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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.

~At :55, welcome to Variation A. Stravinsky called this section a “ribbon of scales.” (At 1:03, don’t miss the bassoons! Who wouldn’t love two grumbly bassoons?)

~1:35 brings us to Variation B. Written mostly in 4/4 time, this is a march. You’ll hear a variation on the main theme in the trumpets, and then the winds take over with a circus like-effect at 1:45.

~2:28: Hey look! Variation A with its ribbons of scales and grumbly bassoons comes back again!

~3:00 presents Variation C, which, after a few false starts, turns into an elegant waltz. Listen to the “Oom-pah-pah” played in the bass. Trombone on the “Oom,” and trumpet and trombone on the “pah-pah,” and flute floating above all.

~The waltz gets a little out of control, though, and Variation D arrives at 3:50 in the form of a can-can! Personally, this is my favorite variation. At 4:10, you’ll hear the clarinet rip off an impressive run that in the score is marked “brilliante.” (Composers always put that in the parts when they give you something ridiculously hard to play and you have to act like it’s no problem.) It shows up in the flute part just a couple of seconds later, too.

~5:00: Hey look again! Variation A and its awesome bassoons return one final time!

At this point, YouTube creates a problem for us, and you’ll need to head over here:

(Whoever edited this video actually sliced it right before the 7th variation, but this was my preferred recording to use, so forgive the technology.)

Variation 7 is an unexpected ending to the movement, because after the fun can-can, the movement ends with a slow fugue. (Super simple definition of a fugue: think a round, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”)

The theme starts in the bassoon, heads to clarinet, then trumpet, and then flute. You may also hear more of the dissonance that you’re expecting out of Stravinsky in this movement. It gets quite high and intense! The third movement begins at 2:09, with cheerful bassoons for once. (You can see the flute player smiling!)


If you want to listen to the complete Octet, and fully enjoy the quirky instrumentation, the first movement can be found here .

In case you were wondering about the band who made this recording, yes, all branches of the US Military have official bands. The President's Own is considered the top job to win. Unlike the other bands, there's no basic training requirement!

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