The Kennedy Center

Suite Italienne: 4 celli

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Richard Freed

A"weakness" with which Stravinsky has been charged most frequently by his critics was his supposed inability to create his own themes, a charge based on his conspicuous borrowings from folk music and his quotations of themes by other composers in many of his works. Composers have drawn freely on such sources for centuries, however, while few have achieved anything like Stravinsky's brilliant success in"translating" music of the past into his own language, as exemplified in his two ballets based entirely on the works of earlier composers: The Fairy's Kiss (1928), after Tchaikovsky, and Pulcinella (1920), using themes attributed to Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. Some years after the premiere of Pulcinella it became apparent that quite a few of the best-known works attributed to Pergolesi were in fact written by other composers, and more than half of the material Stravinsky used in Pulcinella was actually composed by Pergolesi's contemporaries Fortunato Chelleri, Domenico Gallo, Alessandro Parisotti and the ever popular"Anon."

While it is of course pertinent to have questions of original authorship resolved, what is more to the point in this case is the genuineness of Stravinsky's own distinctive imprint on every bar of Pulcinella. The original ballet score drew upon operatic as well as instrumental material, and involved singers for performance of the texts. Stravinsky was very happy with the work, which marked the beginning of his"neo-classical" period. He regarded it as his"discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible." Eventually he drew from this score a wholly instrumental suite for small orchestra that is one of his most ingratiating and good-humored concert pieces, and also a shorter but similarly delightful piece of genuine chamber music, the Suite italienne, which exists in two separate versions, both dating from 1932.

One version of this suite was created for, and with the direct and indispensable collaboration of, the violinist Samuel Dushkin, for whom Stravinsky composed his Violin Concerto and Duo concertant and arranged various other works. Dushkin enjoyed a long and close friendship with the composer, with whom he performed frequently and recorded the works created for him. The other version, prepared a bit earlier, was undertaken with the similar collaboration of the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. The five sections of the cello suite are: INTRODUZIONE; SERENATA; ARIA;TARANTELLA; MINUETTO E FINALE. (The violin-and-piano version dispenses with the Aria, but has a Gavotta con due varizioni and a Scherzino between the last two of the above sections.)

In creating the two versions of this suite, Stravinsky is said to have worked even more closely with Piatigorsky than with Dushkin, simply because he was less accustomed to writing for solo cello than for solo violin. In any event, he felt Piatigorsky's part in creating the suite called for recognition beyond a mere printed acknowledgement. Piatigorsky, in his charming memoir titled simply Cellist (Doubleday, 1965), recalled that before their joint effort was published Stravinsky had come to him with a contract, advising that he was entitled to royalties. It was to be, he said,"fifty-fifty—half for you, half for me." Piatigorsky began to protest that he expected no monetary reward for his part in this effort, but Stravinsky insisted, pointing out that while he himself, as composer, would receive a royalty of 90% on performances of the suite, he and Piatigorsky both, as the joint transcribers, would go"fifty-fifty" only on the remaining 10%; thus the split was actually 95% for Stravinsky and 5% for Piatigorsky. The cellist summed up,"I continue to love Stravinsky's music and to admire his arithmetic."