Carnegie Hall Premieres: Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto
If time machines were real, you’d be able to journey back to the premiere of your favorite musical work. Which piece would you choose? Would you enjoy a night at the opera in Prague’s National Theatre for the 1787 premiere of Mozart’s Don Giovanni? Or perhaps it would be 1892 Helsinki and the debut of Sibelius’s Kullervo—the work that made him a Finnish national hero? There’s little doubt that Carnegie Hall would be a favorite time-travel destination because it has been home to so many musical premieres since its opening in 1891. Join us as we turn back the clock.
History of Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto
The year was 1945, and Russian émigré composer Igor Stravinsky was living in Hollywood.
A fan of American popular music, he began to infuse his work with ragtime and jazz as far back as 1918—the year his theater piece, The Soldier’s Tale, premiered.
It took some tough financial times and a good-natured fib to bring Stravinsky together with one of jazz’s great clarinetists and band leaders, Woody Herman. Jazz musicians were drawn to Stravinsky’s rhythmic vitality and his genius for juxtaposing dissonance with sweet melodies. Two of the biggest Stravinsky acolytes in Herman’s band were trumpeters Neal Hefti and Pete Candoli.
Hefti had recently traveled to California for vacation. Upon his return, Candoli asked if he met Stravinsky. Hefti—perhaps intending to make his bandmate jealous—not only told him that he met the composer, but that he shared recordings of their band with him. Years later, Hefti admitted he made the story up.
Composing the Ebony Concerto
Luck intervened in the form of Leeds Music, the publisher Stravinsky and Herman shared. Stravinsky was having financial troubles, so his publisher arranged the commission of a work for clarinet and jazz ensemble. It wasn’t purely about finances though. Stravinsky was genuinely fascinated with jazz, and Herman’s band was known for its progressive tastes and arrangements. It would seem to be a match made in heaven … until they started rehearsals.
The piece was extremely difficult and the band struggled mightily. Herman recounts, “After the first rehearsal, we were all so embarrassed [that] we were nearly crying.” The New York Philharmonic’s conductor Walter Hendl led Herman and the band in the work’s premiere at Carnegie Hall on March 26, 1946. The remainder of the program featured Herman and the band—nicknamed “The Herd”—in sizzling form playing many of their most famous tunes.
Fast Facts About Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto
Stravinsky recorded his Ebony Concerto three times. The first two were with Herman and his band, and the final one was with Benny Goodman and the Columbia Jazz Ensemble.
Stravinsky loved jazz and jazz greats loved Stravinsky. According to legend, Stravinsky once attended one of the concerts of saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker at the Birdland jazz club. Parker saw him in the club and immediately wove a quote from Stravinsky’s The Firebird into his solo. Stravinsky was so moved that he spilled his drink.
The title of the Ebony Concerto doesn’t refer to Herman’s clarinet. Instead, Stravinsky once said, “The jazz performers I most admired at that time were Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, and guitarist Charles Christian. And blues meant African culture to me.”
Experience Carnegie Hall’s Program from 1946
There is a live recording of the 1946 Woody Herman concert, but it only has fragments of the Ebony Concerto. Our Carnegie Hall Premieres playlist features a studio recording of Herman and his band playing the complete work along with live versions of some of their jazz hits. There’s also a sampling of exhilarating jazz-inspired symphonic music, and classics by Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Dvořák played by jazz giants.
Images courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Rose Archives.