Work: Symphony in Three Movements
About This Work
Igor Stravinsky completed his Symphony in Three Movements in 1945. The first movement was begun in April 1942, and the final work was completed a few months after the end of World War II. During this time the composer was engaged in contract
negotiations to write film scores. Among the film moguls interested in commissioning Stravinsky was Louis B. Mayer, then president of MGM. Stravinsky had already written music before the projects were scrapped, and much of it found its way into Symphony in Three Movements. The outer movements involved wartime news footage, and the central movement was written for the appearance of the Virgin Mary in the film The Song of Bernadette, based on the Franz Werfel novel.
To integrate the different groups of material, Stravinsky chose to feature the piano and harp in separate, concertante roles in the first two movements, and then combined them in the third movement in an extended fugal arrangement. The symphony is a great balancing act, weaving together disparate musical ideas. The outer movements are explosive, indicative of the film score style common to American war footage. Ironic artifice, a signature sound in his music, is particularly understated in this symphony. Likewise, the middle movement, originally intended for the Virgin apparition, is suitably wrought with veneration, though perhaps not to the extent that would have please the film's producers. Stravinsky was not the sort of composer who gushed excessively, if at all. His Symphonies of Wind Instruments was an elegy of Debussy's passing, a composer and friend of enormous importance to Stravinsky, but any lamentations in the work are under total control. It was not in his character to express his feelings musically, and in fact, felt that musical was incapable of "expressing" anything. That being the case, for him to depict Bernadette's shock and amazement at encountering the Mother of Christ would have sounded unnatural. The central movement is not rhapsodic or indicative of a human soul overwhelmed in the presence of a divine being. It is contemplative music, subtle and understated, and free of amazement. The outer movements are somewhat more successful in capturing the intended spirit of war footage. They feature tumultuous blasts of brass and driving rhythms but again the composer seems removed from the excitement and concern the music is supposed to convey, instead sounding rather bizarre and exotic. The focused intensity of a believer in either war or religion was too singular a nuance for Stravinsky to sustain for an entire film score. Ultimately, the result of this forgivable failing was an excellent and memorable symphony.
-- John Keillor
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