Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971)
The Firebird was the first of the three great ballets which Stravinsky wrote for the impresario Serge Diaghilev and his Paris-based "Russian Ballet" company, in the years just before the first world war. (The other two are Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.) He wrote them consecutively, rapidly, and for most people Stravinsky's reputation still rests on these three superb landmarks of 20th century music.
The story is an ancient Russian folk myth of human and supernatural forces. The humans are the hero, Prince Ivan and several princesses. The supernaturals are the Firebird, and the evil Kashchei (described as a green-clawed ogre). Kashchei has a magic garden, where he ensnares women and where men are turned to stone. Straying into the garden, Prince Ivan meets the Firebird, who gives him one of her feathers. He then falls in love with one of the princesses that Kashchei has ensnared. Kashchei appears, and Ivan is about to suffer the usual male fate of petrification when the Firebird reappears, and tells him how he can destroy Kashchei's power by smashing an egg hidden in a casket, which is really Kashchei's soul. Ivan duly smashes the egg, the monster dies, the captives are released, and everyone lives happily ever after.
We play the closing scene from the ballet, which has three parts to it:
- Infernal Dance of Kashchei : aggressive and spiky, and starts with a bang!
- Berceuse : a gentle lullaby depicting the Firebird in gentle mood
- Finale : as the captives are gradually released and come back to life, followed by general rejoicing
Jeu de Cartes
Stravinsky changed his style several times in his career, shocking the critics and his public each time. After traditional student works composed under the guidance of Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov came the three great ballets for Diaghilev's Ballet Russe company -The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. These exploded onto a public at first hostile, then startled, and eventually admiring. Then in the 1920s his style thinned and clarified, and his many so called "neo-classical" works followed. The ballet Jeu de Cartes is one of these. Then in the 1950s, at the age of 70, he adopted Webern's serial or 12-tone method of composition - much to the dismay of most of his public. The late works are still rarely performed or recorded, even today.
Jeu de Cartes, [A Card Game] "A Ballet in Three Deals", was written in 1936, and first performed by the American Ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, on 27th April 1937 - exactly 60 years ago (tomorrow!). The commission for a ballet for the American Ballet company, though with no plot specified, resulted from a visit to America in 1935. A keen card player, Stravinsky later recalled ... "The idea for this ballet entered my head one evening in a taxi while I was on my way to visit some friends. I was so delighted that I stopped the driver and invited him to have a drink with me."
Lasting a little over 20 minutes, the music is continuous. The action is in three deals, and each deal contains a shuffle and the ensuing play of the cards. The introduction to each deal is recognisably similar, and returns at the very end.
Deal 1 is the shortest. After the introduction, a gentle lilting section with a notable flute solo is followed by the first appearance of the Joker, in a dance both fast and aggressive.
Deal 2 is longer. After the shuffle, a march becomes the subject of five variations danced by the Queens of the four suits. The first three offer florid decoration of the march by various instruments (the first on horns and flutes, the second on all the woodwind, and the third on the strings). The fourth is more gentle, and the fifth, for all four Queens together, is a loud angular variation for the whole orchestra. A reprise of the march is followed by an ensemble for the whole orchestra, a complex development of much of the music heard so far - the hand that holds the Joker is ultimately victorious.
Deal 3 begins with the usual shuffle, which leads into a full scale waltz. This is followed by a faster finale (and yes, that is a fragment of Rossini's Barber of Seville!) which works up considerable energy and excitement, and eventually the Joker, at the head of his sequence of Spades, is beaten by a "Royal Flush" in Hearts.
Octet for Wind
For all his long life, Igor Stravinsky preferred the sound of wind instruments to that of the strings. In most of his finest works the wind and brass predominate e.g. The Rite of Spring, the Symphony of Psalms - while the few works he wrote for strings alone are rarely performed. "Form in my music derives from counterpoint" said Stravinsky, when writing about this Octet specifically: "Wind instruments seem to me more able to give a certain rigidity of the form than other instruments ... the difference of volume of these instruments makes clearer the musical architecture. And this is the most important quality in all my recent compositions." Certainly the use of wind instruments enables a clarity, an accuracy, and a focus on the musical lines which is like a breath of fresh air when compared with the dense textures of Wagner, Strauss and Rachmaninov. The Octet was written in 1922 and 1923, and was first performed at the Paris Opera in October 1923, with Stravinsky directing the players. The style is usually called "neo-classical", a term Stravinsky himself disliked ("a much-abused expression meaning absolutely nothing" he said). The work manages to combine classical forms with jazz and dance rhythms, and a hint of parody of J.S.Bach, to create a work of great precision and wit.
There are three movements. The first has a slow introduction in E-flat, while the main body of the movement is in march time. A more lyrical second tune leads into an unstable middle section, which is ended by the 2nd and 1st subjects in reverse order. The slow movement has a broad melody, in a rather odd 8-note scale, followed by a set of 5 variations. The Finale starts in a bright C major, is characterised by busy "sewing machine" rhythms, and ends with a jazzy, swung coda.
Petrushka, A Burlesque in 4 Scenes
1. The Shrove-tide Fair
2. Petrushka's Cell
3. The Moor's Cell
4. The Shrovetide Fair
Petrushka is the second of the three great ballet scores Stravinsky wrote for Serge Diaghilev's Russian Ballet company, which established Stravinsky as a great innovator in modern music, and set the direction for much of 20th century music.
After the success of Firebird in 1910, Diaghilev was keen for another new ballet for the next season, and Stravinsky already had an idea for a ballet based on a pagan Spring sacrifice. So a few months later Diaghilev was surprised to find Stravinsky at work not on the pagan sacrifice ballet, but a sort of piano concerto. Stravinsky had realised the ballet would be a big work, and wanted to "refresh himself first. But while working on the piano concerto, he had the idea of the piano as a sort of puppet brought to life, exasperating the orchestra with its diabolical cascade of trills, and answered by menacing trumpet blasts from the orchestra - and the idea for a quite different ballet was born. Eventually he chose the name Petrushka, the Russian equivalent of Pierrot, Pulcinella, or Punch. It was finished in May 1911, and first performed a month later in Paris on 13th June, 1911. It was another stunning success.
The story is simple and tragic. Scene 1 : We are at the St.Petersburg Shrovetide fair, where all is bustle and excitement. A showman has in his booth three life-size puppets - a ballerina, a blackamoor, and Petrushka - which he magically brings to life and they dance for the crowd. Scene 2: These puppets are not just dolls, they have feelings and emotions too, especially Petrushka, who bitterly resents the cruel showman, and he seeks comfort in love for the ballerina. But the pretty girl will have none of his clumsy loving. Scene 3: The Moor is very different, all machismo and swagger, and the ballerina falls for his crude seduction. Petrushka, mad with jealousy, breaks in on them but is thrown out by the Moor. Scene 4: Back in the fair the evening wears on, with increasingly riotous dancing. Suddenly cries come from the Showman's booth, and Petrushka runs out, chased by the Moor with a big sabre, who savagely strikes him down. The miserable Petrushka dies, surrounded by the horrified crowd. The Showman comes out, and picks up the doll with its wooden head and body filled with sawdust - he was not real! Then as the uneasy crowd disperses, the figure of Petrushka appears on the roof of the booth, mocking the terrified Showman, who drops the doll and flies into the night.
The music is dominated by the tone and style of the piano, brittle and percussive, and indeed the piano has a part of almost concerto-like difficulty. The other dominant factor is the characterisations of the three puppets, especially the half-puppet / half-human Petrushka himself, whose arpeggio theme is played on two instruments together in conflicting keys (first clarinets, often trumpets, and often the two hands of the pianist). It is Petrushka's tragedy that these two conflicting aspects of him remain unreconciled, even after his death. And at the end we are left in doubt - was that Petrushka's ghost on the roof, or the real Petrushka freed from enslavement inside a doll? Rather than being puppets magically endowed with a simulated life, perhaps they were real human souls somehow trapped in a doll's body by the Showman? Either could explain what we have seen. You choose.
A few points of interest to note in the music. We are playing tonight the version Stravinsky made in 1947, which reduces the orchestra required from very large to a more normal size, and makes the texture a lot clearer. Each scene is separated by a flourish on the drums, and the first such flourish is within the first scene, to introduce the Showman. The big flute solo is when he brings the dolls slowly to life, like an Indian snake charmer. Notice the tiny chirrups on the piccolo just before the Russian Dance of the dolls - these chirrups reappear at the end, when Petrushka dies. The second scene in Petrushka's cell is dominated by the piano and Petrushka's theme. The two loud sections are clearly poor Petrushka banging his head against the wall in a frenzy of frustration. The third scene, in the Moor's cell, gives us clear musical pictures of the Moor (suave and sexy, on clarinets, cor anglais and gentle percussion sounds) and the ballerina (shallow and brainless but very pretty, on flute, trumpet and harp). Both tunes combine when they dance together. The final scene, back in the fair, presents a sequence of bustling and stamping dances of great character, interrupted by a dancing bear (very high clarinet and very low tuba). The dances get very wild until the interruption by very high trumpets indicates Petrushka's flight from the Moor. His death is truly pathetic - a dropped tambourine and sad chirrups on the piccolo. After his final terrifying appearance (trumpets again) the quiet plucked string notes give no comfort - and no answers.
Symphony in Three Movements
I. Overture. Allegro
II. Andante interlude: l'istesso tempo
III. Con moto
The Symphony in Three Movements was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and first performed by them with Stravinsky conducting on 24th January 1946. It is therefore quite a late work (he began work on it when he was 60) and echoes of several earlier masterpieces such as Petrushka, The Rite of Spring and Symphony of Psalms can be heard in it. It is not surprising that there are many influences here: Russian by birth, Stravinsky had moved to Paris in 1910 and lived in France and Switzerland for the major part of his creative career. He became a French citizen in 1936, before moving to the USA in 1939. In 1945 he acquired US citizenship.
Stravinsky's own comments about the symphony are not particularly helpful. He describes at some length a programme inspired by sequences from war news-films, and also says that the slow movement is based on music he had written for a film "The Song of Bernadette" (based on St. Bernadette's visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes) - and then contradicts himself by adding "in spite of what I have said, the symphony is not programmatic."
What is undoubtedly true is that the work took an unusually long time for him to complete (from 1942 to 1945), that to an unusual extent it incorporates music from earlier works, and that its energy and violence are a reflection (whether intentional or not) of the War years during which he wrote it.
The first movement opens brutally, with slashing scales and harsh octaves. The piano has a major part of almost concerto-like prominence, and Stravinsky uses it like a tuned percussion instrument. Several different themes and rhythmic ideas are presented, mostly in separate sections like a ballet rather than in a continuous symphonic development. The central part of the movement is more relaxed, with duets for various combinations of wind instruments, piano and strings in a generally lighter texture. A shortened reprise of the opening leads to the end of the movement, which is an uneasy calm.
The central movement is quieter and seems more relaxed, but there remains a tension in the music, whose main theme cannot quite decide if it is in the major or minor key. The piano is replaced by a harp in this movement, though with a similarly important part.
The last movement is back in the violent world of the first, with both piano and harp featured, and still with the major/minor ambivalence from the second movement. There is a jazz influence at times, and later in the movement a most bizarre fugue which begins on trombone, piano and harp. The build-up to the ending is probably the most violent music Stravinsky had written since the Rite of Spring, while the last chord, with its jazzy added 6th, is not at all what the ear has been led to expect.