Igor Stravinsky: Octet


Scored for the unusual set up of flute, clarinet, bassoons, trumpets, tenor trombone and bass trombone, Igor Stravinsky’s Octet was composed around the beginning of his neoclassical phase. After quickly writing the score in 1922, Octet premiered at the Paris Opera House in October 1923, with Stravinsky conducting. 


The Music

The three movements are resonant of German tradition: starting with a sonata, variation and then fugue movements. 


Movement I

The opening of this movement is marked ‘Lento’, which plays into the traditional sonata form structure. The unusual timbre combination from the instruments makes a uniquely hollow sound at times, even with multiple voices sounding. Stravinsky handles the voices masterfully during the Allegro section. The fast pace paired with the bouncy motifs creates a joyful atmosphere. Although Stravinsky is using a traditional sonata form, it is more so he can be satirical and mock traditions that have come before. This can be heard in the various melodies and how they react within the confines of sonata form.


Movement II

The second movement is based on a theme and variations structure. Variations 1,3 and 6 are very similar and are used as segues into the beefier variations (Nos 2, 4 and 7). Stravinsky plays to the ensemble strengths here with variations relying on certain voices. The brass are fully utilised during some variations, with the trombones in particular sounding more present than the previous movement. The exhilaratingly fast variations are virtuosic in nature and showcase Stavinsky’s iconic musical voice. The final variation is perhaps the most surprising due to the slow tempo and solemn mood. The movement concludes with a flute interlude before the bouncing bassoons segue into the finale. 


Movement III

Some of the material heard in the final movement has been found to be from some of Stravinsky’s earlier works such as The Rite of Spring and The Firebird. He uses a ‘khorovod’ as the basis for the rhythm, which is from a Russian circle dance. Shrouded with syncopation, Stravinksy pushes the ensemble to the limits with fast tempos and intricate writing. The movement concludes with a short phrase before a quick tutti chord.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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