Igor Stravinsky – Septet (1953)

By 1950 the winds of two World Wars had whisked Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg from their birthplaces thousands of miles apart. Like tumbleweeds they had buffeted thither and yon across the devastated landscape of Europe and the uncertain landscape of academe in the United States until Fate had finally deposited them a few miles from each other in Greater Los Angeles. Perhaps reluctantly, they had also become the focal points of a war that raged in the musical community between the Neo-Classicists and the Serialists. However, after Schoenberg died in 1951, Stravinsky went apostate on his followers and began to dabble in serial techniques, eventually going “all-in” with “In Memoriam Dylan Thomas” in 1954.

The “Septet” for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and piano stands at the threshold of the conversion. Part One (which lacks a title) is a sonata-allegro form that retains many of the characteristics of the neoclassical style he was leaving behind. Part Two, comprised of a “Passacaglia” and ”Gigue,” is more chromatic and fully utilizes the serial techniques to which he would increasingly turn. All three movements are quite contrapuntal.

The horn part is enjoyable to play but not particularly difficult other than counting rhythms. It lies mostly in the staff from written C4 to G5, with an occasional higher note and a few lower passages. It does not place nearly the demands on the player as do some other works by Stravinsky, for example, Pulcinella or the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. Other instruments (particularly the strings in the Gigue) have much more demanding parts.

The Septet does not get nearly the play that its thirty-years older sibling the Octet does. Nevertheless, Youtube offers a number of interesting video performances, including one by students at a festival who did it without a conductor! One of the best recordings is perhaps an old Deutsche Grammophon LP by the Boston Chamber Players, but that does not appear to have made it to Youtube. The linked recording is a group from Spain who play it well in an attractively framed shot.

Boosey & Hawkes sells separate editions of the score and the parts. Miraculously, as of this writing one may still purchase the parts, but the Boosey & Hawkes website does not offer them for sale any more. It is possible that once the current sets in circulation are sold they may revert to rental-only.

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