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MY GARBLED TALE OF STRAVINSKY’S DUMBARTON OAKS

STRAVINSKY’S JAUNTY CONCERTO in E-Flat had just been broadcast on SiriusXM‘s “Symphony Hall.” And I thought, how neat that he composed it for that big-deal conference at Dumbarton Oaks. What a good tidbit for SimanaitisSays.

Well, yes. Only here I’ll get my facts straight. Igor Stravinsky composed Dumbarton Oaks, 8.v. 38, in 1937–1938. The Dumbarton Oaks Conference took place from August 21 to October 7, 1944. Nonetheless, there are tidbits aplenty on each of these, despite their lack of simultaneity.

Diplomacy, Art Collecting, and Good Works. Robert Woods Bliss’s diplomatic career had included assignments to Venice, St. Petersburg, Brussels, Buenos Aires, and Paris. He later served as U.S. Ambassador to Sweden, 1923-1927, and Argentina, 1927-1933.

Robert Woods Bliss, 1875–1962, American diplomat, art collector, and philanthropist.

Mildred Barnes Bliss was the daughter of U.S. Congressman Demas Barnes. When her mother remarried in 1894, Mildred became the stepdaughter of William Henry Bliss and the stepsister of Robert Woods Bliss. She and Robert were wed in 1908.

Mildred Barnes Bliss, 1879–1969, American art collector and philanthropist; an authority on Byzantine and pre-Columbian art, fluent in French and proficient in Spanish, German, and Italian.

During their Paris years, the Blisses helped found the American Ambulance Service, later the American Field Service. Mildred also helped establish centers in France for care of Belgian and French children orphaned or displaced by World War I. 

The Oaks. The Bliss’s Georgetown home was Dumbarton Oaks, a estate dating from around 1800. The Oaks had been the Washington, D.C., residence of U.S. Senator and Vice President John C. Calhoun between 1822 and 1829.

Dumbarton Oaks, Georgetown, Washington, D.C. This and a following image by Jack E. Boucher, National Park Service.

A Pearl of an Anniversary. The Blisses celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary in style: Mildred commissioned Igor Stravinsky to compose a work for the celebration.

Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky, 1882–1971, Russian composer, pianist, and conductor; later of French (from 1934) and American (from 1945) citizenship. Image from the George Grantham Collection, the Library of Congress.

Stravinsky had already explored the avant garde with his riot-inducing The Rite of Spring, 1913. In the interwar years, he and other composers explored neoclassicism; Dumbarton Oaks is an example, inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Stravinsky’s work is scored for a chamber orchestra of small size: flute, B♭ clarinet, bassoon, two horns, three violins, three violas, two cellos, and two double basses. 

The music room at Dumbarton Oaks.

The work’s debut in the music room at Dumbarton Oaks reminds me of Aaron Copland’s original Appalachian Spring. This one was scored for even fewer instruments; this, to accommodate the size of its Library of Congress debut venue.  

Wikipedia notes the Dumbarton Oaks commission “had been brokered by Nadia Boulanger.” You may recall her as being the mentor of Aaron Copland.

Juliette Nadia Boulanger, 1887–1979, French composer, teacher, and conductor.

Boulanger conducted the May 8, 1938, private premiere of Stravinsky’s work in the music room at Dumbarton Oaks, while the composer was hospitalized with tuberculosis. The public premiere took place in Paris on June 4, 1938, with Stravinsky conducting.

The Geneva Camerata performed Dumbarton Oaks on June 16, 2014. Hear it at youtube.com.

The Dumbarton Conference. The calendar pages flip from May 1938 to mid-1944. The U.S., U.K., U.S.S.R, and Republic of China (the “Big Four”) were planning for a postwar world, in seeking a replacement for the largely ineffective League of Nations.

The meeting was formally called the Washington Conversations on International Peace and Security Organization, but the name Dumbarton Oaks Conference evolved because of the venue. 

As noted in Wikipedia, “The conversations were held in two phases, since the Soviets were unwilling to meet directly with the Chinese.” The first phase, August 21 through September 28, included the Soviets, but not the Chinese. The second phase, September 29 through October 7, had the Chinese, but not the Soviets.

Out of both grew the United Nations. There’s no record of any music performed during the conference; more’s the pity. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

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