Sunday, June 18, 2017

Road to the Rite, Part 2: Firebird Infernal Dance

The Firebird was Stravinsky's first big success as a composer and his first ballet for the Ballets Russe of Diaghilev. He was just twenty-eight when it was premiered so it was written in his twenty-seventh year. He was still searching to find his unique compositional "voice" but this piece set him on the right path. There is a lot in it that is owed to his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, including elements in the story of the ballet which echo in some respects Rimsky-Korsakov's 1907 (premiered 1909) opera The Golden Cockerel which also revolves around a mythical bird.

Mind you, Stravinsky was the first to deny any influence from his teacher whom he described as
“shockingly shallow in his artistic aims.” His knowledge of composition “was not all it should have been.” His “modernism” was “based on a few flimsy enharmonic devices.” Summing up, Stravinsky patronized his teacher wickedly: “I am grateful to Rimsky for many things, and I do not wish to blame him for what he did not know; nevertheless, the most important tools of my art I had to discover for myself.”
[Taruskin, Richard. Russian Music at Home and Abroad: New Essays (Kindle Locations 2475-2478). University of California Press. Kindle Edition.]
However, the immensely learned Richard Taruskin goes on, in this same essay "Catching up with Rimsky-Korsakov," contained in the above volume, to point out that when music theory finally, in the 1960s, caught up with Stravinky's musical language, it was discovered that one important element was the use of the octatonic scale, an example of a harmonic structure that was based on a tonal centre, but not tonally functional in the usual way. I have mentioned this scale before, but it is worth repeating:

The scale consists of alternating tones and semitones and there are two versions depending on which one you start with. The famous "Petrushka" chord which is an F# major chord sounded simultaneously with a C major chord is easily derived from the octatonic scale: take out one of those chords and the remaining notes contain the other chord. The theorist, Arthur Berger, who discovered this found other instances of its use in Les Noces and the Rite and quite a few other pieces.

Now here is the interesting thing: a couple of other composers have also mentioned this scale, Olivier Messiaen (in his book on his musical language) and, yes, Rimsky-Korsakov in his book on orchestration. In Russia one of the names for this scale is the korsakovskaya gamma, the "Korsakov scale!"

The reason the Petrushka chord comes out of the scale so easily is that each note in the scale has a tritone counterpart: the C to G flat, the D flat to G and so on. Let's have a look and see if this useful scale is also in the Firebird. Here is the first theme in the bassoons (bass clef):

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And here is its continuation in trombone, also bass clef:

If you will allow me to use this continuation, I can map it nicely onto the octatonic:

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The first line is the theme, shown in treble clef. The second line is the notes arranged as a scale and the third line is the octatonic starting on the same note. Everything matches up (except those pesky B naturals in the first part of the theme!).

The use of the octatonic scale, plus the orchestral virtuosity, are things that give an exotic Russian color to the ballet and they are both, as we see, derived from Rimsky-Korsakov. Here, by the way is an example of that exotic orchestration, from the introduction:

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He has the strings doing a glissando while playing harmonics! On a string instrument, you get a "harmonic" (a high note created by forcing the string to vibrate in smaller sections than usual) by touching a finger to the string at a "node". The sound is eerie and high-pitched. This example comes from very early in the score. You can hear and see this technique around the 2 minute mark in this clip:

There is also a lot of quite lovely and quite conventional ballet music, the sort where you see the dancers wafting around on stage. Also in the Infernal Dance are some sections that sound like a manic Parisian music-hall:

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You can hear this section from the 1'17 mark in this clip:

To my ear, Stravinsky has not yet integrated all his influences with the eerie orchestrations, octatonic elements, Parisian music-hall and Stravinsky's own brilliant rhythmic ideas, so the Infernal Dance in particular sounds a bit like a dog's breakfast--just too many elements that don't quite cohere. His next ballet, Petrushka, goes a long way to solving this problem and the integration is complete with the Rite of Spring.

Let's listen to the whole ballet in the excellent performance by Valery Gergiev conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Salzburg Festival in 2000:


Will Wilkin said...

Nice redemption of Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, by you Bryan, and of course ultimately by Richard Taruskin. I appreciate your anatomy lesson of the octatonic scales and their being the basis of some of the distinctive chords we hear in Stravinsky's music.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Will!