About this work
Just as Igor Stravinsky's 1930 Symphony of Psalms bears a dual dedication to God and the Boston Symphony Orchestra on its fiftieth anniversary, so does the title-page of the Symphony in C from ten years later, describing the work as having been "composed to the glory of God, dedicated to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of its existence." The commission had been offered to Stravinsky by Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss on behalf of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1938, but it was not until November of 1940, with Stravinsky conducting, that the Orchestra could give the world premiere of the finished work. For, while the commission was certainly a welcome one, the actual progress of the work was interrupted first by a series of personal tragedies -- the deaths of his wife, daughter and mother, during 1938 and 1939 -- and then, of course, by the outbreak of war in late 1939 that precipitated Stravinsky's emigration to California. The Symphony in C, then, is a composition whose four movements were composed in four different cities and two continents over a span of just under two years.
If the years between 1938 and 1940 were turbulent ones for both Stravinsky and the community of nations around the world, it doesn't show in the work: here is pure music, unruffled by the dynamics of personal emotion and, following Stravinsky's heartfelt beliefs on the subject, making absolutely no pretense at expressing anything except the fundamental drives of a composer struggling to come to grips, really for the first time in his life, with symphonic form. Stravinsky himself felt that there is some stylistic difference between the first half of the work, composed in Paris and Sancellmoz, and the second half, composed in Massachusetts and California, but these distinctions of direction (or perhaps taste) are, after all is said and done, relatively minor, and in performance the Symphony comes across as essentially a very well-unified body of music.
Most of the musical narrative in the first movement, Moderato alla breve, can be traced to one use or another of a single musical idea. This cell, a rising step (either half- or whole-) followed by a falling fourth, finds expression in the very opening bars as a dramatic series of rising B natural octaves that, after a rapid crescendo, complete the motive (by rising to C and then falling back down to G) before the woodwinds take over to give, in slower note values, the whole-step form of the motive (D-E-B). Soon enough, the oboe expounds on the original form at some length over a background of constant eighths in the strings.
In the Larghetto concertante that follows, Stravinsky explores the riches of the orchestra by using a series of more or less solo textures. The Allegretto serves as the Symphony's scherzo; sharp timpani and violin strokes get the movement underway, but the woodwinds quickly take over with music of considerable wit and ingenuity.
A dreary Largo for bassoons, horns, and trombones opens the last movement. After about a minute, however, the tempo guisto alla breve body of the movement breaks in, and soon the three-note motive recurs that defined the first movement. During the coda the winds give this ur-motive a treatment in dense, slowly-moving chords, to which the strings add just one final comment.