Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Stravinsky and the Ballet, part 2

As odd as it might seem from our historical perspective, Stravinsky was not the first choice of composer for The Firebird! The team of Benois, Fokine and Cherepnin had created the first original and fairly successful ballet the season before, Le pavillon d'Armide, so they were the first choice for The Firebird. Indeed, Cherepnin had already written some music for this purpose. The reasons are unclear, perhaps it was due to a personality conflict with the choreographer Folkine, but Cherepnin ultimately withdrew from the project. The summons next went to Anatoliy Lyadov, a composer with a firmly established reputation in Russia, but not elsewhere. As he had become known as a composer with a gift for the folkloristic/fantastic, he was a logical choice. Consequently, Diaghilev wrote to Lyadov from Venice in September 1909. Alas, Lyadov seems to have "pocket-vetoed" the proposal by simply doing nothing. Russia's leading ballet composer at the time, Glazunov, might also have been approached.

Diaghilev already knew Stravinsky's work, in fact he had already commissioned orchestrations from him for the Les sylphides suite, so finally the attention turned his way. He began composition in October or November 1909, even before he received the official commission in December. Stravinsky's first sessions with Fokine consisted of the latter laying out his requirements for the various sections of the ballet--the choreographer was at the helm creatively. This was a bit of a throwback to the early days of ballet when the music was arranged to fit the dancing and not vice-versa. The one area in which Stravinsky prevailed was over Fokine's original idea for the apotheosis or finale in which banal "gay processional dances" were proposed.

The only technical description we have from Stravinsky of how he composed is regarding a core element of The Firebird, the element that is used to suggest all the fantastic elements relating to Kashchey:

[quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 589]

This idea actually comes from an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov: Kaschey the Deathless!

(If you are familiar with Stravinsky's recollections published much later in his conversation books, you will notice that he had quite a different perspective on these events and his debts to Rimsky-Korsakov and others--in this respect I am going to go with Taruskin's account, supported with a plethora of evidence.)

Here is another example from Taruskin showing two "ladders of thirds," the one from Rimsky-Korsakov and the other from Stravinsky:

[op. cit. p. 593]
Stravinsky does develop the idea in various ways such as presenting two ladders a tritone apart, or alternating French sixths and diminished sevenths (one interesting thing about composing using the octatonic scale is that the only chords available are diminished!). Another interesting technique occurs in the "Dialogue de Kastchei avec Ivan-Tsarévich" where a pair of horns and a pair of trumpets each present a pentatonic scale, one "white keys" and one "black keys"--an early example of Stravinskian "polytonalism."

The motif heard in the basses at the very beginning of the ballet is actually an arpeggiation of the Kashchey ladder:

Taruskin has a lot more about the use of whole-tone chords, the appearance of the "Petruschka" chord, how the human characters are associated with diatonic harmony and the supernatural ones with chromatic harmony, the use of genuine folk tunes in the khorovod of the Princesses,  the influence of Scriabin on the Firebird's Dance and the orientalisms of the Firebird's supplications. But I don't want to go over all that here as I want to finish with The Firebird so we can move on to Petrushka!

The Firebird achieved a smashing success at its première at the Paris Opera on 25 June, 1910. The French particularly admired the work's synthesism, its brilliant fusing of painting, dance and music. Stravinsky was particularly honored with the first article devoted to his music published in the international press. The author was Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi and it appeared in the Musical Times of 1 August 1911:
Russian born and Russian in spirit [Stravinsky] has no ambition but to assert his personality in the fullest and most independent way. He has eagerly drunk in the often misunderstood or forgotten message of Russia's greatest masters, and thereby learned to stand his own ground ... he stands apart among his colleagues for the abundance, boldness and vigour of his imagination as well as for his command of craftsmanship
Reading Taruskin, who works very hard to uncover all the historical context and forerunners of Stravinsky's music, one can lose sight of just how spectacular his development was. Yes, based on music of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, but displaying a new energy and ingenuity that we will see expanded on in the next two ballets: Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.

Let's end with one final version of The Firebird. This is the Royal Danish Ballet, choreography Glen Tetley, Royal Danish Orchestra, conductor Poul Jorgensen:


Will Wilkin said...

The first CD I ever bought was Charles Dutoit conducting the Detroit Symphony in the Firebird complete ballet. I still have that CD and quickly came to love the Firebird. I was still pretty new to classical music in 1986, and didn't know what to buy to try my new CD player (nobody else I knew even had one!), but I knew of the Firebird from the excerpts played by the rock band Yes on their live 3-LP set Yessongs. So Firebird it was!

Regarding your analysis of the peculiar harmonies and juxtposition of pentatonic scales, etc, is too technical for me at this stage of my self-education, but I appreciate your writing it as it shows me at least a direction in which I want my understanding to develop over time.

Bryan Townsend said...

I only got to know the Firebird much later. Will, thanks so much for leaving comments on these Stravinsky posts. I know people are reading them, but it is nice to have it confirmed.