Ragtime for 11 instruments is one of my favourite pieces by Igor Stravinsky. It is fun, tongue in cheek and provides an interesting crossover between idioms. It was not always so well appreciated.
The other day, I was browsing an old copy of The Music Student (June 1920). Included there was a withering review of the first performance of the work:
“Stravinsky’s Ragtime, played by a small orchestra, under the direction of Arthur Bliss, at the Aeolian Hall, on 27th April, seems to me to be a poor kind of joke. Here is the kind of music he gives us: look at it closely, or try it on your piano –
Clearly the author, probably Percy A Scholes, did not enjoy the music! A few matters to clear up. The statement that “His rhythms are the commonplace ones indicated by the title” is self-evident. Ragtime was the precursor of jazz, blues, swing, and eventually rock. This was an American phenomenon dating from about 1893. Classically, it appealed to both Dvorak and Debussy. The best-known exponent of this style was Scott Joplin. That said, there were hundreds of composers jumping on the bandwagon. Characteristics of this genre of music were a propulsive, highly syncopated melody, played over a relatively steady and harmonically simple bass. The formal construction would typically have three or four contrasting sections, each one being either 16 or 32 bars in length. Strangely, Ragtime had peaked by 1920, some two years after Stravinsky wrote his tribute.
The cimbalom (or cymbalon) is a national Hungarian instrument, descended from the dulcimer. It has strings stretched over a sound board which are struck by hammers.
This post is not an analysis of Stravinsky’s Ragtime. However a few pointers may be of interest. The piece was composed shortly after the completion of his theatrical/operatic work L'Histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale) (1918). Ragtime is a short work, lasting less than five minutes. The composer wrote that the piece is “indicative of the passion I felt at that time for jazz, which burst into life so suddenly when the [First World] war ended. At my request, a whole pile of this music was sent to me, enchanting me by its truly popular appeal, its freshness , and the novel rhythm…These impressions suggested the idea of creating a composite portrait of this new dance music, as, in the past, the composers of their periods had done for the minuet, the waltz and the mazurka.”
Finally, there is some discrepancy as to when the work was premiered. Stravinsky thought that it was at one of Koussevitzy’s Parisian concerts. On the other hand, Eric Milner White has stated that the premiere was in London on the date noted above. It had been previously heard in a piano reduction at Lausanne, Switzerland on 8 November, 1919.
Igor Stravinsky’s Ragtime has a reasonably solid place in the repertoire. At present, there are some nine recordings available. Some are repackagings. There are two versions of the composer conducting this work: one made around 1934, and the other in 1962.
One fact that Scholes forgot to mention in his review is important. The recital he refers to also included the premiere performance of Arthur Bliss’s Piano Quintet. Sadly, this work was never published, and the holograph is no longer extant. There are only a few hints in some reviews of this concert. More about this in a future post.
Stravinsky’s Ragtime can be heard on YouTube.