[read also: Examining Scriabin - longread]
[all programme notes]
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) sent a shockwave through the musical world with the percussive and dissonant sounds of The Firebird and The Rite of Spring. After the First World War, he broke new ground, whereby he took models from the Baroque and Classical periods and kneaded them into modernist works. His Violin Concerto in D, for example, is an ode to J.S. Bach.
Béla Bartók (1881-1945) also explored alternative musical paths in order to breathe new life into twentieth-century art music. He found inspiration in the folk music of his native Hungary, and reworked these into new compositions. But the most distinctive composer on this programme is without any doubt Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915). He saw music as a means to express his mystical ideas and to elevate humanity to a higher level of consciousness. His Second Symphony already gives us a glimpse of his eccentric vision.
In 1929, Stravinsky’s publisher, Willy Strecker, asked him to write a violin concert for the young Polish violinist Samuel Dushkin. The commission came, in fact, from the American composer and diplomat Blair Fairchild, Dushkin’s adoptive father. Stravinsky was not keen on the idea, as he had little affinity for the instrument. But Strecker reassured him that Dushkin would help him with technical advice during the composition process. Paul Hindemith also encouraged him and could only see the positive side, as the work would help him to "avoid a routine technique and would give rise to ideas that would not be suggested by the familiar movement of the fingers."
After a meeting with Dushkin, Stravinsky was convinced. His fear of a virtuoso violinist who wanted a piece that would enable him to shine turned out to be unfounded. And so, Stravinsky began his first draft in 1931. He worked successively in Paris, Nice and Grenoble, and during the process, Dushkin advised the composer on how to translate his compositional ideas into the technical demands of the violin: “Whenever he accepted one of my suggestions, even a simple change such as extending the range of the violin by stretching the phrase to the octave below and the octave above, Stravinsky would insist on altering the very foundations correspondingly. He behaved like an architect who, if asked to change a room on the third floor, had to go down to the foundations to maintain the proportions of the whole structure.”
The basis of the composition is a chord that Stravinsky described as the “passport to the concerto”, and that introduces each of the four movements in a different way. At first, Dushkin was not convinced that the chord could be played: “I had never seen a chord with such an enormous stretch, from the E to the top A, and I said: ‘No.’ Stravinsky said sadly: 'Quel dommage' [What a pity]. After I got home, I tried it, and to my astonishment, I found that in that register, the stretch of the eleventh was relatively easy to play, and the sound fascinated me. I telephoned Stravinsky at once to tell him that it could be done.”
Stravinsky was not a fan of the traditional concertos of Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms. But he modelled his Violin Concerto in D on the example of J.S. Bach: “The titles of my movements - Toccata, Aria, Capriccio, suggest Bach, however, and so to some extent does the musical substance. My favourite Bach solo concerto is the one for two violins, as the duet with a violin from the orchestra in the last movement is meant to show. But the Violin Concerto contains other duet combinations, too, and the texture of the music is more chamber music in style than orchestral."
The collaboration between Dushkin and Stravinsky was successful and led to many joint concerts. On 23 October 1931, Dushkin premiered the work with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stravinsky himself. Dushkin also performed the work’s American premiere, in January 1932, with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and he recorded the concerto in 1935. In 1941, the choreographer George Balanchine used the violin concerto for his ballet Balustrade, which according to Stravinsky was one of the most satisfying visualisations of all his works.
“Is it possible to link a composer like Scriabin to any tradition at all?” That is what Stravinsky also wondered, so unique was his musical language. Scriabin initially wrote mainly for the piano. Only later did he put his hand to larger orchestral works, including five symphonies that he wrote between 1899 and 1910. An evident compositional evolution runs through these works, from a rather late Romantic to a modernistic writing style. Along the way, Scriabin also grew impassioned with the poetry of the symbolists and the philosophical writings of Nietsche, Kant and theosophists like Madame Blavatsky. They helped him better understand his role in the world. Scriabin thus saw himself as a sort of messiah who would change the world with his music. He considered the fact that he was born Christmas Day to be the ultimate sign of this vocation.
In his Second Symphony, Scriabin took his first steps toward this radical personal vision. Like his First Symphony, which he had written barely a year earlier, this is an extensive work that, in its form, breaks down the traditional four-part scheme. The premiere, held in January 1902 in Saint Petersburg, elicited mixed reactions. On the one hand, the public booed it, and one listener even remarked that a better name for the work would be the ‘second cacophony’. Vassily Safonoff, then the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, on the other hand, called the work “the new Bible”.