Young People's Concert: Peter & the Wolf

Saturday, March 28, 2020 - 10:30 a.m. & 1:00 p.m.
Jim Rouse Theatre

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Young People's Concert: Peter & the Wolf Dance Connections, Jennifer Aversa, Director Greg Jukes

Pieces

Sergei Prokofiev - Peter and the Wolf
Igor Stravinsky - Firebird Ballet Highlights
Program Notes

IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

THE FIREBIRD

Composed: 1909-10
Premiered: Paris, France, 1910

But for the chance operations of history, we could have been listening to Anatoly Lyadov’s Firebird – or Nikolai Tcherepnin’s take on the story. The artist and ballet designer Alexander Benois first approached the impresario Sergei Diaghilev with the idea for the ballet that became The Firebird in 1908, and these two composers – eminent then, PhD fodder now – were Diaghilev’s first two choices. Both actually started writing music. The music of Lyadov’s Enchanted Kingdom is his Firebird score, prised from Diaghilev’s claws after a nightmarish legal wrangle; Tcherepnin wrote nearly an hour of music before deciding that Diaghilev was too difficult to work with. Once Stravinsky’s music started to emerge, however, Diaghilev soon realized he had a genius on his hands, famously remarking to one of his ballerinas that Stravinsky was “a man on the brink of fame”.

When he took the commission from Diaghilev, Stravinsky was still recovering from the death of his much-loved teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky’s music for the ballet is as much a meditation on Rimsky’s music as it is inspiration for dance – a “meditation” in the sense that it uses actual quotations from Rimsky as the starting point for Stravinsky’s far more modernistic music. Some of Stravinsky’s friends spotted this (they are unmissable to those who know their Rimsky) and accused him of plagiarism, or at least borrowing; he blandly replied that only mediocre composers borrow from others, but great composers steal outright. Some of the most famous passages in the entire ballet – notably the opening and the Infernal Dance – are escapees from the dustier corners of Rimsky’s many operas.

Stravinsky’s motives for doing this are complex, and do not include taking shortcuts or plagiarism in the normal sense. He once said that the actual musical material of a composition is its least interesting aspect. He preferred to work on material that was so trivial that no-one paid attention to it as such; listeners would be too busy being enthralled by Stravinsky’s transformative powers. As another of this evening’s composers, Richard Wagner, said, music is the art of transition – how one musical idea moves to or becomes another.

The story of The Firebird was intended to be understood as a distinctly Russian epic – the tale of Prince Ivan and his adventures in the kingdom of Kashchei the Immortal. Note the royalty, by the way; Rimsky and Stravinsky were very much part of the conservative Russian revolutionary tendency of their time, now largely forgotten under the long shadow of the Bolsheviks. One of the earliest reviews rhapsodized over Stravinsky’s music by declaring him the true successor to the Mighty Handful, the group of intensely conservative composers who dominated Russian musical life in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Firebird itself is not, as often stated, a symbol of “freedom” but of Russian resurgence, held back by the evil Kashchei and his weirdly western-tending henchcreatures. The thirteen princesses who provide one of their number as Ivan’s love interest (and pas de deux partner) have been interpreted as the Balkan states (the number is correct), with Serbia the lucky girl. This would presumably leave Prussia as the original of Kashchei, whose soul is made immortal by being encased in a magic egg. We need only think of the Fabergé eggs to remember the arcane symbolism of the egg in late Tsarist Russia. Ivan makes all the Princesses fall asleep while the Firebird leads him to the magic egg. Ivan smashes the egg, destroying Kashchei and waking the princesses to eternal (and presumably Tsarist) bliss. The famous final dance is a Cossack triumphal dance with surprisingly little metrical alteration to Stravinskyize it; anyone who has been at the receiving end of the Cossacks will confirm that their embrace is not necessarily a good thing, however good the soundtrack.

As in the case of Mozart’s Magic Flute, it is probably not a good idea to dwell too much on what the story of The Firebird “means”. As Wagner shows only too well, some of the greatest of all music has “meanings” that may be better off forgotten. What the Firebird certainly is, however, is Stravinsky’s first indisputable masterpiece, and a major step towards the daunting pinnacle of the Rite of Spring. Many listeners feel that Stravinsky’s style changed violently between these two glorious monsters; it did not. All the elements of the Rite – the obsessive repetitions, the non-thematic “themes”, the scrambled rhythms, even some of the actual themes - are present in The Firebird, but cloaked in the lush brocade of Rimsky-Korsskov’ harmony and orchestration. To create the Rite, Stravinsky simply took off Diaghilev’s fur coat and replaced it with Nijinsky’s animal skin. Listen closely – it’s all there.

About the Concert

Greg Jukes' energetic narration and Dance Connections' marvelous choreography combine with the orchestra for three thrilling tales! From Prokofiev's immortal Peter and the Wolf, to Stravinsky's magical Firebird, and Disney's Moana, children of all ages will enjoy this fun-filled introduction to the orchestra. Choose either the 10:30 or 1:00 concert and try your hand at playing instruments between the two performances at our free Musical Instrument Petting Zoo. Guest artist sponsored by