Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and the Classical Model

Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements and the Classical Model

This is another paper from graduate school, dated March 7, 1992. As with other papers I’ve posted here, the examples are missing due to limits of technology at that time.

Igor Stravinsky often drew from Classical models in his composition.  Stravinsky himself admitted that when he was composing, he listened to works C especially symphonies C of classical masters such as Beethoven “to put myself in motion…”[1] When he began writing his Symphony in Three Movements in 1942, events of the 20th century (namely World War II), and over a century of tonal evolution had a profound influence on this piece.  It is often referred to as his War Symphony, a name Stravinsky himself did not reject.  While discussing the Symphony in Three Movements with Robert Craft, Stravinsky made these observations of the programmatic aspect of the piece:

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“The Symphony was written under the impression of world events.  I will not say that it expresses my feelings about them, but only that, without participation of what I think of as my will, they excited my musical imagination.  And the impressions that activated me were not general, or ideological, but specific: each episode in the Symphony is linked in my imagination with a specific cinematographic impression of the war.”[2]

The key to understanding the piece may be found in the introduction.  Stravinsky chose to use octatonic scales to form the tonal structure of this piece.  The first octatonic key center is C, consisting of C, D, E, F, G, A-flat, A, and B.  The dominant key center of G contains a D-flat, which Stravinsky also utilizes with his C scale.  He also utilized motivic devices to a maximum potential.  Once these two elements are considered, the form of the piece becomes clear.  Thus, the first movement of his Symphony in Three Movements is a Sonata-Allegro with highly developed motivic devices.  This paper will demonstrate how Stravinsky followed such traditions by comparing similarities and dissimilarities of this movement with the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

The piece opens with a motto triad which outlines a dominant of the C octatonic scale: C major with an additional A-flat in this case.  It is first stated by a 32nd-note flourish from G to A-flat in four octaves.  It is again stated as a quarter-note arpeggio of the notes G, F, D-flat, and A-flat.  This is acting as a dominant chord (with a flat ninth) in the key of C.  Following the initial statement of the motto are several more statements of the motto.

Stravinsky, like Beethoven, relied heavily on the opening motif to form the underlying theme of the piece.  Beethoven’s opening motto of his Fifth Symphony is a constant which keeps the sections of the movement closely related.  In the same way, Stravinsky constantly refers back to the opening motto, and the opening bitonal structure throughout this piece.

The next important event in the exposition occurs at figure 5.  This is a transition to the next section of the exposition, but with an extremely important feature.  There is a horn call (example 1) which becomes an supplementary motto which is used throughout the piece.

Example 1

Section A begins at figure 7 with syncopated chords on the piano and in the upper strings, and a pizzicato ground bass ostinato in the lower strings, which is based on the horn call (example 2).

Example 2

The syncopation is accentuated by the rapidly changing meter (often at every bar), and continuous triplets over the quarter notes in the bass and celli.  This section has modulated from the introduction, and is now in the dominant.  The upper woodwinds are added to the texture of the upper strings at figure 11 to add variety and to create a more dynamic quality.

After the syncopated section, at figure 13, is a reference to the introduction.  Its formal role is to provide a developmental transition.  The bassoons and the viola play the horn call in inversion, while the bass plays the figure similar to the original version.  The chords that follow are a reference to the opening chords of the movement.  Like Beethoven, Stravinsky here is continuously pointing toward the opening measures of the piece to hold together a certain continuity.

There is a statement of the motto triad at figure 19 as the transition shifts back to the original tonic of C.  The second section of the exposition begins at figure 22, and involves statements of the motto chord (A-flat and D-flat) in the brass above a repeating G major arpeggio in the strings.  This relates to the introduction when the opening motto tonicized the dominant of C using a form of G which included A-flat and D-flat.

This section of the exposition is a departure from the classic Sonata-Allegro form.  It is clearly related to previous material, but not extensive nor independent enough to be considered a new section.  Traditional analysis does not accommodate a section too distant to be an A’ section, but not independent enough to be a B section.  For the purposes of this paper, it shall be called Section A, Part 2.

By figure 27, the lower strings are playing variations of the horn call, which correlates part 2 section with the rest of the A section.  The eighth-note motion stops at figure 29.  Once again, the motto chord is played in the brass over an E minor structure in the rest of the orchestra.  Several more cadences follow, then the codetta of the exposition begins in E minor at the cadence at figure 32.     The viola and cello begin a inverted statement of the original horn call at 34.  This brief section may be considered a bridge between the A and B sections.  The melodic material is clearly drawn from the chords of the introduction, but freely altered.

The B section begins at figure 38.  At this point, the organization of the orchestra changes to that of a piano concerto.  Stravinsky’s original intent with this piece was to write a piano concerto.  Rather than making the entire piece a piano concerto, he chose to limit it to a section of the exposition.  This, too, is a departure from earlier models.  Traditionally, the B section states the second theme C usually in the dominant or relative major C and perhaps changes in mood and texture.  By transforming to a piano concerto in the middle of the movement, Stravinsky has introduced a further separation of the sections than such models as Beethoven.

The primary melodic idea of the B section begins at the third measure of figure 38, and is taken from an octatonic scale in G (G, A-flat, B-flat, B, D-flat, D, E, F).  The section is more chromatic and contrapuntal, and the note values are now halved from the first section.  This allows the composer to condense his motives into even smaller units, and to build tension as he moves into the development.

William Austin, in his book Music of the Twentieth Century, analyzed this as a development section.  There are two faults with this analysis, however.  First, the material of this section is not notably similar to any thematic material of the A section.  New themes are introduced, repeated, and varied.  Second, this section is briefly restated in the exposition between the A section and the coda.  For this reason, this should be analyzed as the B section.

The smallest motivic ideas of this section relate to material in the introduction, but the primary melodic idea (first played in the left hand of the piano, four measures after figure 38) is not.  A figure based on the original horn call (an ascending third followed by an ascending sixth) reappears over and over again throughout this section (example 3).

Example 3

There is a short episode at figure 50 which links the two sections of the second section.  This episode is on the dominant of G.  It is more relaxed and tonal than the rest of the section.  It is probably meant to provide a tonal break from the growing chromaticism and the ensuing development section.  An interesting characteristic of this episode that it presents B section thematic material in a more tonal version.  The piano concerto is resumed at figure 53.

Though there is no prominent cadence to define the ending of the second section and the beginning of the development, figure 60 is a logical place for the start of the development section.  This is a point where intense contrasts of rhythm and tonality begin to appear.  There are no melodic or rhythmic references to earlier ideas, but the same octatonicism and bitonality exist.  It is not a traditional development by means of developing motives, but by changing to a new and non-melodic texture which takes the listener away from the material of the exposition.  The development does not stay in any particular key, but moves through several keys and octatonic scales.  The concept of this development section is quite traditional.  It quickens the pulse to engage a certain intensity, and has a nebulous sense of key.  These were traditionally characteristic of classical development sections.

In his The Music of Igor Stravinsky, Pieter Van Den Toorn includes an uninvolved chart which lists figures 60-88 as part of the B section.  He gives no explanation of this chart, and presents no analytical basis for his choice of sections.  The entire mood and texture changes after figure 60, and it is quite difficult to place this in relationship to the piano concerto which preceded it.  Because it connects the B section with the recapitulation C and because this material is not stated again in the recapitulation C this material should be called a development section.

There is an explosive cadence at figure 69 followed by an episode at figure 70 which serves a twofold purpose.  First, it provides an abrupt but satisfying contrast to the material preceding it.  Second, it serves as a temporary departure to allow the retransition C which is also quite dramatic C to seem fresh.  It is not uncommon to find bridges in classical development sections.  The same purpose is served by this episode, but it is used as a more expansive feature in this piece, thus termed an episode.

The piano initiates the retransition at figure 76 with a two note chord consisting of C and D, followed by an A and an F/A chord.  This pattern is continued by the violins at figure 81.  The strings begin playing chords based on the horn call at figure 84 (a third and a sixth).  These chords involve the notes A and F.  The last chord of the last measure of the retransition contains the notes F, A, and B.  The first chord of the recapitulation contains the notes B, A, and F.  Though this is the same chord, the syncopation, tempo, and texture contribute to a marked change at that point C and a return to the A section.

Section A is brought back in the recapitulation at figure 88 in G.  Once again, Stravinsky has departed from the classical model.  A traditional Sonata-Allegro would return to the A section in the tonic and stay there throughout the remainder of the recapitulation.  This movement has begun the exposition in the dominant.  This is not a far-fetched idea, especially because the piece does cadence in the original tonic of C.

The A section of the recapitulation is a varied and condensed version of the version in the exposition, but clearly a reference to it.  It contains the same syncopated chords and the same ground bass ostinato as the original, but shortened from 23 measures to 22.  There is a reference at figure 94 to the first episode which occurred after the first A section at figure 13.  It is immediately followed by three measures of A section material.  At figure 96 is a transition to the B section, which is stated at figure 97.  It is a brief reference to the B section (only 13 measures), with the piano again in the role of a concerto instrument.  Figures 102-104 are a transition to the coda, though much of its material is drawn from the rhythmic accompaniment of the B material.

The opening motto returns at figure 105 to begin the coda, and to provide a direct correlation with the beginning of the movement.  The chord movement (ex 4a) is augmented from the original statement (ex 4b).

Example 4a

Example 4b

The first movement of the Symphony in Three Movements is in Sonata-allegro form as far as sections go, but it is more difficult to think of in that form as far as themes and bi-thematic language goes.  There are several complete sections either linked by rhythmic bridges or by abrupt changes.  Nevertheless, Stravinsky the classicist is readily seen in this piece.  All of the traditional elements are within, but in the context of modern tonal and rhythmic considerations.

Stravinsky studied and listened to the symphonies of classical composers.  Not only did he listen to them and study their works, he also modeled his own works in the same classical tradition.  The admiration he held for these composers and their styles is evident not only in his formal vocabulary, but also in his treatment of such aspects as motivic development.  The first movement of the Symphony in Three Movements follows many of the precedents that such composers as Mozart and Beethoven set in their symphonic writing.  Stravinsky did not choose to follow their models exactly, but he used it as a basis of his own development.  This fusion of a traditional framework with modern intricacies has allowed Stravinsky to join his role models as a master to be studied for generations.

[1]Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, p. 127.

[2]Dialogues and a Diary, p.50-52.



Austin, William W. Music in the 20th Century, Debussy through Stravinsky. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.

Craft, Robert, and Stravinsky, Igor. Conversations with Igor Stravinsky. 1st ed. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959.

Craft Robert, and Stravinsky, Igor. Dialogues and a Diary. 1st     ed. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1959.

van den Toorn, Pieter. The Music of Igor Stravinsky. New Haven:    Yale University Press, 1983.

White, Eric Walter. Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works.   Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1966


Chart to Symphony in Three Movements



Introduction              0            c (V)
Horn Call                   5

Section A
Part 1                        7            g
Transition                13
Part 2                       19           c
Codetta                    32           e
Section B                  38           G
(Episode)                  50           D
Section B (cont)        53

Episode                    70
Retransition             76

Section A                 88           G
Episode 1                94
Transition                96
Section B                  97
Transition                102
Coda (Augmentation)    105    g/C

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