STRAVINSKY: The Firebird / The Rite of Spring (Alexander Rahbari/ Belgian Radio and Television Philharmonic Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554060)
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The Rite of Spring (Lesacre du printemps)
The Firebird (L'oiseaude feu) (Suite No. 2, 1919)
Igor Stravinsky was the son of a distinguished bass soloist at theMariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, creator of important r??les in new operas byTchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was born, the third of four sons, atOranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland in the summer of 1882. In childhood hisability in music did not seem exceptional, but he was able to study musicprivately with Rimsky-Korsakov, who became a particularly important influenceafter the death of the composer's imperious father in 1902. He completed adegree in law in 1905, married in the following year and increasingly devotedhimself to music. His first significant success came when the impresarioDyagilev, a distant relative on his mother's side of the family, commissionedfrom him the ballet The Firebird, first performed in Paris in 1910. Thiswas followed by the very Russian Petrushka in 1911 for the DyagilevBallets Russes, with which he was now closely associated, leading in 1913 tothe notorious first performance of The Rite of Spring, first staged,like the preceding ballets, in Paris. Although collaboration with Dyagilev waslimited during the war, when Stravinsky lived principally in Switzerland, itwas resumed with the ballet Pulcinella, based on music attributed toPergolesi, and marking Stravinsky's association with neo-classicism. The end ofthe association with Dyagilev was marked by what the impresario considered amacabre present, the Cocteau collaboration Oedipus Rex.
Stravinsky has been compared to his near contemporary Picasso, thepainter who provided decor for Pulcinella and who through along career was toshow mastery of a number of contrasting styles. Stravinsky's earlier music wasessentially Russian in inspiration, followed by a style of composition derivedlargely from the eighteenth century, interspersed with musical excursions inother directions. His so-called neo-classicism coincided with the beginning ofa career that was now international. The initial enthusiasm for the Russianrevolution of 1917 that had led even Dyagilev to replace crown and sceptre in
The Firebird with a red flag, was soon succeeded by distaste for the newregime and the decision not to return to Russia.
In 1939, with war imminent in Europe, Stravinsky moved to the UnitedStates, where he had already enjoyed considerable success. The death of hisfirst wife allowed him to marry a woman with whom he had enjoyed a long earlierassociation and the couple settled in Hollywood, where the climate seemedcongenial. Income from his compositions was at last safeguarded by hisassociation with Boosey and Hawkes in 1945, the year of his naturalisation asan American citizen. The year 1951 saw the completion and first performance ofthe English opera The Rake's Progress, based on Hogarth engravings witha libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, a work that came at the finalheight of the composer's neo-classicism. The last period of his life brought achange to serialism, the technique of composition developed by ArnoldSchoenberg, a fellow-exile in California, with whom he had never chosen toassociate. In 1962 he made a triumphant return to Russia for a series ofconcerts in celebration of his 80th birthday. Among his final compositions arethe Requiem Canticles of 1965-6 which follow his Requiem Introitus forthe death of the poet T.S. Eliot, but prefigure his own death, which took placein New York in April, 1971. He was buried in the cemetery on the island of SanMichele in Venice, his grave near that of Dyagilev, whose percipience hadlaunched his career sixty years before.
The Rite of Spring, with choreography by Nijinsky was first staged at theThe?ótre des Champs-Elysees in Paris in May, 1913. The work had already causedconsiderable trouble in Dyagilev's ballet company. Nijinsky, the principal maledancer, in 1912 began to replace Fokin as choreographer, and with The Riteof Spring he tackled a formidable task, to provide a new kind of dance fora plot of primitive symbolism and energy, coupled with music of a very newkind. Stravinsky alleged a degree of musical incompetence in Nijinsky, whoneeded, he once claimed, to be taught the rudiments of the subject.
Nevertheless the dancer was able to match the music with something equallyoriginal and startling. Neither music nor choreography proved in any wayacceptable to the general public on the occasion of the first performance,although all had gone well enough in a preview before an invited audience ofcognoscenti. At the first public performance there was an uproar, as members ofthe audience took sides for or against the piece. In spite of deafening andviolent objections from many, the dancers and musicians continued to the end,although the music was inaudible. The result was, at least, a succ?¿s descandale. In later years the music of the ballet was to exercise a stronginfluence over the course of twentieth century music, although Nijinsky'soriginal choreography proved less durable.
Drawing on pagan Russia as its source of inspiration, The Rite ofSpring opens with the Adoration of the Earth, the introduction towhich is marked by the evocative bassoon solo with which it starts andfinishes, leading without a break to the forceful rhythm of the Augurs ofSpring, Dances of the Young Girls ('Les augures printaniers: Danses desadolescentes'). The Ritual of Abduction ('Jeu du rapt') follows, withtwo groups of girls, dressed in red, pursued in a simulated ritual ofabduction, by the young men. The Spring Rounds ('Rondes printani?¿res')are introduced by trills on flutes, with a simple Russian clarinet melody, thedancers moving in circles. Now the Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes begins('Jeux des cites rivales'), interrupted by the Procession of the Sage ('Cort?¿gedu sage'), as the tribal elders lead in their wise old high priest. He liesprone on the ground, in adorationof the earth (Adoration de la terre), after which the people celebratewith the Dance of the Earth ('Danse de la terre').
The second part of TheRite of Spring is The Sacrifice ('Le sacrifice'). The mysteriousintroduction evokes a twilight scene, desolate, and yet inhabited by strangeand primitive creatures. A dark hill-top is marked by sacred stones and totems.
From the Mystic Circles of Young Girls ('Cercles mysterieux desadolescentes') one will be chosen as sacrificial victim, as they circle inrhythmic motion, watched by the tribal elders. Once the victim is chosen, lostin an ecstatic trance, her r??le is glorified in The Glorification of theChosen One ('Glorification de l'elue'), a dance of fierce asymmetricalrhythms. Fanfares herald the Evocation of the Ancestors ('Evocation desanc?¬tres'), and the elders, wearing animal-skins, celebrate the RitualAction of the Ancestors ('Action rituelle des anc?¬tres'), moving forward tothe stark and exotic rhythms of the final Sacrificial Dance ('Dansesacrale'), as the victim joins in a ritual that must end in her own death.
The ballet TheFirebird ('L'oiseau de feu') was devised for Dyagilev by Fokin. Music wasoriginally commissioned from Lyadov, but delay on his part led to an invitationto Stravinsky, who had already scored for Dyagilev two movements of LesSylphides for the 1909 Paris season. Decor was by Golovin, with costumesfor the Firebird, danced by Karsavina, and for the Tsarevna by Bakst.
Stravinsky started the music in November 1909 and