Scherzo á la Russe

by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Igor Stravinsky

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About the Composer

Stravinsky’s father was a bass singer in the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre and so it was no surprise that young Igor was a talented pianist with an interest in composition. While suffering through law school (his parents’ idea), Stravinsky met the famous Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom he studied until Rimsky-Korsakov’s death in 1908. A year later, the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev heard two pieces by the young Stravinsky and promptly commissioned him to write a ballet, The Firebird, which proved to be a giant success. More commissions followed, including The Rite of Spring, which caused fist fights between supporters and detractors at its 1913 premiere in Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. (The conductor Pierre Monteux later wrote: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on.”)

Although clearly having his own highly original style, Stravinsky embraced influences from Russian folk music, 17th- and 18th-century classical music and modern serialism. He moved to Los Angeles in 1939. When he died at the age of 88 he was one of, if not the, most significant composers of the 20th century.

About this Piece

Although highly successful in Europe, Stravinsky’s financial situation in pre-war America was complicated by his inability to collect European royalties on his previous compositions. Those circumstances, and Stravinsky’s natural creativity, led to stabs at new musical forms, including musical theater, jazz, popular song and film scores. He eventually settled back into the classical concert hall and made a mint in his newly adopted home.

Scherzo á la Russe was initially written for a war film, The North Star, which was a bit of propaganda designed to soften American attitudes toward its WWII ally, Russia. That project fell through and the composer re-purposed the Scherzo to fulfill a commission from the Paul Whitman jazz orchestra. It was premiered in 1944 on ABC Radio in a jazz orchestration including six saxophones. That effort was less successful than the full-orchestra version Stravinsky completed in 1945 and which we hear at this concert.
Scherzo literally means “joke” and the piece sounds neither war-like nor particularly jazzy, but its cheerful and jaunty attitude has made it popular in the concert hall.

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