On this Day:
On June 25, 1910 Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “The Firebird”, written for the Ballets Russes, premiered at the Opéra de Paris, Paris.
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky ComSE (17 June 1882 – 6 April 1971) was a Russian composer, pianist and conductor, later of French (from 1934) and American (from 1945) citizenship. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century and a pivotal figure in modernist music.
Stravinsky’s compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev and first performed in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The last transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure and was largely responsible for Stravinsky’s enduring reputation as a revolutionary who pushed the boundaries of musical design. His “Russian phase”, which continued with works such as Renard, L’Histoire du soldat, and Les noces, was followed in the 1920s by a period in which he turned to neoclassicism. The works from this period tended to make use of traditional musical forms (concerto grosso, fugue, and symphony) and drew from earlier styles, especially those of the 18th century. In the 1950s, Stravinsky adopted serial procedures. His compositions of this period shared traits with examples of his earlier output: rhythmic energy, the construction of extended melodic ideas out of a few two- or three-note cells, and clarity of form and instrumentation.
Innovation and influence
Stravinsky has been called “one of music’s truly epochal innovators”. The most important aspect of Stravinsky’s work, aside from his technical innovations (including in rhythm and harmony), is the “changing face” of his compositional style while always “retaining a distinctive, essential identity”.
Stravinsky’s use of motivic development (the use of musical figures that are repeated in different guises throughout a composition or section of a composition) included additive motivic development. This is a technique in which notes are removed from or added to a motif without regard to the consequent changes in metre. A similar technique can be found as early as the 16th century, for example in the music of Cipriano de Rore, Orlandus Lassus, Carlo Gesualdo and Giovanni de Macque, music with which Stravinsky exhibited considerable familiarity.
The Rite of Spring is notable for its relentless use of ostinati, for example in the eighth-note ostinato on strings accented by eight horns in the section “Augurs of Spring (Dances of the Young Girls)”. The work also contains passages where several ostinati clash against one another. Stravinsky was noted for his distinctive use of rhythm, especially in the Rite of Spring (1913). According to the composer Philip Glass, “the idea of pushing the rhythms across the bar lines […] led the way […]. The rhythmic structure of music became much more fluid and in a certain way spontaneous.” Glass mentions Stravinsky’s “primitive, offbeat rhythmic drive”. According to Andrew J. Browne, “Stravinsky is perhaps the only composer who has raised rhythm in itself to the dignity of art.” Stravinsky’s rhythm and vitality greatly influenced the composer Aaron Copland.
Over the course of his career, Stravinsky called for a wide variety of orchestral, instrumental, and vocal forces, ranging from single instruments in such works as Three Pieces for Clarinet (1918) or Elegy for Solo Viola (1944) to the enormous orchestra of The Rite of Spring (1913), which Copland characterized as “the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century”.
Stravinsky’s creation of unique and idiosyncratic ensembles arising from the specific musical nature of individual works is a basic element of his style.
Following the model of his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s student works such as the Symphony in E♭, Op. 1 (1907), Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3 (1908), and Fireworks (Feu d’artifice), Op. 4 (1908), call for large orchestral forces. The Symphony, for example, calls for 3 flutes (3rd doubles piccolo), 2 oboes, 3 clarinets in B♭, 2 bassoons, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in B♭, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, triangle, cymbals, and strings. The Scherzo fantastique calls for a slightly larger orchestra but completely omits trombones: this was Stravinsky’s response to Rimsky’s criticism of their overuse in the Symphony.
The Firebird (1910) is scored for the following orchestra: 2 piccolos (2nd doubles 3rd flute), 2 flutes, 3 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets in A (3rd doubles piccolo clarinet in D), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd doubles contrabassoon 2), contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets in A, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, celesta, piano, 3 harps, and strings. The percussion section requires bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tam-tam, tubular bells, glockenspiel, and xylophone. In addition, the original version calls for 3 onstage trumpets and 4 onstage Wagner tubas (2 tenor and 2 bass).
The original version of Petrushka (1911) calls for a similar orchestra (without onstage brass, but with the addition of onstage snare drum). The particularly prominent role of the piano is the result of the music’s origin as a Konzertstück for piano and orchestra.
The Rite of Spring (1913) calls for the largest orchestra Stravinsky ever employed: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd doubles 2nd piccolo), alto flute, 4 oboes (4th doubles 2nd cor anglais), cor anglais, piccolo clarinet in D/E♭, 3 clarinets (3rd doubles 2nd bass clarinet), bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (4th doubles 2nd contrabassoon), contrabassoon, 8 horns (7th and 8th double tenor tubas), piccolo trumpet in D, 4 trumpets in C (4th doubles bass trumpet in E♭), 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpanists (5 drums), 4 percussionists, and strings. The percussion section requires bass drum, tamtam, triangle, tambourine, cymbals, crotales, and guiro.
Included among his students in the 1940s was the American composer and music educator Robert Strassburg. In 1959, he was awarded the Sonning Award, Denmark’s highest musical honour. In the early 1960s his students included Craft and Warren Zevon (per Wikipedia).
First, a Story:
“Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end” – Igor Stravinsky
Second, a Song:
Courtesy of CMajorEntertainment and YouTube.com, from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, here is Stravinsky: Finale – from the Suite from The Firebird, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel conducting. We hope you enjoy this!
Thought for the Day:
“My music is best understood by children and animals.” – Igor Stravinsky. The Observer, Oct 8, 1961.
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Have a great day!
Dave & Colleen
© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky