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Stravinsky's Chamber Works

String Quartet
Key works

  • Three Pieces for String Quartet
  • Ragtime for 11 Players
  • Concertino for String Quartet
  • Octet
  • Septet
  • Epitaphium
  • Double Canon for String Quartet

Stravinsky's forays into chamber music are as idiosyncratic as his works in many other fields. Not for him a core output of serious string quartets. Instead we have works for very varied ensembles, each distinctive and highly characteristic, plus three tiny works (all under 8 minutes long) for string quartet which do mark significant stylistic boundaries for him.

The Three Pieces for String Quartet were written in 1914, shortly after The Rite of Spring, are experimental in nature, pushing music to its limits. The first piece uses ostinati (repeated figures) reminiscent of The Rite of Spring but very mechanical. The second is almost atonal and its vigourous movement was inspired by the clown Little Tich. And the last piece represents a first exploration of a static, austere quasi-religious style that Stravinsky would return to many times.

The Concertino for String Quartet, written in 1920, is a single movement (though in three clear sections) of about 7 minutes duration which features the first violin as a soloist, supported by the other three players, hence the title Concertino or little concerto. It has all the hallmarks of Stravinsky's neoclassical style, whereas the Double Canon for String Quartet of 1959, subtitled In Memoriam Raoul Dufy, is written in Stravinsky's late twelve-note style. It consist of somewhat severe, though moving counterpoint and is even shorter, rivalling Webern at under two minutes.

Ragtime grew out of the 'Ragtime' section of A Soldier's Tale. Its eleven instruments comprise flute, clarinet, two horns, trombone, big drum, snare drum, side drum, cymbals, cimbalom (a Hungarian zither which Stravinsky delighted in using), first and second violin, viola and double bass.

The Octet (1923) is a neoclassical three-movement work with immense appeal. It is full of melody and intriguing rhythms. Of this work Stravinsky wrote, in a cogent expression of his musical philosophy, "This sort of music has no other aim than to be sufficient in itself...The play of the musical elements is the thing."

The Septet, written in 1952-3, marks a transition towards Stravinsky's late serial phase. The first movement is a neo-classical sonata form. The succeeding Passacaglia uses a 16-note row and divides the theme between instruments in the manner of Webern. The final Gigue is serial and encompasses four fugues. The instrumentation (clarinet, bassoon, horn, piano, violin, viola & cello) is modelled on Schoenberg's Suite for Septet Op29, three winds, piano and three strings.

Epitaphium was dedicated to the memory of Prince Max Egon zu Fürstenberg, the sponsor of the Donaueschingen Festival at which Stravinsky was guest composer in 1957. Donaueschingen was a post-War celebration of serial music and Stravinsky's memorial piece out-Weberns Webern in its brevity, only seven bars long, and its stark simplicity.

© Kevin Stephens/BBC

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