Stravinsky in C Major

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Wednesday, November 7, 2018

On today’s date in 1940, the Chicago Symphony helped to celebrate their 50th anniversary with the premiere performance of a specially commissioned symphony from the famous Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky himself was on hand to conduct his “Symphony in C” – a work that attracted a great deal of attention at the time. For starters, writing a symphony in the key of C Major seemed a definitely anti-modern gesture at a time when Arnold Schoenberg’s “twelve tone” method of composition was gaining ground with prominent American musicians and critics. “How traditional can you get?” some of these must have thought when they saw the title of Stravinsky’s work.

Stravinsky’s new symphony was quickly labeled “neo-classical,” meaning it consciously harked back in form of Haydn or Mozart’s symphonies, albeit clothed, musically speaking, in a much more modern fashion.

Now, traditionally the key of C Major was deemed a “happy” or “bright” key, but Stravinsky composed his Symphony during one of the unhappiest periods of his life, when his wife, his mother and one of his daughters had all died in rapid succession.

“It is no exaggeration to say that in the following weeks I was able to continue my own life only by my work on the Symphony in C,” wrote Stravinsky. “But I did not seek to overcome my grief by portraying or giving expression to it in music, and you will listen in vain, I think, for traces of this sort of personal emotion.”