Concertino by Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) was written in 1920 as a one-movement chamber piece for string quartet. Stravinsky composed it immediately after his ballet Pulcinella, which marked his twenty year neo-classical period characterized by a consistent return to the European musical tradition of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Paris premiere of Pulcinella on 15 May 1920 was a shock to many of those who witnessed the scandal with The Rite of Spring – for a change, this time they were shocked by Stravinsky’s conscious “traditionalism”. The explosive and unpredictable Russian had changed his style so suddenly and abruptly that he was unrecognizable in this new composition. Many for whom Stravinsky was the revered guru of modern music interpreted this as a betrayal of the avant-garde. Nevertheless, neo-classicism became the dominant musical movement of the following quarter century.
The premiere of Concertino was given by the Flonzaley Quartet in New York on 23 November 1920. It is related to Stravinsky’s often quoted bon mot. When asked what he thought of the quality of their performance, he replied, “It sounded like a sewing machine.” Exactly what he meant, whether he wanted to praise their mechanically precise interpretation or, on the contrary, to criticize it, is still unknown.
In 1952 Stravinsky revised his Concertino and scored it for a larger ensemble consisting of 12 instruments: flute, oboe, English horn, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, tenor trombone, bass trombone, violin and cello. The piece greatly gained in color and variety. In terms of instrumentation, it remained on the principles already applied in 1918 in The Soldier’s Tale. The Los Angeles premiere of the new version of Concertino took place on 11 November 1952. On this occasion, the Los Angeles Chamber Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Igor Stravinsky himself. The composition was later popularized thanks to an outstanding performance by the Boston Symphony Chamber Players; their sewing machine on the cover of the LP record of Deutsche Grammophon from the 1970s runs really well.
In 1930s, Paul Hindemith (1895–1963) arrived at a specifically German form of neoclassicism called the “Neue Sachlichkeit” – “New Objectivity”. In the thickening atmosphere of the fascistization of his country, he turned to Johann Sebastian Bach as the personification of the humanist ideal in German music. The New Objectivity represented considerable rationalization, balance and objectivity in composing, but sometimes at the expense of full-fledged music. Hindemith reacted to the fascist victory in the 1933 elections with silence. Later he composed a new opera Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter) based on the life of the medieval painter who created the Isenheim Altarpiece, with an eloquent scene of public book-burning to which the Nazis resorted as well. It could not be staged as an opera at the time, but three of its orchestral movements were presented in Berlin as a symphony by Wilhelm Furtwängler, chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, on 12 March 1934. Joseph Goebbels, the powerful Minister of Propaganda, forced Hindemith to request an indefinite leave of absence and resign from his professorship at the Berliner Hochschule für Musik. However, the Nazis were ambivalent in their relationship to the composer until 1937, when Hindemith was banned by the cultural department of the NSDAP headquarters. He was allowed to work on a limited basis as an ambassador of German culture in Ankara, Turkey, overseeing that country’s music education, and to go on foreign tours as an acclaimed viola soloist. Hindemith wrote a concerto for viola and small orchestra called Der Schwanendreher (The Swan Turner) for himself to play, and premiered it in Amsterdam on 14 November 1935.
The titles of the individual movements of the concerto are only seemingly programmatic. In fact, they are the opening verses of the medieval songs used. The first one is “Between the mountain and the deep valley”; the second, “Now put forth your leaves, little linden tree”; and the final, “Are you not the swan turner?” The swan turner was a cook’s assistant who turned the handle of a spit on which swans were roasting (as described in the simple lyrics of the song used by Hindemith as the theme of the final movement). At the same time, the swan turner seems to refer to a wandering minstrel who plays on an instrument such as the hurdy-gurdy, which has a handle looking like a swan’s neck. Hindemith wrote the following about the concerto: “A minstrel entering a merry company displays what he has brought back from foreign lands: songs serious and gay, and finally a dance piece. Like a true musician, he expands and embellishes the melodies, preluding and improvising according to his fancy and ability.” This quote captures the character of the composition, in which old times themes are not neo-classically stylized, but “only” embellished and varied. In Der Schwanendreher, Hindemith stylized himself into that minstrel, a traveling musician with no real home.
Richard Strauss (1864–1949) was barely 17 when he composed Serenade in E flat major for 13 wind instruments in 1881. He had already written an orchestral march, a string quartet, a piano sonata and some shorter piano pieces. Upon publication, this new work was given Opus No. 7. This is a little misleading since Strauss also wrote a four-movement Suite, Op. 4 for the same wind ensemble, which was not written until 1884.
As the teen-aged son of Franz Strauss, principal horn player of the Munich Court Orchestra, the young Richard lived in a world saturated with music. He studied music privately from the age of 11 with Friedrich Wilhelm Meyer (to whom he dedicated this serenade). Strauss’s father also regularly conducted the amateur orchestra Wilde Gungʼl. His son was a frequent visitor at rehearsals and performances, and he eventually joined the ensemble as a member of the violin group. This experience was a school of life for Strauss and provided the young talent, among other things, with valuable knowledge of orchestral instrumentation. Strauss was also well acquainted with Mozart’s classical wind serenades, especially his Gran Partita, which was thought to have been written by Mozart for members of the Munich Court Orchestra (although new research has cast doubt on this).
Serenade in E flat major was premiered on 27 November 1882 in Dresden by the conductor Franz Wüllner, who had previously directed the Munich premieres of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, the first two installments of Wagner’s Ring tetralogy, in 1869 and 1870. The serenade enormously impressed the conductor Hans von Bülow, who became Strauss’s mentor and took him as his assistant to the Meiningen Court Orchestra.
Strauss’s serenade is in one movement and revels in the rich, full sound of the winds. Perhaps the most compelling moment is the beginning of the sonata recapitulation, with the horns playing the main theme. Here the young composer was perhaps the most influenced by his father’s superb horn playing.
Leoš Janáček (1854–1928) composed Capriccio, one of his last chamber pieces, in the fall of 1926 upon the suggestion of pianist Otakar Hollmann (1894–1967), who had lost the use of his right arm during the First World War at the front. Hollmann nevertheless decided to continue his career as a concert pianist. He achieved a fantastic dexterity in playing with his left hand with the help of special pedaling. Like his contemporary, the one-armed virtuoso Paul Wittgenstein, for whom Ravel, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Britten, Strauss and Korngold wrote piano works for the left hand, Otakar Hollmann commissioned new compositions from Czech composers. In addition to Bohuslav Martinů, Erwin Schulhoff, Jaroslav Řídký and Josef Bohuslav Foerster, he also succeeded with Leoš Janáček. At first Janáček was rather hesitant (“It is hard to dance when you have only one leg.”), but he accepted this challenge. Capriccio was first performed by Otakar Hollmann with members of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra on 2 March 1928 in Prague in the presence of the enthusiastic composer.
Janáček experimented with the form of a mini-concerto for piano in his chamber piece Concertino, and he used wind instruments in an innovative way in Youth and Nursery Rhymes. Janáček eagerly listened to new compositions for various wind or mixed chamber ensembles by Stravinsky, Schönberg and Hindemith at international festivals of contemporary music – for example, in Salzburg in 1923. Janáček’s idea of brass military music, which was also reflected in his orchestral piece Sinfonietta, certainly played a role in his choice of instruments. He accepted Hollmann’s commission with the aim of creating another innovative composition. Janáček had plenty of creative energy even after his 70th birthday.
Capriccio is in four movements and it is scored for piano, flute (in alternation with piccolo), two trumpets, three trombones (preferably valve trombones because of the fast passages) and tenor tuba (replaceable by French horn). The piece is technically demanding, even tortuous in the brass parts. Also the interpretation of the title of Janáček’s Capriccio is a mystery. Originally it was to be called Defiance (despite war or adversity), then Janáček referred to it as “a series of pranks” (perhaps in an ironic sense), before finally paradoxically naming it Capriccio (whim, joke). It is possible that everything came together for him in the new piece: despite everything and everyone, Hollmann continued to give concerts. Despite everything and everyone, Janáček was still composing, in his own way and in an innovative way. Despite his old age, which was relentlessly pressing on him, he felt young. Despite social conventions and public disapproval, he fell deeply in love with Kamila Stösslová, a young and married woman. When he wrote to her that “Capriccio is whimsical, it is a series of pranks and jokes,” he was also making fun of himself a little. In any case, his explanation undermines all pathetic interpretations about man’s victorious struggle with fate.