Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Nationality: Russian
Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum Died: April 6, 1971, New York (age 88)

Double Canon for String Quartet, Raoul Dufy in memoriam

(for 2 violins, viola and cello)
Duration: 2 minutes (approximately)
Composed: 1959 (age 76-77)
3 recordings, 3 videos
Ysaÿe Quartet
Chilingirian Quartet
Alban Berg Quartet
From Kai Christiansen

Igor Stravinsky, 1882-1971

Concertino for String Quartet, 1920
Three pieces for String Quartet, 1914
Double Canon for String Quartet, 1959

Igor Stravinsky Igor Stravinsky is regarded by most as the single most important composer of the 20th century. Turning eighteen in 1900, Stravinsky lived for nearly ninety years until 1971, far outliving the other crucial giants of the era including Debussy, Schoenberg, Bartók and Ives. Successively a citizen of three countries – Russia, France and the United States – Stravinsky would cover a similarly vast terrain of musical style spanning a commonly held classification into three periods: Russian, Neo-Classical (of which he is considered the founder) and Serialism. It is conspicuous, if not characteristic of the age, that Stravinsky wrote little for the string quartet. What he did produce was as novel and revolutionary as his music in other genres, a distinctive break from earlier traditions that would strike many as enigmatic if not bizarre.

A more impressive debut can scarcely be imagined. Stravinsky first set the world on fire with his series of three ballets for Diaghilev written between 1910 and 1913: The Firebird, Petroushka, and, most notably, the Rite of Spring. Characterized by Russian folk themes, barbaric rhythms, polytonality and brilliant orchestration reflecting the influence of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, the scores employed vast orchestral resources inclining Debussy to comment that Stravinsky had “enlarged the boundaries of the permissible.” One year later, in 1914, Stravinsky turned to the string quartet and, in a matter of a mere four days, wrote his Three Pieces for String Quartet. Reducing his palette to just four stringed instruments and the time scale to a total duration of less than a single movement in a traditional quartet, the Three Pieces represent a diametrical opposite to the Russian Ballets. As music for the string quartet, they represent a dramatic departure, if not perhaps a negation of a long-standing tradition. In the words of Paul Griffiths, “Stravinsky’s work, for the first time in the history of the genre, is determinedly not a ‘string quartet’ but a set of pieces to be played by four strings”.

Igor Stravinsky The Three Pieces were originally published without titles, but Stravinsky later orchestrated them, adding titles and a fourth piece to create his Four Etudes for Orchestra. The Three Pieces thereby acquired the titles “Danse”, “Excentrique” and “Cantique.” The first piece is distinguished by its novel texture: each of the four strings pursues a short, distinctly individual part and sonority with a single-minded obstinacy as if completely unaware of the other parts. Oddly static, the timing relationships between the parts constantly shift so that the music is always different without really going anywhere. A Russian folk melody amidst the color and clamor of simultaneous but independent characters recalls Petroushka at the Shrovetide fair. As its title would imply, the second piece is indeed eccentric. Droll, mercurial, ultra-modern, it features the most idiosyncratic writing of the three pieces, remarkably capturing the adventurous use of color and scoring found throughout Stravinsky’s orchestral writing. “Excentrique” was apparently inspired by another burlesque clown, a contemporary character from the English stage named “Little Tich”. The final piece, “Cantique”, finds Stravinsky writing the polar opposite of his own first piece in the set. Here, the four instruments blend into a unified homophony as a solemn chorus in the undifferentiated anonymity of liturgy. Somber, even dour, the piece represents a most uncharacteristic finale for a quartet, but a wonderful contrast in this set of three character studies. Its bleak and forlorn mood easily recalls counterparts in the Rite of Spring written just one year before.

Though Stravinsky’s output for chamber music is quite small, he turned twice again to the string quartet composing the Concertino of 1920 and a brief Double Canon thirty-nine years later. Curiously, each successive work for string quartet is shorter than its predecessor with the final Double Canon lasting only a few minutes. Stravinsky composed the Concertino at the request of Alfred Pochon, the leader of the Flonzaley Quartet who wished to add something more contemporary to their repertoire. In a collection of writings, Stravinsky provides his own little program note stating that the Flonzaley “asked me to write them an ensemble piece, in form and length of my own choosing, to appear in the programs of their numerous tours. So it was for them that I composed my Concertino, a piece in one single movement, treated in the form of a free sonata allegro with a definitely concertante part for the first violin.”

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Related Composers

Soulima Stravinsky (1910-1994)
Nationality: American | Swiss | Russian
Born: September 23, 1910, Lausanne Died: November 28, 1994, Sarasota, FL (age 84)