One day a good many years ago, during my time as an impoverished music student in London, I was ferreting through the records in a second-hand music shop and came across one of those unusual 45rpm classical recordings. It was a performance by the London Mozart Players (founded in 1949 and still going strong) and featured Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. I’d never heard of it before, but the music was by Stravinsky so I bought the record without hesitation.
We have to thank the absurdly-wealthy American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred for this curiously-named piece. To mark their thirtieth wedding anniversary in 1938, they commissioned a new work from Igor Stravinsky who was then one of the superstar composers and musicians of the day. As a result of the commission, he wrote the Concerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra while staying near Geneva where his eldest daughter was fighting a terminal battle with tuberculosis. The work was first performed in the grandiose music room of the Bliss house, rustically named Dumbarton Oaks. For years, I had pictured a homely, rambling country house with roses and wisteria everywhere unaware that Dumbarton Oaks was actually an enormous nineteenth century building of palatial proportions, situated in Washington’s up-market Georgetown neighborhood. Even so, the name provided a convenient and enduring nickname for the concerto. As fate would have it, on the day of the first performance Stravinsky was also in hospital with tuberculosis (though he lived to tell the tale) and the ensemble was conducted by the legendary Nadia Boulanger.
During the 1920s, Stravinsky had become profoundly interested in the so-called neoclassical approach to composition which he claimed to have invented himself. This drew on some of the musical principles vaguely associated with the so-called Classical Period in European music which was roughly between 1750 and 1820. Although Stravinsky wrote some of the best-known neoclassical works in the repertoire, other composers – notably Hindemith, Prokofiev, Bartók, Milhaud and Poulenc – were also influenced by neoclassical ideas.
If your knowledge of Stravinsky’s music is through the well-known ballets written before the First World War, this work may come as a surprise. Stravinsky first explored the neoclassical approach in his ballet Pulcinella which dates from around 1920 and was based on melodies presumed at the time to have been written by the eighteenth century Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi. As it turned out, they weren’t but the ballet began Stravinsky’s long fascination with neoclassical principles. Perhaps “neo-baroque” would be a more appropriate description for this composition, because the Concerto in E-flat is a three-movement work written along the lines of a baroque concerto grosso. Unlike a solo concerto, this type of work contrasts a smaller group of instruments with the entire ensemble. It’s scored for ten stringed instruments, a handful of woodwind and two horns.
You’ll hear fascinating echoes of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 3 emerging through the light and airy textures, with snippets of melody that sound as though they’ve come from dance music of the thirties. The light and delicate second movement is followed by an energetic finale that’s full of melodies, shifting accents and driving rhythms and although the music turns the clock back to the eighteenth century for its inspiration, the sound is pure Stravinsky.
Prokofiev wrote this work during 1916-17 which puts Stravinsky’s claim to be the “inventor of neoclassicism” on somewhat dodgy ground. Prokofiev was in his mid-twenties and already a successful composer with several operas, ballets and other orchestral works to his credit including the first two piano concertos. The Classical Symphony draws on the musical style of Haydn for its inspiration and has become Prokofiev’s most popular orchestral work. The work is scored for small orchestra and the format is pretty similar to a classical symphony except that the traditional minuet is replaced with a gavotte. Prokofiev uses musical techniques that Haydn would have recognized, yet the musical language is unmistakably his own, with sudden changes of dynamics, jaunty playful rhythms and characteristically spiky melodies. There’s a lovely lyrical second movement and the elegant gavotte contains surprisingly satisfying twists of harmony. Incidentally, you might get the impression that the conductor Kristjan Järvi isn’t doing very much in this video, but the beautifully transparent and virtuosic performance betrays the fact that that a huge amount of careful preparation work must have been done at the rehearsals. The brilliant finale is a scampering movement which contains plenty of lively tunes. There’s an especially catchy one, first heard on the flute (at 10:26) that you might find yourself humming for a long time afterwards.