Nickel for Your Thoughts: Haydn and Stravinsky

Program Spotlight, Tony Nickle

In his own words, Artistic Director Tony Nickle shares what he believes to be the high points of the program, but with a little edge and humor for good measure.

The high altitude view of this weekend’s concerts looks somewhat similar to our first Masterworks of the season: a juxtaposition of Classical and Neoclassical music. A quick review of what Classical with a capital C means when it comes to music:

  • It was a period of music that began in the mid-1700s as the Baroque period (Bach, Handel, Scarlatti) was waning, and debatably ran through some or all of Beethoven’s music in the first part of the 1800s. Like many Classical art forms, artists looked back to the aesthetic principals outlined by the Greeks many centuries earlier: order, form, and clarity, to name a few biggies.
  • Haydn and Mozart were two of the standard-bearers for this period, followed by a generation of composers who some define as Classical and some consider bridges between Classicism and Romanticism: Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn, for example.

Neoclassicism arose in the early Twentieth Century just after World War I, in many ways as a direct response. The war’s death and destruction was unparalleled at the time, and did considerable damage to the leftover Nineteenth-Century notions of optimism and the individual as heroic. In rejecting late-Romanticism’s apparatae of complication, thick textures, hyperemotional music, artists found that the form and clarity from the Classical Era were effective tools to express something more modest, even ironic or satiric at times. Some of the leading composers of this Neoclassical movement were Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Ravel.

Stravinsky’s Symphony in C was written toward the beginning of World War II, and he had written quite a lot in the Neoclassical vein up to this point. Courtney summed this piece up masterfully in our Insight video (the one where he makes a vesper), and there isn’t much I could add so I’d suggest watching that if you haven’t. What I will reiterate is that the piece was composed over four locations: Paris > Switzerland > Cambridge, MA > and Hollywood. Despite Stravinsky’s insistence that there was nothing biographical embedded in the music, it’s difficult not to hear a stark difference in the compositional language of the European first half and American second half. To me, that’s the coolest thing to listen for, but if you choose to dive a bit deeper listen to the way he constructs movements in a way the mirrors Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven – repetition and working out of themes and motives – and then listen for what makes it uniquely Stravinsky.

Haydn’s “Oxford” Symphony was his 92nd out of 104 symphonies. He single-handedly codified the “rules” and structure of the Classical symphony:

  • 1st Movement: Fast (sometimes with a slow intro) in Sonata Form. That means there are usually two contrasting themes that are introduced, then worked through and developed in various repeated iterations, then they come back in even more complete glory with capes and tiaras to end the movement.
  • 2nd Movement: Slow and often pretty, sometimes as a sort of theme and variations.
  • 3rd Movement: Minuet and Trio. A minuet is a dance in 3, only more leisurely in pace than a waltz (and a much older dance). The trio is a contrasting middle section also in 3. These movements always end with a return of the Minuet; this is colloquially known as A-B-A form, but the prizewinners who impress me know it as Ternary Form.
  • 4th Movement: Fast, sometimes in a modified Sonata Form, sometimes a Rondo (a primary theme or section that comes back again and again with contrasting themes or sections in between each iteration).

Of course Haydn was not afraid to intentionally play against his own rules from time to time. This is how he would create humor in music: by creating expectation through repetition of convention, then surprising you with something unexpected out of the blue.

By Tony Nickle, Director of Artistic Administration