The Kennedy Center

Violin Concerto in D major

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Thomas May

In 1930 music publisher Willy Strecker proposed to Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) the idea of writing a violin concerto specifically for the Polish-born soloist Samuel Dushkin. Stravinsky at first hesitated because of his attitude toward the showy, razzle-dazzle concertos dominating the repertory, but, even more crucially, on account of his lack of hands-on practical knowledge of the instrument. The understanding arrived at was that Dushkin would work closely with the composer as a consultant on the technical matters that could be expected to arise.

Thus was born a productive musical partnership. While Stravinsky was composing the Violin Concerto (between May and October 1931), he kept Dushkin busy, pressing him for advice on how to get the ideas surging in his imagination to conform with the practical limitations of the violin. The ever-resourceful composer typically turned his "outsider" status, as someone who didn't play the violin, to creative advantage.

A perfect example can be seen in a well-known anecdote Dushkin recounted about the early planning phase. Sketching out a three-stop chord on a napkin—D-E-A—Stravinsky asked if it was actually playable in the unusual configuration he wanted to use, as a vertical stack spanning over two and a half octaves. Dushkin asserted at a first glance that it wasn't, only to go home and discover that the chord was indeed "relatively easy to play." His news came as a great relief to the composer, since this particular sonority proves to be central to the Concerto: It serves as a signal beginning each of its four movements. Stravinsky, Dushkin added, referred to the chord as the Concerto's "passport."

As the Concerto's signature chord, it does in fact permit Stravinsky to enter into the territory of the solo concerto with a sense of freedom from convention. It can even be seen as an emblem of the Concerto's delight in playing with expectations. Stravinsky proceeds to do this with a theatrical flair that results in composition at the highest level across all four movements: The Concerto's tightly packed inventiveness leaves no room for empty filler.

After completing the work, Stravinsky appended neo-baroque headings to each of the four movements, and the first critics at the 1931 premiere in Berlin hastened to suggest a linkage with Bach (the composer for his part professed admiration for Bach's Double Violin Concerto). But as with all of Stravinsky's appropriations of past manners and methods, there is never a question of simple imitation: This is the baroque remade in Stravinsky's image.

The opening movement infuses the idea of a toccata (i.e., a virtuoso piece characterized by rapid motion) with a delirious variety of surprises drawn from Stravinsky's bag of rhythmic tricks. Even the basic thematic material, based on a stylized turn, upends a decorative cliché by making it the center of attention and trying to force it into a march. Similarly, here—and throughout the Concerto—Stravinsky reinvents the very concept of virtuosity. This is a Concerto with no showy cadenzas, and yet the soloist is almost constantly on stage, engaged in countless intimate dialogues with instruments across the spectrum of Stravinsky's unique orchestration.

The two middle movements, a succession of "arias"—in the sense of the lyrical slow movements of a baroque concerto or orchestral suite—not only stand apart from the outer movements but intriguingly contrast with each other. Aria I (in D minor) incorporates some of the sense of pulsation of the Toccata and submits its melodic line to striking syncopations. A moment of sharp-edged pathos briefly intrudes in the center. The "passport" chord plays an especially theatrical role in Aria II (F-sharp minor), appearing three more times. Each one is scored as a stately flourish, its public, ritual character marking out space for the violin to air its private, throaty lament against a diminished texture of strings alone. The music is particularly astonishing for its "sincerity," seemingly contradicting Stravinsky's mockery of the idea of music as a vehicle for emotional expression. Or is this another mask?

The final movement, Capriccio, returns to the home key of D and the pulsating spirit of the first but pursues numerous episodic directions, playing linear, scale-like ideas off jagged syncopations and balletic, waltz-like posturing. George Balanchine returned twice to this score to choreograph the whole Concerto: for his 1941 ballet Balustrade and again, in 1972's Stravinsky Violin Concerto. The final Presto section includes nods to both The Rite of Spring and Histoire du Soldat's fiddle playing before rallying into what Robert Craft rightly deemed "one of the most exciting endings Stravinsky ever wrote."