Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird

My older brother, Ken, had a girlfriend back in grade school, named Donna. She went on to marry Ken’s best friend, and then Ken married Donna’s best friend Carolyn. Donna major in English, because she loved to read. Whenever she found an author who appealed to her, she would methodically read every one of his or her books. She worked her way through all of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.

I respected her approach, but being a Gemini myself, I have been unable to follow that route either with authors or composers. I’m much too easily distracted by the latest sight, sound, taste and have spent my life, jumping from one interest to another. This is the way of the dilettante, and though it’s too late to change my ways, I wouldn’t if I could. It has served me well.

My one exception to dilettantism in the world of music, however, has been Igor Stravinsky. After I discovered Rite of Spring and Petrushka I started to check out and buy anything by Stravinsky that I could. I still listened to other composers, of course, but I always returned–and still do, by the way–to Igor’s music.  It’s worth doing.  Everyone knows his big ballet works, but once I heard a snippet from his opera, A Rake’s Progress, which I had never hear before, that was so lovely that it almost melted my heart.

The third piece of Stravinsky, that I devoted some time to was his probably most well-known piece,The Firebird. This was his first ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris. Since it predates Rite of Spring and Petrushka it lies closer to the Russian school out of which Stravinsky came.  (He studied under Rimsky-Korsakov.) In The Firebird for example, you can hear echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition. At the same time, it is much more melodic, owing to the influence of Tchaikowsky. Finally, the lush and shimmering orchestration reminds me of the Impressionists, Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky’s near immediate elders in Paris.

This piece makes me think of a quote by Stravinsky: “all great composers steal.” Now I don’t know whether I’d call this work plagiarism. Rather, I’d say he was such a genius that he had completely mastered the artistic techniques and traditions of Western music until his time. The Firebird shows his attempt to synthesize everything he knew, or at least demonstrate his mastery of them, perhaps before finding his own unique voice, which burst on the scene and turned the music world upside down with the Rite of Spring.

I find it puzzling that no one in the 20th century was able to touch him. Why did so many composers who came after him get lost in the world of 12 tone, atonality, minimalism and serialism, some of which Stravinsky himself explored, instead of standing on his shoulders? The philosopher, T.E. Hulme, of course, wrote a book on how artistic movements become more abstract when a civilization is undergoing chaos–for example Byzantine art became progressively two dimensional as the empire collapsed. And in prosperous times, Hulme noted that art became increasingly naturalistic and representative as happened in Renaissance Florence. So maybe that is what happened in 20th century music as well. As European civilization collapsed under two world wars and then the cold war’s threat of annihilation, perhaps our music represented that angst. After the Vietnam War ened and until the economic meltdown of 2008, tastes ran toward the more lush and stimulating music of the neo-romanticists like Aarvo Paart and Henryk Gorecki. Thank god. If I hear another monotonous piece by Phillip Glass, I think I’ll stick knitting needles in my ears.

The youtube video above is the Suite he composed in 1919.  Below is a longer version with Stravisnky conducting.  It seems to be from Japanese TV.

Download MP# or Buy CD of Stravinsky Conducting Firebird

Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka

Today I answer the question my daughter posed in 1999  and which sowed the seed for this web site. We were on the way to her weekly violin lesson, and as always I had tuned the car radio to the local classical music station. Some piece came on and I started whistling along. Claire, age twelve, said to me: “Daddy. What is your favorite piece of music?” Without hesitation I can now say that the one piece to which I consistently turn—for solace, joy, intellectual stimulation, or just plain fun—is Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Most musicologists will say that Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring has had more influence on the direction of 20th Century music than any other piece written. However, I find Petrushka much more satisfying because it stands perfectly balanced between the classical tradition out of which Stravinsky came and the new one—containing complex rhythms and harmonies—which he helped create. To me, Stravinsky’s musical work reminds me of many of the visual artists, like Monet and Cezanne, who started out classically trained, moved through impressionism and then virtually invented abstract art—Monet in color and Cezanne in form.

Stravinsky had begun Petrushka as a concert piece for piano and orchestra. He took it to the impresario of the Ballets Russes, Serge Diaghilev, who had produced the Firebird. Diaghilev told him to turn in into a ballet because of the success of the earlier work. The ballet revolves around a menage a trois between three puppets―Petrushka, a ballerina and a Moor. Stravinsky had been inspired by the image of a puppet, “suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.”

Here’s a 1928 recording with Stravinsky conducting himself:

Petrushka is divided into five sections, one for each scene. The first and the last scene are set during the Russian Mardi Gras, during the Shrove Tide Fair. Stravinsky captures perfectly the excitement a child feels at the sights and sounds of a fair. He starts out with a bright bubbly introduction: flutes, strings and harp bounce along at a rapid pace like butterflies flashing in the sun. All of a sudden, the string basses rush in and play a syncopated rhythm that takes control. The full orchestra joins in and plays in this vein, from time to time punctuated with a blast from a trumpet or flute. Then the piece changes rhythm again as the entire orchestra joins in building to a climax before it abruptly stops. Then Stravinsky starts it all over again but on the second pass he brings everything rushing to a halt on the shoulders of the tympanis playing like tom-toms.

According to Ted Libbey in his book, The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection during this first section, “two bars of superimposed 3/4 and 7/8 are followed by two bars of 2/4 and 5/8 and one of 3/4 and 8/8.” These complex rhythms set up such a feeling of energy and ebullience that I never tire of hearing it.

Unlike The Rites of Spring where one passage flows into the next, each scene, save one, is divided into discrete subsections with rhythms and feelings of their own. The third movement, for example, called “The Charlatan’s Booth,” starts out with an ominous bassoon and drum that leads us through the dark folds of a tent and into the inner sanctum. There the flute plays a wistful melody that has a hint of magic to it. Shimmering violins add to the effect. Stravinsky then launches into an amazing Russian Dance, which he based on a folk song that he had his mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov, sent him while he was composing the piece. The staccato rhythm of this dance backed by the bright clear orchestration makes this one of the most joyous pieces I know of.

Stravinsky did a large part of his composing at the piano. Odd then that he did not write a piano concerto. Instead he treated the instrument as an integral part of the orchestra. This shows in the scene called “Petrushka’s Room.” Here Stravinsky uses the piano sometimes as a percussion instrument and at others to create a haunting feeling that seems to evoke the strings of a puppet. This piece is where Petrushka has his little fight with the orchestra, especially the mocking trumpets. This I think is the pivotal movement of the whole piece in which Stravinsky sets up a “mano a mano” between the old tradition of tonality with the new that he invents in this piece. He creates haunting and jarring chords by having trumpets and other instruments plays at intervals of fifths and sevenths. He later said this is some of the writing of which he was the proudest.

Here is a piano version of three scenes from Petrushka that I find astounding:

For me this piece holds so many associations for me with the bucolic atmosphere of Indiana University where I went to college. Every day to get to Ballentine hall, where most of my language and literature courses took place, I would walk past the school of music. The road ran past the school’s huge circular annex, which was given over to sound proof practice rooms. Starting in spring when it became warm enough, the students practicing inside would throw open the windows and I would be serenaded every day. One piece that I often heard came from the third scene of Petrushka, which takes place in the Moor’s room. The piece is called “Dance of the Ballerina.”

Petrushka loves the ballerina, but given that she’s in the Moor’s room, we know Petrushka is the odd man out. The ballerina’s dance is oddly masculine and martial—it consists of 45 seconds of a trumpet solo. And it was this trumpet solo that I remember hearing on many occasions on my walks past the school of music. It must be a set audition piece for all trumpet players.

To mark the beginning of the last scene, the return to the Shrove Tide Fair, Stravinsky uses the roll of the tympanis once again. There follow a series of dances for various characters. After a wonderful lush soaring introduction, he moves into the “Dance of the Nursemaids,” which I think is one of my all-time favorite melodies by Stravinsky. I think of a wonderful Russian snow scape at night with a troika slushing along. But by the end, Stravinsky has changed the mood once again to a sparkling sunny day. Suddenly Stravinsky changes the rhythm to a lumbering one accompanied by a mocking clarinet, which captures the ridiculous sight of a peasant and a bear dancing together. The “Dance of the Gypsy Girls” is fiery and exotic. It is followed by the “Dance of Coachmen and Grooms” who skip along in a kind of stately but comic way. The second to last piece is called “The Masqueraders” and contains a lot of brass that convey a sense of confusion, urgency and anxiety. Stravinsky brings back the opening theme, but gives it a sort of American Indian feeling to it. Before long, we realize something is amiss. The Moor kills Petrushka. In the last scene Stravinsky conveys the feeling of night with quiet, but shimmering violins and a wary clarinet. Petrushka dies, yet he raises from the dead and dances above the Shrove Tide Fair shaking his angry fist at the lovers and having the last laugh, which a pair of trumpets play in different keys.

Here’s the finale:

For me, the mix of the old and the new, the innovation, the depth of emotion, and the all-encompassing nature of this work clearly shows Stravinski’s genius and listening to it once again makes me certain that it belongs at the top of my list of all time favorites.


MP3: Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, The Firebird & Apollo

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

Beginning in high school, my best friend became a guy named Gary Endicott, of whom I’ve already written. His parents had a Reader’s Digest collection of records with a title like: “The World’s Greatest Classical Music.” They had loaned me a few of the records from it, pieces like Handel’s Water Music. The collection also contained a copy of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which I gave a spin to one day. I had heard of Stravinsky and thought that it might be interesting to listen to some “modern” music. What amazes me now is my initial reaction. When I turned it on and the music started, I distinctly remember turning to Gary and saying something like: “God, what is that noise?”

How funny then that a couple of years later, while living at the French House (where I lived during my sophomore year at Indiana University), Stravinsky’s music caught my attention and has held it ever since. In fact, were one to ask me the name of my favorite composer, the name Stravinsky would be the first off my lips. This makes me wonder whether one’s brain must go through some developmental stages that mirror the development of western music, so that you can only listen to certain pieces when you are receptive. Kind of like the “ontongeny recapitulates phylogeny argument” but with swing.

Ironically, I had heard part of The Rite of Spring the semester before, in the Fall of 1974, at a viewing of the Walt Disney film, Fantasia. I think that was probably the most ill-conceived part of the entire film. Disney had shortened the work and used it to illustrate the creation of the world and the hostile conditions on the earth during the time of the dinosaurs. It’s too bad they used it for this section. It just didn’t work and seeing those stupid images just kept me from approaching the work with an unbiased mind.

I believe I might be forgiven my philistinism back in high school. As almost everyone knows, the opening of the Rite of Spring caused one of the greatest scandal in the world of serious music. In Paris, no less, (culture capital of the world) a hostile crowd booed the work at its premier in 1913. Various writers and Stravinsky himself gave different explanations for the fiasco. Though Stravinsky claimed that he was just going the next step in the development of traditional western music, his emphasis on rhythm (and vary complex and interwoven ones at that) broke with the current fashion of Ravel and Debussy’s impressionism in which emotions were expressed via exotic orchestration. Stravinsky also pushed the envelope in terms of orchestration and instrumentation which caused many people to label the music as dissonant.

Setting a ballet to the music also presented problems. The impresario Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to write it for his Ballet Russe troupe after the successes of The Firebird and Petrushhka. The company’s lead dancer, Nijinsky, had his dancers count out the complex rhythms in Russian, which proved a mistake since numbers above ten in that language are polysyllabic. So the dancers made a hash of the production. Another writer pointed to the fact that the Russian émigrés living in Paris at this time period were not particularly welcome. They were seen, as the Algerians and Africans are today in the “city of light” as taking away jobs from the natives. A number of anti-Russian agitators reportedly attended the premier and made catcalls. Whatever the causes, a fistfight broke out in the auditorium, which eventually spilled out into the neighborhood. When I was at Indiana University, the only thing that ever provoked a riot was when the basketball team won the national championship.

Though 101 years have passed since it’s premier, the music still seems fresh and daring. The idea for The Rite of Spring came to Stravinsky in a dream. He supposedly envisioned a young sacrificial virgin dancing herself to death in a pagan fertility ritual. The work is divided into two parts: “The Adoration of the Earth” and “The Sacrifice.” Each of these is broken down into a number of smaller named piece, but they flow into one another without pause. The first movement starts out with a mournful tune played in the upper register of the bassoon. And this points out one of the most interesting parts of Stravinsky’s work: the way in which he uses traditional instruments in non-traditional ways. In the first movement of the “Sacrifice” section, for example, he has a pair of trumpets play at different intervals to create a haunting mood. Stravinsky also gave lesser known instruments major roles like the b-flat clarinet.

A couple of years ago, my friend John Kim and I went to a performance of The Rite of Spring at the Kennedy Center. Leonard Slatkin conducted and we managed to get seats at the front of the nosebleed loggia looking down on the orchestra. These turned out to be ideal seats. Normally all you get to see are the musicians who lie along the first plane parallel to the conductor. Our perch afforded us a view of every member of the orchestra and I could actually see how Stravinsky moved the dominant melody around the orchestra and had certain groups play off one another. This added so much to my appreciation of the piece.

That was a nice surprise–after about 23 years of loving this piece, I found something in it that held a surprise for me. Just like old friends.

Stravinsky Biography

Download MP3 or buy CD of Stravinsky: Petroushka (Original 1911 Version) & The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps) from Amazon

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