Notes by TŌN bass trombonist Jack E. Noble
Sounds Struck and Blown
The first performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto pour Piano avec L’Orchestre d’Harmonie occurred in Paris in May 1924, only one month after the completion of the score, with the composer as soloist and Serge Koussevitsky conducting. Stravinsky described his “Harmonic Orchestra” as separate from the Symphonic Orchestra, consisting solely of winds and percussion (although this piece includes double basses). His choice to exclude the strings caused Parisian critics to ask “Where are the bows?” So why did Stravinsky choose this format for his concerto? In an interview following the opening concerts he expressed that “Strings and piano, a sound scraped and a sound struck, do not sound well together; piano and wind, sounds struck and blown, do.” This is a noteworthy deviation from the norm which Stravinsky uses to highlight certain characteristics of sound. In particular, the percussive articulation of the piano stands out against the sustain of the winds.
Although the piece is considered Neo-Classical, Stravinsky does not play by antiquated rules. Beyond the fast—slow—fast organization of the movements, almost nothing in the music could be confused with Mozart or Haydn. This stems mainly from Stravinsky’s (now infamous) harmonic language. His characteristic use of dissonance appears immediately in the first few bars with a brass chorale and continues throughout the concerto; every bar seems to bear his mark. Beyond his innovative harmonies, Stravinsky is also known for employing unexpected rhythms. For example, Stravinsky often articulates solo piano passages with ragtime syncopations in the right hand. An easily identifiable instance of this comes in the beginning of the piece, after the introduction when the piano plays alone for the first time. The passage begins as an approachable counterpoint, almost spoon-feeding the idea of Neo-Classicism we were told to expect. However, the Classical motive is quickly shattered by these aggressive syncopations which remind the listener this is the music of a 20th century master. As is the case with most of Stravinsky’s music, he controls the audience by way of unexpected moments.
Beauty in a Crunchy Landscape
The second movement is solemn, and exemplifies how Stravinsky can create beauty while maintaining his dissonant, often “crunchy” harmonic landscape. After two cadenzas, the finale begins with an energetic fugue. The piano states the theme first, complete with more jazzy accents, and from there the energy of the fugue is ceaseless. However, a recapitulation of the brass chorale brings the motion to a halt. The energy attempts to return, but is only a brief flourish before the concerto concludes.
The most important thing to remember as an audience is that this concerto is principally an example of Stravinsky’s composition. Influences abound, including those of Classical era music, but the harmonies and jarring rhythms are the composer’s trademark. Instead of hanging on to the term Neo-Classicism, focus instead on the deliberate orchestration and instrumentation. Know that this work was composed specifically for the solo piano to interact with the winds. Allow yourself to be surprised while understanding everything was done with great purpose.