012)