Stravinsky: The Firebird

Igor Stravinsky  (1882-1971)
The Firebird (complete ballet)

Duration: 45'
Publisher: Schott Music
KSO performed: 2013, 2002

Introduction - Kashchey's enchanted garden - The Firebirdvappears, pursued by Ivan Tsarevich - Dance of the Firebird - Ivan Tsarevich captures the Firebird - The Firebird's entreaty - The appearance of the thirteen enchanted princesses - The princesses' game with the golden apples - The sudden appearance of Ivan Tsarevich - Round Dance of the princesses - Dawn; Ivan Tsarevich enters Kashchey's palace - The sound of enchanted bells; monsters appear, Kashchey's guar, and take Ivan Tsarevich prisoner - The arrival of Kashchy the Immortal - Kashchey's dialogue with Ivan Tsarevich - the princesses intercede - the appearance of the Firebird - Kashchey's followers dance under the Firebird's spell - Infernal Dance of Kashchey's subjects - Lullaby (the Firebird) - Kashchey awakes - Death of Kashchey - Kashchey's spells are broken; his palace disappears; the stone knights return to life; joy reigns

The origins of the Ballets Russes lie in a late nineteenth century Russian artistic movement known as Mir iskusstva [The World of Art].  This was a group of students that  congregated around the artist Alexandre Benois in 1898. A year later they set up a magazine, also called Mir iskusstva, the editorship of which was  taken up by Sergei Diaghilev.  Like the Pre-Raphaelites in England, Mir iskusstva dedicated itself to the opposition of what its members saw as the decadence of industrial society, and sought to preserve and restore Russian folk-culture.  Few Westerners would ever see a copy of this magazine; nevertheless it would prove a pivotal influence on European art in the early 20th century.  In 1907 and 1908 Benois  and his cohorts presented programmes of Russian nationalist opera and ballet in Paris.  These proved highly successful, and in 1909 the group returned, now formally established as the Ballets Russes.  By this time Diaghilev had taken charge of the project.  The next few years would see the growth of a phenomenally successful company whose influence is still felt today.

With an artist such as Benois designing, and the choreographer Mikhail Fokine directing the dancers, the Ballets Russes offered productions that combined the exoticism of Russian folk traditions with a revolutionary approach to design and choreography.  However, where the productions lacked a certain fizz was in the music.  Although Diaghilev managed to commission such eminent French composers as Debussy and Ravel, most of the Russian music represented was in the form of what the company secretary Walter Nouvel archly described as "salades russes."  These compilations of old orchestral and ballet repertoire paled in comparison to what was being achieved in the other elements of the shows.  The lack of vital new Russian music did not pass unnoticed in the press, and so Diaghilev, Benois and Fokine determined to find a composer who could produce something special.  They concocted the most Russian scenario they could think of. This combined elements of several Russian folk tales: the Firebird, the demon king Kashchey the Immortal and the archetypal hero Prince Ivan Tsarevich.  This sort of conflation will be recognised by anyone familar with the 1940s horror films churned out by Universal Studios featuring the likes of Dracula versus Frankenstein versus the Wolf Man. 

The tale begins as Prince Ivan Tsarevich  enters the magical kingdom of Kashchey the Immortal.  In its gardens he sees the Firebird, whom he chases and catches. The Firebird agrees to help Ivan Tsarevich in exchange for its freedom.  Thirteen Princesses appear, and play a game of catch with Golden apples.  Ivan Tsarevich falls in love with one of them.  As dawn breaks, Ivan Tsarevich enters Kashchey's castle, determined to marry the princess.  He talks with Kashchey but the two soon argue.  The princesses try to intervene, but Kashchey sends his demonic entourage after the prince.  The Firebird appears and bewitches Kashchey and his creatures, making them dance a wild, infernal dance.  They then fall asleep.  The Firebird tells Ivan Tsarevich that Kashchey's soul is contained within a giant egg; if this is destroyed he will die.  Kashchey awakes, but Ivan Tsarevich breaks the egg and the demon king is killed.  With Kashchey dead, all the magical creatures and the palace disappear.  All Kashchey's prisoners, including the princesses, awake and celebrate his defeat.

Diaghilev initially hoped that his house composer Nikolai Tcherepnin would compose the ballet.  Why this never happened is something of a mystery.  Tcherepnin was prone to mood swings, and Benois later claimed that he was simply becoming less keen on writing for the ballet.  However, it is also quite possible that he declined after he had a falling out with Fokine.  In any event, Tcherepnin resigned from the company, and so Diaghilev's thoughts turned to other composers.  He approached Anatoly Lyadov about the commission, but although Lyadov apparently initially expressed interest, nothing came of this. By now things were becoming urgent, and so Diaghilev decided to take a chance.   For the 1909 production "Les Sylphides", Diaghilev had commissioned a number of young composers to arrange piano pieces of Chopin.  one of these had made a particular impression, not only for the distinctiveness of his work, but also his rapid work rate: Igor Stravinsky.

The break came at just the right time for Stravinsky. As a student he had actually studied Law, but was promising enough as a composer that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed to take him as a pupil anyway. As his studies progressed however, he found that his teacher became less enamoured of him as his style became more influenced by Skryabin and Glazunov, both of whom Rimsky-Korsakov considered unacceptably modern.

Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird is nowadays usually heard in one of the suites that he later concocted for concert performance.  His complete original score is however an astonishing tour de force of orchestral writing.  His influences are here not yet fully absorbed, but such dramatic music as the buildup to the climactic Infernal Dance of Kashchey are as exciting as anything he retained for the later suites; it is often in these little-heard passages that can be heard the first stirrings of the musical revolution that would erupt in The Rite of Spring.

Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra

Alban Berg (1885-1935)
Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6

1: Präludium (Prelude)
2: Reigen (Rounds)
3: Marsch (March)

Duration: 19'
Publisher: Universal Edition
KSO performed: 2013

Alban Berg was born into a comfortable middle-class Viennese family, the third of four children.  His unremarkably happy childhood was thrown into disarray after his father died in 1900.  This loss was hugely traumatic for Berg. Within months he had an attack of asthma, a compalint from which he would then suffer for the rest of his life. His schoolwork suffered; he failed his exams and was forced to repeat his sixth year, and would later also have to repeat his seventh.  Most scandalously, he had an affair with the family's kitchen maid, which resulted in an illegitimate daughter.  The eventual collapse of this relationship was the primary motivation for a suicide attempt in the autumn of 1903.

As a child Berg's main passion had been for literature, but in the wake of his father's death he became interested more in music.  He had been given piano lessons by his governess, and from 1901 he composed songs and piano duets for his family.  He evidently had talent, and so in 1904 his brother and sister answered a newspaper advertisement for composition classes.  Unknown to Berg, they took copies of some of his songs to the teacher, Arnold Schoenberg.  Schoenberg was impressed with what he saw and accepted Berg as a pupil, refusing to charge a fee in view of the family circumstances.  Berg quickly became devoted to him.  He studied with him until Schoenberg abruptly left Vienna in 1911, and continued to seek his advice and approval thereafter.

The relationship was not an easy one.  Berg increasingly regarded Schoenberg as something of a surrogate father figure, whose approval he craved and whose criticism was devastating.  Schoenberg for his part felt no compunction about lecturing his pupil on matters of morality as well as music.  As well as absorbing Schoenberg’s compositional ideas, Berg also inherited to an extent his teacher's moral views, in particular his ambivalence towards Viennese society.  Schoenberg, along with many artists, saw the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a corrupt and decadent realm that preferred oppression of its subjects to social reform.  The Expressionist movement to which Schoenberg was allied was in part a reaction to the lack of opportunity for political expression by exploring extremes of personal crisis in art, partly fulled by the new ideas of the subconscious that Sigmund Freud was developing.

In 1913 Berg visited Schoenberg in Berlin.  The trip was a happy one until the last day, when Berg showed his former teacher the two pieces he had written since Schoenberg's departure from Vienna.   Schoenberg vehemently criticised them, before proceeding to lecture Berg on what he saw as his lack of self-discipline. In a letter to Schoenberg written after his return home, Berg revealed how much to heart he had taken the criticism: “I have to thank you for your reproof as for everything I have received from you, knowing well that it was meant for my own good.  I don't need to tell you that the great pain it has caused me, is proof of the fact that I have heeded your criticism.”

Schoenberg had suggested that for his next composition Berg should consider a characteristic suite for orchestra, and Berg resolved that he would attempt such a project.  This was the starting point for his Three Orchestral Pieces.  This origin is visible in the titles of the pieces (Prelude, Rounds, March), but the final work that Berg produced moves way beyond the scope of what might be expected of the original idea.  Berg dedicated the Three Orchestral Pieces to Schoenberg as a present for his 40th birthday in 1914; in the event, only the first and last pieces were finished in time, the middle movement not being completed until 1915.  Berg's friend and fellow pupil of Schoenberg Anton Webern conducted two of the pieces in 1920, but it was not until 1930 that the work was heard in full.

Apart from Schoenberg, the influence of Gustav Mahler looms large in Berg's style.  After Mahler's death in 1911 Berg briefly considered writing a symphony, and some of the ideas from that aborted project ended up as part of the Praeludium.  This piece, materialising uncertainly from nothing, carries clear echoes of the opening movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony, which had made an enormous impression on Berg at its posthumous premiere in 1912 in Vienna.  Like Mahler,  Berg's Prelude rouses itself repeatedly to increasingly intense climaxes, but eventually retreats back into the fog from which emerged.  In a nod to Schoenberg's concept of “developing variation”, ideas from this movement are then reconstituted and transformed to provide the themes for the second.

The title “Reigen” is usually translated as “Round Dance”, but it seems more likely that it has other associations: in the 19th century, “Reigen” was a term used in salon music for a sequence of dance tunes, generally a hodgepodge of popular hits.  In a nod to this, the movement evokes Waltzes and Ländler, sometimes overtly but often through a distorting mist.  “Reigen” may also refer to the  notorious, and at the time banned, play of that name by Arthur Schnitzler.  The play has ten scenes featuring a chain of couples: a prostitute and a soldier, then the soldier and a maid, and so on until the prostitute appears again with a count in the final scene to complete the circle.  Berg owned a copy of this dark indictment of Viennese morality, and its tone chimes well with Berg's own ambivalence towards Vienna, and the often sardonic character of this movement.

The final March  also begins with material reworked from the previous piece, as well as reintroducing a number of ideas from the Praeludium. This is music of astonishing and overwhelming complexity, that makes the most of the sheer brute force that can be harnessed by a large orchestra. The sheer density of ideas and textures eventually causes everything to collapse in on itself, leaving a desolate landscape and a hint of something sinister before a final outburst by the brass. Weeks after Berg completed this movement, Europe stepped over the brink and was engulfed in war.

Berlioz: Overture, Benvenuto Cellini

Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Overture, Benvenuto Cellini

Duration: 12'
Publisher: Public Domain
KSO performed: 2013 

Berlioz claimed to despise Italian music, but the 15 months he spent in the country in the early 1830s proved a source of inspiration throughout the rest of the decade. Romeo and Juliet, Harold in Italy and his first opera Benvenuto Cellini all drew to some extent on his experiences of Italy.

His trip was a consequence of his finally winning the prestigious Prix de Rome at his third attempt in 1830. Learning from his previous entries, he had composed a cantata in a deliberately tame style so as not to annoy the judges. He felt ashamed of the piece, and later destroyed it.  Despite his aversion to its music, Italy itself proved highly amiable.  The prize money also came as a welcome relief at a time when he was struggling to make ends meet.  Unfortunately, by 1836 when he was hard at work on Benvenuto Cellini and most needed financial security, the money had run out.  He was therefore forced to take up a second career as a critic, a role which his considerable talent for it did not prevent him from loathing.

The opera is based - very loosely - on the memoirs of the eponymous 16th century sculptor and goldsmith.  Cellini was a colourful character, whose life also encompassed painting, music, a period soldiering and accusations of philandering with both sexes.  Berlioz identified with the idea of artist as hero that Cellini propagates in his writing.  While highly entertaining, not to say scandalous, Cellini's memoirs are arguably not greatly suited to dramatic adaptation.  This might partly explain why the opera's first performance at the Paris Opera in 1838 was an unmitigated disaster. 

It cannot have helped that even before its première the opera was subject to derision and hosility, not least from its cast.  The principal tenor abandonded his part after three performances, which the Opéra took as confirmation of its failure.  Berlioz wrote to the Director, "Sir, I have the honour to announce to you that I withdraw my opera Benvenuto.  I am absolutely convinced that you will receive this with pleasure. I have the honour, sir, to be your devoted servant, H. Berlioz."

Revising it many years later for  revival in 1852 did little to make it more popular.   It was performed at Covent Garden in front of Queen Victoria, and was as unsuccessful as at its first staging.  It remains a rarity in opera houses today, although its ebullient overture has found more success as a concert piece.

KSO Season 57 2012-2013

Unless otherwise stated, all concerts take place at St. John's, Smith Square and are conducted by Russell Keable.

Monday 15 October 2012
Berlioz: Overture: Benvenuto Cellini
Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra
Stravinsky: The Firebird (Complete Ballet)

Monday 26 November 2012
Magnus Lindberg: Gran Duo
Prokofiev: Violin Concerto No. 2
Violin: Gina McCormack
Schumann: Symphony No. 4

Wednesday 12 December 2012 at Westfield London
Anderson: Belle of the Ball
Farnon: Westminster Waltz
Anderson: Serenata
Waldteufel: Skaters' Waltz
Ellis: Coronation Scott
Anderson: Sleigh Ride
Tchaikovsky: Waltz from Swan Lake
Loewe: My Fair Lady Suite  

Monday 21 January 2013 at Queen Elizabeth Hall
"A Night at the Oscars"
Steiner: Gone with the Wind
Jonny Greenwood: Three Scenes from 'There Will Be Blood'
Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue
Piano: Richard Uttley
Bernstein: On the Waterfront - Symphonic Suite
John Williams: Star Wars Suite  

Sunday 10 February 2013 at Westfield London
Sponsored play in aid of War Child
Mozart: Symphony No. 41 'Jupiter'
Beethoven: Overture: Leonora No. 3
Brahms: Symphony No. 1
Tchaikovsky: Dance of the Mirlitons from The Nutcracker
Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
Maurizio Malagnini: The Paradise
Smetana: Overture, The Bartered Bride
Smetana: Vltava
Khachaturian: Adagio from Spartacus
Rimsky-Korsakov: The Young Prince and Princess from Scheherezade
Loewe: My Fair Lady Suite
Strauss: Waltz: The Blue Danube
Verdi: Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore
Holst: Mars and Venus from The Planets
Prokofiev: Dance of the Knights from Romeo and Juliet
Beethoven: Symphony No. 1
Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries from Die Walküre
Verdi: Overture: The Force of Destiny
Bizet: Carmen Suite No. 1
Tchaikovsky: Pas de Deux and Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker
Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet - Fantasy Overture
Prokofiev: Love Dance from Romeo and Juliet
Tchaikovsky: Waltz from Sleeping Beauty 

Saturday 9 March 2013 with guest conductor Stuart Barr
Glinka: Overture: Ruslan and Lyudmila
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherezade 

Tuesday 21 May 2013
Mahler: Symphony No. 7 

Monday 24 June 2013
Lyadov: 8 Russian Folk Songs

Matthew Taylor: Storr (London première)
Dvořák: Symphony No. 7