The piano is usually thought of as the Romantic instrument par excellence. Yet, with certain notable exceptions, the major late-Romantics were content to leave the keyboard to the salon composers and the virtuosi. It was actually with the first generation of the 20th century—Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Prokofiev—that the piano was rescued from its role as a purveyor of sentimentality and restored to its former place as a major creative medium.
Of the several distinct styles of 20th-century piano music, none has more character and profile than that of Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky is not nowadays thought of as a pianist and composer for keyboard. Yet almost every note he has written was conceived at the piano, for Stravinsky is one of the few "serious" composers who avowedly works at the instrument. He appeared in public for the first time in 1904 with his Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, now lost. Petrouchka was originally conceived for piano and orchestra, and the piano still gambols through that famous work; he later arranged three movements of the music for piano solo. For many years Stravinsky toured as a pianist, first as a soloist, later with colleagues, always in specially written works. Only when he began playing the piano less and less (and conducting more and more) did his keyboard output slacken.
But for Stravinsky the piano has been far more than an instrument of convenience or practical necessity. The sound of the piano—the powerful, crisp attack of a modern concert grand—is a fundamental part of the Stravinskian esthetic. Nearly all of the major works of the first, "hard" period of neo-classicism—1917 to 1927 —are based on the sound of the piano or of wind instruments or, as in the case of the Piano Concerto, of both. Stravinsky often evokes the past through his use of the keyboard, but it is not, in his hands, a Lisztian or Chopinesque instrument. For Stravinsky, the piano is a music machine built in angles and planes. Out of it he mines his striking rhythmic accents, his block forms, his layered textures and cross-rhythmic pulses.
An exception must be made in the case of the early Four Etudes, Op. 7. For a brief, uncharacteristic moment, Stravinsky connects with the expressive chromaticism and keyboard trickery of the Romantic virtuosi. The set was written in June and July of 1908 at the summer home of his first wife's family, in Ustilug, Russia, and was performed in public by the composer later that same year. The first Etude, Con moto, dedicated to his friend Mitusov, is in C minor and features quintuplets against triplets and duplets almost all the way through. The second, Allegro brillante, D major, pits 6 against 3, 6 against 4, and 6 against 5 in an unceasing rain of sixteenth-notes. The piece is dedicated to the pianist Nicolas Richter, an early exponent of Stravinsky's music. The third Etude is a smoothly rippling 6/8 Andantino in E minor. The final Vivo in F sharp sets legato against staccato in a whirring 4/4. These last two Etudes are dedicated respectively to Andrey and Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, the sons of Nicolai, who was Stravinsky's teacher.
Stravinsky's keyboard muse really began to get cranked up during and just after World War I. Stravinsky, isolated in Switzerland, turned to simpler forms, many of them based on folk and popular sources. Again this was not only a matter of practicality but stemmed from a deeply rooted distrust of conventional and overblown romanticism. Stravinsky abruptly scales his work down from the giant forces of Le Sacre du printemps to the dry aphoristic wit of L'Histoire du soldat. There are "occasional" keyboard works—a lost Valse des fleurs (shades of Tchaikovsky) for two pianos, two sets of "easy pieces" for piano duet, a Souvenir d'une marche boche and Valse pour les enfants. These is even a Study for Pianola (Stravinsky later "recorded" a number of his works on the player-piano).
L'Histoire du soldat also introduces new notes and rhythms into Stravinsky's music—notably those of American ragtime. Let us quote the master: "My knowledge of jazz was derived exclusively from copies of sheet music, and as I had never actually heard any of the music performed, I borrowed its rhythmic style not as played, but as written. I could imagine jazz sound, however, or so I like to think. Jazz meant, in any case, a wholly new sound in my music, and L'Histoire marks my final break with the Russian orchestral school in which I had been fostered."
Stravinsky was not the first "serious" composer to use ragtime—Ives had introduced it into many of his works a decade before—but he was probably the first to transplant it into European music and thus begin to define a rebellious post-war spirit of the '20s. The sketch of Ragtime was finished at Morges, Switzerland, on March 21, 1918; the eleven-instrument version was completed at the exact moment of the Armistice—November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. The work, which is dedicated to Mme. Eugenia Errazuriz, was published in 1919 in both instrumental and piano versions. The latter edition boasts a cover drawing of two musicians, executed in a single continuous line by Stravinsky's sometime collaborator, Pablo Picasso. The work is in a similarly steady, syncopated line; Stravinsky considered it as a stylization of a popular dance form comparable to what older composers had done for the minuet or the waltz. None of this quite accounts for the brashness of the work.
The Piano-Rag-music, written at Morges a year later, strikes an even more ferocious, nose-thumbing note. Rather improbably, it is dedicated to Artur Rubinstein and had its first performances in a series of all-Stravinsky programs in Lausanne, Zurich, and Geneva at the hands of Jose Iturbi. The Piano-Rag-music is more complex (it has many changes of meter and texture) , freer (bar-lines are omitted in several places) , and more pianistic than its predecessor. It is a more abstract, more "composed" piece and one that is more obviously designed to overwhelm—a miniature Sacre rag pounded out on a barroom piano.
Les Cinq Doigts, children's pieces on five notes, Three Movements f rom"Petrouchka," the final version of Les Noces for pianos and percussion, and the Concerto for piano and winds open the '20s, Stravinsky's major keyboard period. The Piano Sonata was composed at Biarritz and Nice in 1924 and is dedicated to the Princess Edmond de Polignac, the famous American-born patroness of music. It was played by the composer at the Donaueschingen Festival in July of 1925 and, in September of that year, at the festivalof the International Society for Contemporary Music at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The work is in a full-blown, etched, "neoclassical" idiom. The C-major first movement runs on in continuous triplets that fail only at a few brief points of cadence. The second movement, an Adagietto in A flat, is an old-fashioned arioso with florid right-hand lines over soft staccato bass. The last movement is another perpetual-motion machine—running sixteenth-notes in E major. The counterpoint is Bachian (well, sort of) and the piece rounds itself out nicely with references to the earlier movements.
Early in 1925, Stravinsky made his first American tour and was invited to record some of his music. Typically, he returned home (at this point, Nice) with the idea of a new piano piece, each movement of which would fit a 78-rpm record side. The Serenade in A was his first work after the Sonata, but its soft neo-classicism is very different from the hard outlines of its predecessor. The title Serenade and the movement headings Hymne, Romanza, Rondoletto, and Cadenza finala (as the fractured Italian of the original has it), along with Stravinsky's own statements about the piece, suggest an evocation of a different aspect of the 18th century—fêtes galantes, aristocratic patrons, garden music, a Watteau harlequin with guitar re-interpreted by Picasso. Yet, curiously enough, the music itself often evokes not so much an 18th-century idyllic out-of-doors mood as 19th-century potted plants—in short, the salon. Classical and early-Romantic keyboard tradition was carried forward in the genteel sentimentalities of late-19th-century salon music. The tradition of the keyboard morceau, the little character piece in a simple closed form, was particularly strong in the Franco-Russian musical orbit (Tchaikovsky was a master of the idiom) and was a familiar part of Stravinsky's youth. It crops up often in his later music—in combination with Baroque, Classical, and 20th-century elements. Obviously "neo-classicism" is something far more than a nostalgic "return" to any particular past—something new in which, as in the parallel cases of T. S. Eliot and Picasso, a larger sense of the past and of "tradition" becomes firmly a part of the present.
The Serenade is an excellent example of this and is perhaps Stravinsky's most remarkable keyboard work. The "in A" is important. Unlike the movements of the Sonata, which are in disparate keys and form a kind of composite tonality, the four pieces of the Serenade all center on A, not a key in the old sense but a center of Stravinskian polarity. The first movement with its rocking 6/8 and its strong emphasis on a "modal" B flat, the Romanza with its opening and closing cadenza and accompanied mixed-mode arioso, and the busy, pulsing, A-major motor of the Rondoletto all end up with open A strings which are not struck but vibrate sympathetically with overtones. Only the Cadenza finala with its flowing parallel chords and continuous eighth-note motion resolves on a fully-sounded A.
In 1928/29, Stravinsky wrote his Capriccio for piano and orchestra, the last work designed for his own solo performance. The piano continues to play an important role in many later works, and there is one more composition for piano and orchestra—the serial Movements of 1959—but there are no more major solo works. However, there are two small occasional pieces from Stravinsky's American period which were issued in piano as well as instrumental versions. These are both rather amusing attempts by Stravinsky to adapt his personal style to a popular "American" idiom. These pieces can be viewed as Gebrauchsmusik in line with the popularizing spirit of the time and/or as potboilers. Tile Tango, composed in Hollywood in 1940, was certainly intended as a popular number. There were even plans at one time to issue it in a dance-band orchestration and as a pop song. The first orchestration was even by an arranger, although later Stravinsky did his own instrumentation. However, the clumpy piano version is indubitably the original, outdoing even Kurt Weill in its almost savage awkwardness and bite. The equally hilarious Circus Polka was commissioned by the Ringling Brothers for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Balanchine was asked to choreograph a "ballet of the elephants" featuring Modoc, premiere elephant ballerina, and forty-nine members of the Corps des Eléphants all dressed in ballet tutus! Stravinsky, when told the work was to be danced by elephants, is said to have asked, "How old?" "Young," he was told. "If they are very young, I'll do it," he answered; hence the Circus Polka "for a young elephant." One unsympathetic critic claimed that Stravinsky's music "robbed [the elephants- of their feeling of security and confidence in the world about them." Nevertheless this rather odd contribution to culture was performed no fewer than 425 times. There are versions of the music for band, orchestra, and piano, and, although the piano version is described as "a reduction by the composer," it undoubtedly came first, corresponding to the original sketch of February, 1942. No further comment is needed except to point out that the climax of the piece is formed by a bouncy polka rhythm improbably accompanied by Schubert's Marche militaire.
- Sonata - I Quarter Note = 112
- Sonata - II Adagietto
- Sonata - III Quarter Note = 112
- Four Etudes - I Con moto
- Four Etudes - II Allegro brillante
- Four Etudes - III Andantino
- Four Etudes - IV Vivo
- Serendae in A - I Hymne
- Serendae in A - II Romanza
- Serendae in A - III Rondoletto
- Serendae in A - IV Cadenza finala
- Circus Polka
Other recordings of piano music by Stravinsky:
- Igor Stravinsky: Duo Concertant; Suite Italienne; Divertimento; Pastorale; Ballad; Chanson Russe; Danse Russe
- The Essential Igor Stravinsky
- Igor Stravinsky: Works for Violin & Piano
- Soulima Stravinsky plays Igor Stravinsky
- Stravinsky for Solo Piano
- Igor Stravinsky: Petrouchka and the Rite of Spring for Two Pianos
- Masters of the Piano Roll: Stravinsky
- Stravinsky: Piano Music - Sonatas / Serenade in A / Four Etudes