Stravinsky's Octet

Updated: Sep 26, 2019

Today we’re talking about a piece for a quirky combination of instruments. (You know us. Astraios loves quirky combinations of instruments.) Welcome to Stravinsky’s Octet, scored for flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, trombone, and bass trombone.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a Russian-born pianist, composer, and conductor. His rise to fame came from several ballets known for their avant-garde nature. These ballets included The Rite of Spring (which, of course, famously inspired a riot). Although his early compositions provoked violence, Stravinsky later turned to neoclassicism, meaning he was exploring traditional musical forms and styles. The Octet is a great example of how he returned to a more traditional sound.

His return to traditional sounds surprised some people, though. American composer Aaron Copland attended the premiere of the Octet and wrote "I can attest to the general feeling of mystification that followed the initial hearing. Here was Stravinsky . . . now suddenly, without any seeming explanation, making an about-face and presenting a piece to the public that bore no conceivable resemblance to the individual style with which he had hitherto been identified.”

Let's start by listening to Stravinsky's provocative The Rite of Spring below. Even if you don’t listen to all of it, start with the iconic opening bassoon solo, and then jump ahead to 30:00 to the Sacrificial Dance.

A few things will be obvious:

1.) that’s a huge orchestra with all kinds of auxiliary instruments (alto flute, multiple bass clarinets, FULL brass section and so on)

2.) the piece is through-composed, meaning it’s not following a traditional structure that, say, Mozart would have used

3.) those are some pretty dissonant sounds, even for today’s ears!

So now, let’s make that about-face that Aaron Copland mentioned and take a listen to the second movement of Stravinsky’s Octet.

I’m sure you can hear how the audience would be confused! Odd instrumentation aside, there’s little grating dissonance, and Stravinsky organized the movement in a theme and variations. Theme and variations are an incredibly traditional structure--in fact, this piece has a striking resemblance to works by Mozart! The flute opens with a melody that is tossed around and restructured, and one main variation comes back over and over to anchor the piece.

Let me give you some fun moments to listen for.

~The movement opens with a presentation of the main theme in flute and clarinet. Pay close attention to the way the two instruments have to blend. Flutes typically play with lots of vibrato and clarinets (in the US, anyway, long story…) typically play with straight tone. The flutist is using a very light vibrato in selective places so as not to overpower the clarinet. At :35, the main theme trades over to the trumpet, who at :44 hands it to the trombone to finish the phrase.