Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere. The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms. In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s. Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century. His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year. He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.
Stravinsky wrote the Octet (he also called it the Octuor) in 1922. He conducted its premiere in Paris the following year. Its instrumentation is unusual, with 1 flute, 1 clarinet, and 2 each of bassoons, trumpets, and trombones. About this, Stravinsky said: “The Octet began with a dream, in which I saw myself in a small room surrounded by a small group of instrumentalists playing some attractive music . . . I awoke from this little concert in a state of great delight and anticipation and the next morning began to compose.” With its use of older forms like sonata and theme and variations, it marked the beginning of his Neoclassical phase, which was to last for most of the next three decades. Coming after intensely rhythmic and primitivist works like The Rite of Spring, the Octet sounds like a mockery of classical forms. The first movement opens with an adagio introduction typical of classical sonata form, but utterly different in its melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic conceptions. The sonata begins in earnest with a clear, allegro thematic statement. It unfolds in typical sonata fashion: exposition, development, recapitulation. The exact moment of recapitulation is hard to place: Stravinsky not only mirrors the restatement of his themes in the 2nd half of the movement, he also deceives the listener by stating only part of the primary theme toward the end, before finally giving the theme one last full airing at the very end of the movement. The second movement is a fairly straightforward theme and variations. It segues directly to the third, a rondo of sorts that is based on a Russian dance rhythm.
Here is but one performance:
For another perspective, listen to this recording of Leonard Bernstein conducting members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1947 at Tanglewood. Also, take a look at Bernstein’s markings in the score (of a later edition), via the New York Philharmonic archives.
Musicians love to talk about the Octet. It has its own, extensive Wikipedia article, complete with a history and a formal analysis of each movement. It was the subject of a doctoral dissertation at the University of North Texas in 2007, dealing specifically with the trumpet parts. It is featured on the Wind Repertory Project. This Boosey & Hawkes blurb has some great contemporary quotes on the piece (one of which I used above). Stravinsky himself wrote an essay about it for the premiere, which he published in 1924. This other essay refers to that. Since the Octet has such legendarily fun bassoon parts (my favorite bit is the cascade in the 2nd movement, although the beginning of the 3rd also gets me every time), it’s only fitting that the principal bassoonist of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra would write a fantastic and detailed blog post about her experience with the piece. Finally, it has a place in the Classical Archives.
Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as Foundation in his name with an Internet presence. So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice. But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.