Stravinsky Completes His Wind Octet

Igor Stravinsky’s Octet was one of the most critical compositions that defined a post-World War I musical aesthetic based on objective rather than emotive elements. It exemplified not only Stravinsky’s personal neoclassical period but also the neoclassical movement in music generally.

Summary of Event

Following the success of his score for the 1910 ballet L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird), Igor Stravinsky lived in Paris for several years. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 cut him off from his native Russia, and he took refuge in Switzerland. Compelled to write for reduced instrumental resources rather than the large orchestras he had used for the ballet Le Sacre du printemps (1913; The Rite of Spring) and the opera Le Rossignol (1914; The Nightingale), he experimented with limited scorings, often for unusual instrumental combinations: L’Histoire du soldat (1918; The Soldier’s Tale) Soldier’s Tale, The (Stravinsky)[Soldiers Tale] was scored for violin, string bass, clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, and percussion, and the final scoring for Les Noces (1923; The Wedding) Wedding, The (Stravinsky) called for four pianos and six percussion players to accompany the vocal soloists and chorus. Music;neoclassicism
Octet (Stravinsky)
[kw]Stravinsky Completes His Wind Octet (Oct. 18, 1923)
[kw]Wind Octet, Stravinsky Completes His (Oct. 18, 1923)
[kw]Octet, Stravinsky Completes His Wind (Oct. 18, 1923)
Octet (Stravinsky)
[g]France;Oct. 18, 1923: Stravinsky Completes His Wind Octet[05880]
[c]Music;Oct. 18, 1923: Stravinsky Completes His Wind Octet[05880]
Stravinsky, Igor
Diaghilev, Sergei
Koussevitzky, Serge
Boulanger, Nadia
Bosset, Vera de
Cocteau, Jean

Igor Stravinsky.

(Library of Congress)

The Russian Revolution of October, 1917, further cut Stravinsky off from his native land, to which he would not return until 1962. His Russian works composed in Switzerland, such as the burlesque Renard (1916), featured limited orchestration and use of Russian folktales. Other popular materials in Stravinsky’s works of this period include the Spanish paso doble (a souvenir of a visit to Spain with Sergei Diaghilev) and American ragtime; both appear in The Soldier’s Tale.

Stravinsky’s aesthetic began to evolve from an expressive to an objective and austere one. Denied the expressive resources of the large orchestra for economic reasons, he came to eschew this sound in his reaction against the overblown sonorities of older composers such as Gustav Mahler in Austria and Aleksandr Scriabin Scriabin, Aleksandr in Russia. Reducing the number of strings, and finally eliminating them altogether, was one way of getting away from the soaring, lush emotionalism that he particularly detested in Scriabin’s music; Stravinsky sought to achieve a more objective sound.

The relatively cool and objective strains of the eighteenth century were a final attraction. During World War I, many composers sought an antidote to the heavily Germanic post-Romantic sound, resulting in such works as Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (1919; Couperin’s tomb) and Sergei Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (1917), works with piquant modern harmonies but classical orchestration, balance, and restraint. After the war, Diaghilev reorganized his Ballets Russes Ballets Russes and commissioned Stravinsky to write a ballet using music purporting to be by the eighteenth century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi; Pergolesi, Giovanni Battista Stravinsky did not change the melodies or basses but made subtle modifications to the harmony and scored Pulcinella (1920) Pulcinella (ballet) for classical orchestra.

The strands of Stravinsky’s new developments came together for the first time in the Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920), Symphonies of Wind Instruments (Stravinsky) written as a memorial to Claude Debussy, who had died in 1918. The musical materials were Russian, and the harmonies and counterpoint were reminiscent of The Rite of Spring, but the form was very advanced (the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen Stockhausen, Karlheinz took it as a model for his works), and the sonorities, written for the wind section of a large symphony orchestra but without the strings or percussion, are astringent and biting.

With the Octet of 1923, Stravinsky abandoned Russian musical materials, and the classical ethos of balance and restraint became paramount. The scoring is for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, and two trombones, and each instrument is directed to play solo. This scoring differs from the standard wind octet of the classical period, which consisted of two each of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns.

The work is in three movements. The first movement, “Sinfonia,” consists of a slow introduction followed by a fast movement in a modified sonata form; the key center of E-flat major is clearly recognizable. A theme and variations form the second movement; the theme undergoes various transformations, first in a recurring trombone-centered variation, then as a march. After the trombone variation comes a waltz in which the theme is embedded, then a gallop (the music used for bareback riders in the circus) as a counterpoint to the theme. The trombone variation returns, followed by a fugato wherein the counterpoint grows increasingly denser and more dissonant; after it thins out, the solo flute plays material similar to that which linked the slow introduction to the allegro moderato of the first movement. This linkage, however, is to a finale that pays homage to Johann Sebastian Bach, in the manner of one of Bach’s two-part inventions. This movement is in sonata form, with a very free reprise and a coda that incorporates ragtime elements.

At the work’s first performance at the Paris Opera on October 18, 1923, Stravinsky made his debut as a conductor in the place of Serge Koussevitzky, who had commissioned the work for one of his concerts. Koussevitzky conducted the other two works on the program. Although the published score of the Octet bears no dedication, Stravinsky privately dedicated it to Vera de Bosset, who became his wife seventeen years later.

In an article written the following year for The Arts (January, 1924), Stravinsky stated that his Octet was “a musical object” with a form “influenced by the musical matter with which it is composed.” He added that the work was “not an ’emotive’ work but a musical composition based on objective elements which are sufficient in themselves.” The form of his music, he maintained, was derived from counterpoint, and he remarked that his music “has no other aim than to be sufficient in itself . . . the play of the musical elements is the thing.” The Octet sums up the contrapuntal devices of Bach, the structural ideas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and elements of musical culture associated with popular entertainments such as the circus.


The Octet determined the future shape of musical neoclassicism. Its atmosphere was one of musical detachment rather than of the intense involvement of such expressionists as Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils. Although the name of the movement suggests an imitation of the works of Mozart, in reality neoclassicism embraced nearly all the musically remembered past, principally the works of the composers of the eighteenth century and some early Romantics. Elements from popular musical cultures were employed in neoclassicism, much as they had been in the eighteenth century. Excluded, however, were the highly emotive musical devices of the late Romantic and post-Romantic composers such as Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Aleksandr Scriabin. Thus the neoclassicists differed from such composers as Jean Sibelius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Carl Nielsen, whose music represented an evolution of the late Romantic musical tradition.

By 1923, Stravinsky had become fully converted to the neoclassical idiom; his last Russian work of the postwar period, the chamber opera Mavra (1922), Mavra (Stravinsky) paid homage to Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Glinka, and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky rather than to the “uncultured” folk music of The Wedding. The internationalism of Stravinsky’s neoclassicism is best seen in his largest-scale 1920’s work, the 1927 opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex
Oedipus Rex (Stravinsky) for narrator, soloists, male chorus, and large orchestra. The text, based on Sophocles’ drama, was written by Jean Cocteau and then (except for the narrator’s summaries) translated into Ciceronian Latin to provide an atmosphere of timelessness. The music was in the Anglo-Italian style of George Frideric Handel’s oratorios of the early eighteenth century. Despite the detachment of both librettist and composer from the often-violent plot, the work was highly moving.

An equally monumental (but shorter) counterpart was the Symphony of Psalms of 1930, Symphony of Psalms (Stravinsky) commissioned for the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra by Koussevitzky, its new conductor. The work’s texts were portions of psalms from the Latin (Vulgate) Bible. Its form was not that of the conventional symphony, and some of its techniques had been used in Bach’s church cantatas. The scoring was for mixed chorus and large orchestra, without violins or violas. Stravinsky had returned to the Orthodox Church in 1926, and the work reflected better than any his newly restored faith.

After the Octet, Stravinsky decided to become more active as a conductor and pianist, allowing him less time for composition but facilitating the more frequent performance and wider dissemination of his music. For this purpose, he wrote the spiky Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1924), the Serenade in A Major (1925), a 1924 sonata for solo piano, and Capriccio (1929), Capriccio (Stravinsky) a three-movement piano concerto in all but name, one of his most popular works of the period. Stravinsky did not have any pupils, but he found the French music pedagogue Nadia Boulanger a person who communicated his ideas on music effectively. Boulanger’s advocacy in addition to Stravinsky’s own performances helped to spread the composer’s influence. Boulanger’s pupils included Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, Sir Lennox Berkeley, Elliott Carter, and Karel Husa.

Although Stravinsky became a French citizen in 1934, thus protecting some of his copyrights, he was not thoroughly accepted as a French composer (he was denied election to the French Academy to succeed Paul Dukas), and he felt the pressure of events leading to World War II. He did not tour foreign countries as frequently, his music was condemned in the Soviet Union as bourgeois formalism and in Nazi Germany as degenerate, and his oldest daughter, mother, and wife died in the late 1930’s while Stravinsky himself was suffering from tuberculosis. His music at the time became more practical: The Concerto for Two Solo Pianos (1935) Concerto for Two Solo Pianos (Stravinsky) was written for him and his son Soulima to play in smaller cities that lacked a professional orchestra, and his 1938 chamber concerto in E-flat known as Dumbarton Oaks
Dumbarton Oaks (Stravinsky) (from the estate near Washington where Stravinsky’s patron commissioned the work) contains very specific markings for the conductor. These two works are among Stravinsky’s most accessible neoclassic works, and both show the strong influence of Bach.

Stravinsky began his Symphony in C Major in 1938 as a commission for the fiftieth anniversary of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Two movements were written in France but interrupted by the composer’s trip to the United States, where he was to occupy a chair at Harvard University and deliver the lectures later published as The Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons (1947). Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons, The (Stravinsky) Stravinsky had been very favorably impressed by the vigor of American musical life, and he welcomed the idea of moving to the United States. The third movement was finished in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the city where he married Vera de Bosset (the marriage endured until the composer’s death in 1971); the fourth in Beverly Hills, California. He admitted that he had studied symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn, Beethoven, and even Tchaikovsky as models. The work is in quite standard symphonic form, but with the instruments often treated in concerto fashion. With this work, one of Stravinsky’s masterpieces and a capstone of his neoclassic style, his French period concluded and his American period began. Music;neoclassicism
Octet (Stravinsky)

Further Reading

  • Adorno, Theodor W. Philosophy of New Music. Translated and edited by Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. A comparison of Stravinsky and Schoenberg by one of the leaders of the Frankfurt School of social theory and aesthetic philosophy. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Asafyev, Boris. A Book About Stravinsky. Translated by Richard F. French. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982. Completed in 1929, Asafyev’s volume is the main study by a Soviet-era musicologist. It contains a perceptive analysis of the Octet, but the author deprecates many of Stravinsky’s neoclassic works.
  • Austin, William W. Music in the Twentieth Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966. A thorough treatment of Stravinsky’s neoclassic period within the context of twentieth century music, in a volume that is still the best study of the period.
  • Dushkin, Samuel. “Working with Stravinsky.” In Igor Stravinsky, edited by Edwin Corle. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. A vivid account of Stravinsky as a musical collaborator. Also contains a firsthand account of Stravinsky’s personal and family life during the 1930’s.
  • Lubaroff, Scott. An Examination of the Neo-classical Wind Works of Igor Stravinsky: The Octet for Winds and Concerto for Piano and Winds. Lewiston, N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 2004. Close reading of two of Stravinsky’s most important neoclassical pieces. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Stravinsky, Igor. Stravinsky: An Autobiography. New York: W. W. Norton, 1962. Originally published in 1936, this volume contains the composer’s firsthand account of his work on the Octet and other neoclassical compositions during his French years. Unfortunately, the translation is poor.
  • Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. Dialogues and a Diary. London: Faber & Faber, 1968. When Stravinsky was in his eighties, Robert Craft had him reminisce about his early days and give his current opinions about music. This volume covers the Paris years and the genesis of the Octet.
  • Stravinsky, Vera. Dearest Bubushkin. Edited by Robert Craft. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985. The correspondence of Vera and Igor Stravinsky, with excerpts from Vera’s diary from 1922 on. The text is illustrated with numerous photographs.
  • White, Eric Walter. Stravinsky: The Composer and His Works. 2d ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. The standard English biography of the composer. Includes detailed analyses of his compositions as well as a chronicle of his life.

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