SHOULD YOU FIND yourself in our nation’s capital north of the Potomac, ambling up Wisconsin Avenue and weary of Georgetown antiquing and boutique-ing, a sharp right and a climb up a longish hill will take you to the estate and gardens of Dumbarton Oaks, where American diplomat Robert Woods Bliss and his wife Mildred Bliss once lived (and are now buried), Blissfully engaging architects and landscape architects, enlarging the house, increasing their holdings, expanding, renovating, hosting, patronizing, sponsoring, founding The Friends of Music, collecting art, establishing a research institute, and donating said institute to Harvard University and much of the grounds to the National Park Service. And in 1937, in celebration of her thirtieth wedding anniversary, Mildred Bliss commissioned a concerto from Igor Stravinsky, the Concerto in E-flat, aka “Dumbarton Oaks.”
Stravinsky was a citizen of and commenter on the modern age, a whirlwind force of creativity, a voracious musical omnivore. His musical trajectory — from “primitive” to neoclassical to serialist — paints him as a stylistic chameleon, yet the Russian’s distinct musical sensibility is present throughout his oeuvre.
A tremendous orchestrator of symphonic music (The Rite of Spring, The Firebird) and dramatic works (Petrushka, L’Histoire du soldat, Jeu de cartes), Stravinsky’s smallerscale opuses tend to escape the spotlight. This is a pity, as his chamber music is packed with as much theatricality as his music for larger and louder forces. From instant to instant, this theater can be comedic, grotesque, awkward and then suddenly intimate and moving.
The Russian visited Dumbarton Oaks in advance of fulfilling the commission, and was apparently struck by the pristine layout of the gardens. But a stronger influence of form pervades “Dumbarton Oaks”: penning the concerto back home in Europe, Stravinsky and his eldest daughter, Ludmilla, were ill with tuberculosis. Ludmilla would not survive. (His wife Katya would die the following year.) During this dark period, Stravinsky continued to write and sought shelter in Bach.
“I played Bach very regularly during the composition of the concerto,” Stravinsky later recalled, “and I was greatly attracted to the Brandenburg Concertos.” He goes on to implicitly defend certain critics’ cries of plagiarism: “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.”
‘The formalism of the Dumbarton Oaks garden landscape is pitted against the perverse Stravinsky aesthetic: artful, haphazard, obscene, refined, cultured and dark.’
Bach’s uncanny sense of form is present in “Dumbarton Oaks,” but I don’t hear the Third Brandenburg, nor much else borrowed from the old master here. “Dumbarton Oaks” falls into Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, a return to Classical ideals of Balance, Form and Symmetry, but in Stravinsky’s hands, neoclassical is always delivered with a wink and ironic twists: any melody Stravinsky gets his hands on, he makes his own.
Speaking to arranging the Baroque works of Italian composer Giovanni Pergolesi for Pulcinella, a collaboration with the Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Stravinsky elegantly pinpoints what was then a burgeoning confluence of old and new in Expositions and Developments (co-written with Robert Craft): “Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, 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.”
The “Dumbarton Oaks” opening ultimately sounds more Copland than Bach, and it would come as no surprise to learn that Copland himself — a great admirer of Stravinsky and a fellow folkmusic-influenced-nationalist–world-citizen–chameleon — gleaned some Coplandness from “Dumbarton Oaks” in advance of writing Billy the Kid (1938): Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the twentieth century, conducted the “Dumbarton Oaks” premiere (in May 1938 in Dumbarton Oaks’ music room) in the absence of the still-recovering Stravinsky; both composers were Boulanger pupils.
But the now-Coplandesque opening from Stravinsky — tonal, expansive, wistful — is a false flag, and from the busy fugue that follows emerges the ruddy, contrapuntal dissonance of the Stravinsky that was before (Les noces) and was to be (Symphony of Psalms).
And so the formalism of the Dumbarton Oaks garden landscape is pitted against the perverse Stravinsky aesthetic: artful, haphazard, obscene, refined, cultured and dark. The darkness of the orchestration (flute, B-flat clarinet, bassoon, horn and strings) infuses the composer’s three movements and fifteen minutes of invention with a palpable sense of foreboding. Fugato passagework surfaces at the end of each movement to varied but always compelling effect.
The concerto was the last work Stravinsky would complete in Europe. In September of 1939, he would leave Europe for the United States, ostensibly to ensure a cycle of lectures for Harvard (later published as Poetics of Music).
But the first public performance of “Dumbarton Oaks” came the year prior in Paris (where Stravinsky had completed the manuscript), just a month after its debut at the Bliss estate. With Stravinsky himself this time at the podium, the French critics (notably René Leibowitz, who would further push against Stravinsky and for twelve-tone composition in post-war France) were hostile, bolstering and perhaps tipping the composer’s resolve to move to the United States, where his music was gaining favor.
Stravinsky would emigrate in 1939 to the United States and settle in: he continued to compose, write, direct performances, and lecture. He remarried in 1940 to Vera de Bosset, moved to Beverly Hills, and then bought a house in Hollywood. He became a United States citizen in 1945. Collaborations with Aldous Huxley, W. H. Auden, George Balanchine, William Hogarth and Robert Craft would follow, the latter steering the composer toward serialism. In America, the artist’s middle period became late. Stravinsky moved to New York City in 1969, where he passed away two years later at the age of eighty-eight, a Russian–French–American master.
This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & Culture, Steinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.