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Septet (Violin, Viola, Cello, Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Piano)

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky
Quick Look Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players play Martinu, Sinding, Stravinsky & Saint-Saëns Sun., Apr. 1, 2012, 2:00 PM
© Robert Markow

Stravinsky wrote this twelve-minute composition in 1952-1953 for three wind instruments (clarinet, bassoon, horn) and three strings (violin, viola, cello) plus piano. It was commissioned by the same couple, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, who had commissioned Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto fifteen years earlier. Dumbarton Oaks was the Blisses' estate in Washington, D.C., where both compositions received their premieres. Stravinsky conducted his Septet there on January 23, 1954.

Each of the tiny movements (three to four minutes each) is densely packed with compositional procedures, most of which are immediately obvious only to highly trained ears. But even the most casual listener cannot fail to note the joyous busyness of the opening bars. No sooner has the music been set in motion than the second subject arrives (in bar eight already!), announced by the piano in syncopated, unmistakable E minor chords. Why mention this? Because the movement, compact as it is, and modern as it may sound (more than half a century after it was written), nevertheless conforms to the old-fashioned sonata-allegro format familiar to us from so many symphonies, sonatas and quartets of the classical and romantic periods. The central episode, rather than serving as the expected development section, is a miniature fugue for six instruments (the piano is silent). First and second subjects return in completely recognizable terms, though the second is in D minor - not the key we would expect it to be (A major), and there is even a quiet, seven-bar coda.

The second movement is a passacaglia, a Baroque form consisting of a set of variations built over a repeating bass line. Here, that line is initially presented in two-, three- or four-note groupings by various instruments. In the nine variations that follow, Stravinsky uses inversion, retrograde, retrograde inversion and canon to maximize exploitation of his melodic material.

The final movement is derived from a Baroque dance form, the gigue, with its characteristic pulse of two sets of triplets per bar. This movement too is contrapuntal from beginning to end, full of fugal procedures mapped onto kaleidoscopic use of the seven instruments.

Concertgoers who are not familiar with the Septet but who know the Stravinsky of  Petrushka, The Firebird, the Symphony of Psalms, L'Histoire du Soldat, Pulcinella and other famous works, will still recognize the Septet as music by the same composer, despite its scaled-back instrumentation, astringent sound world and pervasive contrapuntal procedures. All those lively rhythmic patterns, the fascinating interplay of small motifs, the constant dance-like impulses, the acerbic harmonies and pungent dissonances still indubitably shout "Stravinsky." Program annotator Michael Steinberg had some perceptive words to say on the subject: "In the Septet, we meet an ever more exploratory Stravinsky, but is that not really the old Stravinsky too? Over the sixty years of his composing, he changed manners, conventions, surfaces, techniques many times, and angered lots of his contemporaries by doing so. But the voice and the spirit are one. He is always and unmistakably Stravinsky, grave and funny, elegant, clean, inventive, energetic, surprising, the most universal of twentieth-century masters."