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About this Piece

Composed: 1942-1945
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 6, 1947, Otto Klemperer conducting

In 1942, two years after completing the Symphony in C, Stravinsky began on a commission from the New York Philharmonic. Work progressed fitfully, with the composer changing his mind many times about the shape the work would take, with the only certainty (then) being that it would include a concertante part for solo piano.

What ultimately evolved into the Symphony in Three Movements was not completed until 1945, during the final days of World War II, under the influence, as the composer wrote, “of our arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope, of continual torments, of tension and, at last, cessation and relief...”

In 1943 Stravinsky made a stab at writing music for the film version of Franz Werfel’s novel Song of Bernadette. It, like Stravinsky’s other film projects, didn’t pan out; but what music he did complete, chiefly a scene for “The Apparition of the Virgin,” with a prominent part for the solo harp, the composer claims became the second movement of the present Symphony.

It would seem that by the end of 1943 he had two-thirds of a sort of sinfonia concertante on his hands: the first movement dominated by the piano, the second by the harp. What, then, to do with the finale? His solution, according to Stravinsky scholar Eric Walter White, was “not merely to combine [piano and harp] in instrumental tutti passages, but to spotlight them as the two leading voices in an alla breve fugue that he placed in the center of the movement.” Before doing so, however, he must have altered at least the first movement considerably, since the piano, while important, isn’t nearly the assertive concertante presence one would imagine.

In Dialogues and a Diary (1964) Stravinsky goes into considerable, perhaps excessive detail regarding the inspiration and “program” for the Symphony, reiterating the notion of being inspired by film: “Each episode in the Symphony is linked in my imagination with a specific cinematographic impression of the war...” Thus, the aggressive first movement – a free interpretation of Classical sonata-allegro, with an introduction and a coda – was “inspired by a war film of scorched earth tactics in China.” The central episode for clarinet and piano “was conceived as a series of instrumental conversations to accompany a cinematographic scene showing the Chinese people scratching and digging in their fields.”

In its jaggedness and anger, this highly chromatic music is far removed in sound and color from its diatonic equivalent in the Symphony in C. Here, neo-Classical form meets Sacre du printemps rhythmic intensity, if not the ballet’s rhythmic complexity.

Movement two is difficult to conceive as having any relationship to an “Apparition of the Virgin.” If it does describe such an event, it is surely done tongue-in-cheek (which is unlikely), with an almost Rossini-like lightness. A seven-measure interlude leads to the finale, which the composer described as having been written in “reaction to the newsreels and documentaries I had seen of goose-stepping soldiers. The square march beat, the brass-band instrumentation, the grotesque crescendo in the tuba, these are all related to those abhorrent pictures... The exposition of the fugue and the end of the Symphony are associated in my plot with the rise of the Allies, and the final, rather too commercial D-flat sixth-chord – instead of the expected C – in some way tokens my exuberance in the Allied triumph...”

That final, raucously jubilant chord, by the way, is spread out over six octaves-plus in the orchestra: a hellishly glorious noise.

The Symphony in Three Movements – “‘Three Symphonic Movements’ would be a more exact title,” according to Stravinsky – was first performed in January of 1946 in Carnegie Hall. The composer conducted the New York Philharmonic.

Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.