ABOUT THE VISUAL PRESENTATIONS FOR
DVORAK AND STRAVINSKY
The “visual presentation” for the Largo and Scherzo of Dvorak’s New World Symphony was created in 1993 for the Brooklyn Philharmonic when J.H. was its Executive Director. It has since been used by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and the Nashville Symphony, among other orchestras. The purpose was not to propose a program, but to reinstate the cultural vocabulary shared by Dvorak and his audience of 1893, and so enable present-day audiences to experience this music as it was experienced when new. The visual ingredients include excerpts from Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (acknowledged by Dvorak as a point of inspiration for both movements), renderings of scenes from Hiawatha, and nineteenth century American paintings by Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, George Catlin, and Frederic Remington, among others.
The Stravinsky “visual presentation” that we have now created is, again, not intended to impose or imply an intended narrative; like Dvorak, Stravinsky intended no narrative. Rather, it seizes a unique opportunity to open a window on Stravinsky’s method – and challenges the notion, propagated by Stravinsky himself, that his concert music is notably unfreighted by extra-musical baggage. In fact, Stravinsky was a born theater composer, attuned to dance and physical gesture. It is no wonder that George Balanchine so successfully choreographed the Symphony in Three Movements and so many other “abstract” Stravinsky scores.
In creating a visual accompaniment to the symphony’s six-minute finale, we have used soldiers and other wartime “news” images that Stravinsky mentioned (in the appended passage from his conversations with Robert Craft). To adumbrate Stravinsky’s “turning point” at the beginning of the fugue, we change direction (the soldiers now advance right to left): the Allied tide of victory. The “goose-stepping” music that begins the movement is afterward aligned with goose-stepping solders. The syncopated motif Stravinsky calls a “rumba” aligns with war machines.
Stephen Walsh, in his recent Stravinsky biography, discusses the pertinence of Stravinsky's "supposed" testimony to Craft about the martial imagery informing the symphony's outer movements. While Walsh's reading of the symphony as an abstract neo-classical exercise is doubtless a valid listening option, we feel that we have refuted his assumption that soldiers and tanks are irrelevant to the affect of this stirring music. But we propose neither a program nor a definitive reading.
As operated by Peter (who has done the lion’s share of the work, culling images from a blueprint devised by JH), the presentation follows the conductor, not the other way around.
— Peter Bogdanoff and Joseph Horowitz
The Symphony in Three Movements was composed as a “victory symphony” for the New York Philharmonic. Stravinsky conceded that it contains traces of impressions and experiences colored by “this our arduous time of sharp and shifting events, of despair and hope, of continual torments, of tension, and at last cessation and relief.” A more remarkable concession, in conversation with Robert Craft, was that specific scenes from war documentaries had excited his composer’s imagination. Asked “in what ways is the music marked by world events?” Stravinsky answered:
Certain specific events excited my musical imagination. Each episode is linked in my mind with a concrete impression of the war, almost always cinematographic in origin. For instance, the beginning of the third movement is partly a musical reaction to newsreels I had sense of goose-stepping soldiers. The square march beat, the brass-band instrumentation, the grotesque crescendo in the tuba – all these are related to those repellant pictures. In spite of contrasting musical episodes, such as the canon for bassoons, the march music predominates until the fugue, the beginning of which marks the stasis and the turning point. The immobility here seems to me comic, and so, to me, was the overturned arrogance of the Germans when their machine failed at Stalingrad. The fugal exposition and the end of the Symphony are associated with the rise of the Allies, and the final, albeit too commercial, D-flat chord – instead of the expected C – is a token of my extra exuberance in the triumph. The rumba in the finale, developed from the timpani part in the introduction to the first movement, was also associated in my imagination with the movements of war machines . . .
Enough of this. In spite of what I have admitted, the symphony is not programmatic. Composers combine notes. That is all. (Stravinsky/Craft, Memories and Commentaries, pp. 220-221.)