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.
It was from this perch in sunny Hollywood that Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto in 1945. In it, he distilled American jazz through his own compositional lens. The score (untouched since its first edition in 1946) has this to say about its origin and inspiration:
Ebony Concerto was written by Igor Stravinsky for Woody Herman and his Orchestra. It was introduced by that orchestra in a memorable concerto at Carnegie Hall, New York, on March 25, 1946, to the acclaim of public and critics alike.
Igor Stravinsky is one of the greatest and most representative figures in modern-day music. His music has shocked, delighted, amazed, and irritated, but never bored people. Stravinsky’s revolutionary musical precepts, his constant search for the new, for the true mirror of our changing world, find expression in music that is based on sound musicianship and great genius. That is why his Firebird Suite, Rite of Spring, and Petrouchka, to name only a few of his major works, are modern classics.
That is why Stravinsky was so impressed by the Woody Herman Orchestra and by their recordings of Bijou, Goosey Gander, and Caldonia. His creativeness, invention, and deep sense of the modern, matched the characteristics of the Herman Orchestra. A few months after Stravinsky had met Woody Herman, he presented the popular bandleader with Ebony Concerto… a composition that marks an epochal collaboration between the “jazz” and the “modern” schools of thought.
In truth, this origin story is somewhat romanticized. Another account (see the Chicago Tribune link below) has it that a member of Herman’s band boasted of a meeting with Stravinsky which never actually happened, leading their mutual publisher to arrange the commission for the cash-strapped composer. Regardless, Stravinsky did possess enough affinity for jazz that he did not hesitate in completing the project.
Listen to the original recording, and notice the delicious clash of styles happening:
Now listen to another recording that Stravinsky conducted, this time with Benny Goodman as the soloist:
The astute listener in possession of a score will have noticed that in both recordings, Stravinsky does not take his own printed tempos. The interpretations on these recordings have now become standard.
The tunes mentioned in the program notes give great context to what inspired Stravinsky. Here is Bijou:
And here is Caldonia:
Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a 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.