Program Notes: October 21, 2000
The Firebird Suite (1919 version)
In 1910, Stravinsky premiered The Firebird ballet with the Ballet Russe, and it became an international success. The new collaboration between Sergei Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and the brilliant dancer Nijinsky brought together what must be considered the most extraordinary minds in ballet history.
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born in 1882 in Russia, became a French citizen by 1934, and then a naturalized American in 1945. He died in New York in 1971. His early musical training was inconsequential (though his father was a respected Russian Basso) and thus he studied law. It was not until he joined with the great Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov that Stravinsky's musical talents became ignited. Impresario Sergei Diaghilev heard Stravinsky's music in 1908, and with continued encouragement Stravinsky wrote his first full length orchestral work, The Firebird, which made him famous and provided the genesis for two more ballets, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring.
History recalls these first seasons of remarkable performances of the Ballet Russe as "Everything that could strike the imagination, intoxicate, enchant, and win one over seemed to have been assembled on that stage ...''.
Stravinsky was asked to write the music to this folk tale just months before its premiere. Previously it had been handed to the Russian composer Liadov (one of the Mighty Handful of Russian composers), but he procrastinated. Thus 27 year-old Stravinsky, unknown outside of Russia, was asked. His Firebird is considered one of his masterpieces.
The Firebird illustrates a popular Russian folk tale, summarized below:
(Introduction) The czar's son, Prince Ivan, has an unexpected meeting with ``a fabulous bird with plumage of fire'' during a hunting excursion. In exchange for not being hunted down by Ivan, the fabulous Firebird bargains her freedom by giving Ivan a magic feather (The Firebird and Her Dance). Later, Ivan chances upon an enchanted castle with a courtyard full of lovely maidens (Round Dance of the Princesses). They warn Ivan of the evil Kastchei in the castle who, for his own amusement, turns travelers into stone. Ivan, undaunted, enters the castle, and is faced by the evil Kastchei. The magic feather shields him from harm, and the Firebird appears, sending Kastchei and his ogres into a mad dance (Infernal Dance of King Kastchei). The evil ones are left exhausted and eventually destroyed by the Firebird (Berceuse). Kastchei's victims are freed from their stone spells, and Ivan wins the hand of a lovely Princess (Finale).
In this work, Stravinsky created highly visual music, with an otherworldly array of sound effects and orchestral colors that magnify the mystical content of the story. In 1919, Stravinsky revised the suite to the ballet score which is the one we perform tonight.
Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 83
In the later part of the 1800's there were two opposing schools in German music. One, the Mannheim School led by Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, stretched the limits of tonality and form far past the Classical norms set by Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. The other school was far more traditional in approach, and the chief proponent was Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). Though music history recalls the differences in theis way, Brahms composed his materpieces in a more deeply personal way than as a Traditionalist against the Mannheim school.
Brahms said once that he thought music historians would remember him as the Cherubini of his age. Typical of Brahms, the statement has meaning on many different levels. In one sense, it compares the differences between Beethoven and his contemporary, Luigi Cherubini, to Brahms and Richard Wagner. Beethoven set new standards in every way, while Cherubini composed great works in the shadows, exploring tonality and form in his own creative way. The comment also bears Brahms' humility (never able to compare himself to Beethoven, the ``giant''), and his sarcasm insinuating that Wagner, with his tremendous ego, might make the comparison of himself to Beethoven while the whole world disagreed. Much of the music world at the time, however, was infatuated with Wagner and Liszt, and Brahms never quite trusted the music historians to give him his full due.
Some of the music establishment had by then regarded Brahms' music as sad, intense, and stodgy. But here we have a concerto that is fresh and charming, and in four movements rather than the traditional three. The second movement, a fiery scherzo, puzzled some of his contemporaries, to whom Brahms remarked ``But the first movement is so harmless!'' In review, we can see that Brahms needed the scherzo to balance the whole. Yet, if he was the ``upholder of the true German music'' then Brahms certainly made a statement by writing music of integrity, and used whatever structural forms seemed necessary. It is surely a masterstroke. It shows us that traditional forms for Brahms were not hallowed, and the addition of this scherzo hints at the blurring between the Symphony and the Concerto.
Before we claim too many breaks with the past, however, the concerto (middle scherzo aside) is composed in the basic Classical form. The first movement is composed in basic Sonata form, the slow movement which follows the scherzo follows a fairly simple classical structure, and the finale is a straight rondo, right out of the Classical Primer. The work opens with the grace of morning lihgt, but goes through many stormy episodes in the first and second movements. Even the sweet third movement is not without moments of friction. But the fourth movement, without trumpets and timpani, brings forth one of the dearest and most charming statements in all of Brahms' orchestral compositions. The whole is a masterwork of balance, not between tragedy and triumph this time, but between honest human struggle and happiness. When the baton comes to rest, we have heard his longest and one of his most demanding concertos, but we have no doubt that joy resides in the world around us.
— Max Derrickson