Stravinsky believed that in Pulcinella he succeeded in composing something that went beyond a basic eighteenth-century reproduction. How far is this assessment valid in the case of the Sinfonia and Gavotta?
Stravinsky’s belief as stated in the question provides a useful summary of the intentions of his neo-classical works. During the inter-war years he searched for ways of structuring and organising music to satisfy his need for order after the rejection of functional tonality shown in his earlier works. Ultimately, he decided that “submitting to a style”, rather than “restricting the manifestation of the composer’s personality”, would “stand out better when put with the limits of a convention”.
In the movements of Pulcinella, we therefore find music that is superficially copying the styles and conventions of the past, but subverting them in a variety of ways that the intelligent listener should be able to follow, and will seem all the more striking by virtue of this framework of styles of the past.
The opening Sinfonia appears to follow the conventions of a Baroque movement in ritornello form. The ritornello theme returns in shortened forms and in different keys during the movement with intervening episodes. These episodes are played by solo groups of instruments in the manner of a concerto grosso. What is unusual is that Stravinsky uses two groups of solo instruments (one woodwind and one string) and gives them different episodes of contrasting character. He also uses the soloists in an accompanying role to a much larger extent than would be expected from an authentic Concerto Grosso, this role being left vacant by the absence of a basso continuo. This goes against both the melodic economy we would expect to find in the work of early 18th-century Italian composer, and also against the doctrine of the affections, used throughout the late Baroque period.
The Gavotta, when placed in context with the Sinfonia, demonstrates Stravinsky playing with older forms from different periods. This movement is noticeably more Classical in style than the overture. Its use of a woodwind ensemble brings to mind Haydn’s divertimenti for woodwind quintet. Indeed, the composer’s decision to score each movement differently marks this out as a work that could not have been written in the 18th century.
Stravinsky, as well as subverting instrumentation and form, also plays with the musical language he uses. Particularly striking is his use of “wrong note” harmony. The added A in the 2nd violin, part first heard in the beginning and used throughout the Sinfonia, creates an identifiably Stravinskian effect. True to the composer’s intentions, it stands out much more strongly in the context of its old-fashioned language. Similarly un-stylistic dissonances occur in the Gavotta, for example the parallel ninths between the horn ostinato and the flute in the 2nd half of the theme, and unidiomatic dissonances can be found at the equivalent points in during the variations. Another interesting point is the removal of the bass for the concluding gesture of the Sinfonia, both undermining the closing gesture and the musical punctuation a strong bass would provide at cadence points in music of the 18th-century.
Therefore, the extent to which Stravinsky showcases his own personality above the styles he has appropriated depends on the listeners’ knowledge and understanding of music history to recognise his accent above the original forms and conventions. Similarly, it relies on fairly keen aural discrimination in picking up on its harmonic peculiarities. It also requires a down-playing of the late works of Beethoven, which although 19th-century are every bit as questioning a dissection of an obsolete musical language as those presented here.