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Stravinksy's Firebird


Program Notes


FRI MAY 12, 11 am
SAT MAY 13, 8 pm


BARTÓK (1881-1945)

Two Portraits, Op. 5

One Ideal
One Grotesque

Kathryn Woolley, violinist

PROKOFIEV (1891–1953)

Concerto No. 2 in G Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16

Scherzo: Vivace
Finale: Allegro tempestoso


ROUSSEL (1869-1937)

Suite No. 2 from Bacchus et Ariane, Op. 43

Ariadne’s Awakening
Ariadne and Bacchus
Bacchus’ Dance
The Kiss
Bacchus’ Cortège
Ariadne’s Dance
Ariadne and Bacchus
Bacchanale and the Coronation of Ariadne

STRAVINSKY (1882–1971) 

L’oiseau de feu (“The Firebird”) Suite
ed. McAllister

Variations of the Firebird
Round of the Princesses Khorovod
Infernal Dance of King Katschei

Two Portraits, Op. 5

Born: March 25, 1881, Nagy-szentmiklos, Hungary | Died: September 26, 1945, New York
• Work composed: based on the First Violin Concerto, composed between July 1907 and January 1908, and on the Fourteenth Bagatelle, composed in May 1908
• Premiere: The first of the Two Portraits was played on February 12, 1911 in Budapest. István Strasser and the Opera Orchestra of Budapest gave the first performance of the entire work on April 20, 1916.
• Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets (incl. 2 E-flat clarinets, bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals a2, snare drum, tam-tam, triangle, 2 harps, strings
• CSO notable performances: Two previous subscription weekends | Premiere: November 1996, George Pehlivanian conducting, Alexander Kerr, violinist | Most recent: March 2009, Paavo Järvi conducting, Timothy Lees, violinist
• Duration: approx. 12 minutes

Bartók’s first love was violinist Stefi Geyer. His passions for her were spiritual, physical, musical and philosophical (he enjoyed intellectual discussions with her). While visiting her and her brother in 1907, he began to compose a violin concerto based on a musical motive that represented his love. This figure, a rising arpeggiated D major seventh chord followed by a descended B minor triad is known as the “declaration of love” motive.

The concerto was projected to be in three movements, of which Bartók completed only the first two. The first (which is virtually identical to the first of the Two Portraits) he characterized as a musical portrait of the “idealized Stefi Geyer, celestial and inward.” The composer felt that this music had been “written exclusively from the heart.” The second movement was also a portrait, this time of the “cheerful, witty, amusing” Geyer.

The composer hoped that Geyer would perform the concerto as a public affirmation of their personal and professional union. As soon as he had completed (but not yet orchestrated) the first two movements, he sent Geyer the manuscript. Her reply was most unexpected. Instead of writing that she was planning to perform the concerto, she sent a letter in which she terminated the courtship. Bartók was devastated. His first impulse was to compose a third movement for the concerto, in which he would depict an “indifferent, cool and silent Stefi Geyer,” using music he characterized as “hateful.”

Bartók rejected this plan, but over the next five months he did work out his feelings in a series of compositions based on the love motive. The first such piece he appropriately called “Elegy.” It is the first of the Two Portraits for piano. Two additional “Stefi lost” works are the last two of the Fourteen Bagatelles for Piano. One of these is a dirge called “She is Dead,” and the other is a wild and satiric waltz (which eventually became the second of the Two Portraits). The composer’s bitterness toward the violinist is palpable in this music.

He also included the love motive in “Dedication,” the epilogue to his Ten Easy Piano Pieces. His most extensive musical working through of his feelings of unrequited love occurs in the First String Quartet. His last letter to Geyer mentions that he was at work on a quartet using her motive: “this is my funeral dirge.” The quartet, according to Bartók’s friend and fellow composer Zoltán Kodály, chronicles Bartók’s return to life. The music progresses from the opening dirge to a finale, the introduction of which quotes the song “Just a Fair Girl”—yet another reference to Geyer.

These compositional projects must have been therapeutic. By November 1909, 21 months after receiving the fateful rejection letter from Geyer, the composer married Márta Ziegler.
But what became of the ill-fated First Violin Concerto? Geyer was not going to perform it. Bartók did try to interest some other violinists in the work, but with no success. Eventually, once he got over his anger toward Geyer, Bartók came to feel that he would be reopening old wounds by allowing the piece to be played. In its two-movement form, therefore, the concerto remained unperformed and unpublished until 1958, after the deaths of both Bartók and Geyer.

KEYNOTE. But the composer did resurrect the concerto’s first movement. Renamed “Ideal,” it became the first of the Two Portraits. The second movement is an orchestrated version of the last of the Fourteen Bagatelles for piano—one of the works based on the love motive. He retitled this movement “Grotesque.” He gave Two Portraits the opus number 5, which had originally been intended for the concerto. Despite the fact that only the first movement uses a solo violin, both pieces work well together. They both use the love motive (it is heard in the solo violin at the very beginning, and answered as each new group of instruments is added), and they both are musical portraits of Geyer (though from very different perspectives—respectively before and after her rejection of the composer).

—Jonathan D. Kramer


Concerto No. 2 in G Minor for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 16

• Born: April 23, 1891, Sontsovka, Ekaterinoslav, Russia | Died: March 5, 1953, Moscow
• Work composed: winter, 1912–13; revised 1923
• Premiere: September 5, 1913, Pavlovsk, A.P. Aslanov conducting, Prokofiev, pianist; revised version premiered in Paris, Serge Koussevitzky conducting, Prokofiev, pianist
• Instrumentation: solo piano, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals a2, snare drum, suspended cymbals, tambour militaire, tambourine, strings
• CSO notable performances: Nine previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1954, Thor Johnson conducting, Jorge Bolet, pianist | Most recent: February 2011, Paavo Järvi conducting, Alexander Toradze, violinist; also on 10-week world tour in 1966, Max Rudolf conducting, Lorin Hollander, pianist—the CSO was the first American orchestra to make a world tour sponsored by the U.S. Department of State
Duration: approx. 31 minutes

As a student Sergei Prokofiev was something of an enfant terrible. He was brash and self-confident, and his attitude toward the conservatory education he was receiving and the classics he was taught was less than reverent. His early compositions reflect his personality: they were and are bold, innovative, and at times harsh. Prokofiev had the confidence of youth, and he believed in his own talent. He wanted a career, and he used a combination of craftiness, notoriety and aggressiveness to pursue his goal.

After a number of his works had been performed, Prokofiev felt that the next step in his growing career should be to have some music published. Conductor Serge Koussevitzky had established a publishing house in 1909, appointing an editorial board of such distinguished musicians as Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Nikolai Medtner. Prokofiev submitted some pieces to this panel and received the first of several rejections. Medtner commented, “If that is music then I am no musician.” The young composer next approached the firm of P.I. Jurgenson, the most respected publishing house in Russia. Although Prokofiev included a recommendation from composer Sergei Taneyev along with his scores, the response was disheartening as well as maddening: the firm was “too busy to look at new work.”

The obstinate composer decided that he would find a way to make Jurgenson look at his scores. He decided to enlist the aid of A.V. Ossovsky, a wealthy amateur musicologist. Prokofiev showed up at Ossovsky’s house one day, got past the servants, and refused to leave until he had played some of his music. The composer’s effrontery worked: Ossovsky was charmed (whether by the young man or his music we do not know) and wrote a strong letter of recommendation to Jurgenson. At about the same time Prokofiev performed some of his piano pieces in concert. When they were well received, he told everyone to make sure that Jurgenson heard about his success.

Jurgenson could not resist this two-pronged attack. He sent for the composer, listened to his music, and offered him a contract on the spot. Somewhat to Jurgenson’s surprise, the piano music he published sold quite well.

Now that Prokofiev was a published composer, he was able to secure prestigious performances. Thus he introduced his First Piano Concerto in 1912, simultaneously making his debut as a piano soloist with orchestra and as a concerto composer. Critical reaction was mixed, with some particularly nasty reviews. Rather than be discouraged, Prokofiev began almost immediately to compose the Second Concerto. When he performed it, the critics were again harsh.

These negative reactions closed many doors to the aspiring composer, but he did not give up. He took solace in the fact that his compatriot Igor Stravinsky had suffered insults at the premiere of The Rite of Spring earlier the same year and yet seemed to be having a spectacularly successful career. Furthermore, Prokofiev felt that his concerto was more radical and more endurable than any of Stravinsky’s music. He continued to compose the aggressive music that he believed was right.

And he continued to pursue his career. He tried to get conductor Alexander Siloti to program the Second Concerto, but Siloti resisted. With the help of composer Nikolai Miaskovsky, Prokofiev made the issue public. Siloti responded in the press, “I cannot invite Prokofiev to play his Second Concerto at my concerts, for the simple reason that I should have to conduct the orchestra in a work that is quite beyond me. After all, Debussy’s music at least possesses a pleasant aroma. Prokofiev’s stinks to high heaven.”

The composer next decided to enter a competition for piano performance. He planned to play one of his own concertos, saying “...if I played my own concerto and did not win the prize, the defeat would be less mortifying because no one would be able to decide whether I had forfeited the prize because my concerto was bad in itself or because I played it badly!”

When he announced that he would play his own First Concerto (“the Second would have sounded too outlandish inside the hallowed walls of the Conservatory”), the jury balked. How could they assess the accuracy of his playing if they did not know the work? The composer thus arranged for his publisher to provide scores for everyone in the audience to read. This gesture of brash over-confidence impressed the jurists, and—after much deliberation—they awarded the prize to Prokofiev.

Alexander Glazunov, chairman of the jury, represented the minority opinion. True, several years earlier he had helped a brilliant young boy of 13 pass the rigid entrance examination for the St. Petersburg Conservatory. True, he had been forgiving when a certain irreverent Conservatory student had purposefully added wrong notes to classical chamber pieces. But to have the effrontery to enter a piano competition with his own so-called concerto was too much! Glazunov told his fellow jurors that they would sanction “a harmful trend” if they awarded the first prize to a rebel and an upstart, to a young man who publicly expressed scorn for Mozart and Chopin. But Glazunov was overruled. At first he refused to announce the result, but finally, seeing the impossibility of his position, he told the waiting audience the name of the winner “in a flat, toneless mumble,” as Prokofiev later recalled. The winner received a grand piano, the opportunity of performing his concerto at the Conservatory graduation ceremonies and, from his mother, a trip to England.

When he arrived in London, Prokofiev met the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, whose ballet troupe had made history by introducing spectacular new works by Stravinsky and Ravel. Diaghilev was a sophisticated man of the world, and Prokofiev was an outspoken young man with no sense of social manners. Nonetheless, Diaghilev was willing to listen to Prokofiev’s music. The composer played the Second Concerto (in an arrangement for piano alone). One of Diaghilev’s assistants murmured, “This young man is a wild beast.” But Diaghilev saw the potential for yet another ballet novelty, and he commissioned the arrogant composer on the spot.

Prokofiev returned to the Second Concerto several years later. The original score had been burned in a fire, and he revised the piece as he wrote out a new score. He completed the revision just before moving to Paris in 1923.

He went to France in an attempt to make his career international. Paris was then the center of contemporary music, and Prokofiev knew of the reverence for Russian music harbored by Ravel (and, earlier, by Debussy). Although the suave French musicians had trouble at first with Prokofiev’s blunt personality, they soon included him regularly in their social gatherings. He decided it would further his acceptance in France to play one of his most typically Russian works. His performance of the revised Second Piano Concerto was an enormous success. Parisians were excited to see as well as hear Prokofiev hammering out what they took to be the longest and most difficult cadenza ever written. The tremendous energy in the music, and in Prokofiev’s performance of it, secured his reputation in Paris.

KEYNOTE. Listening to Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto today, it is easy to hear the brashness and verve that excited its first audiences and horrified Prokofiev’s learned professors and some of the stuffier newspaper critics. But we can also be amused by the thought that this music was condemned as cacophonic or talentless. What struck early listeners as cacophony today seems more like the unbridled exuberance of youth. This is exciting, extroverted music.

The virtuosity in the Second Concerto is at times staggering. Prokofiev was out to conquer the world as a pianist and as a composer. The extremely long cadenza in the first movement, for example, builds inexorably in intensity and technical fireworks. Every time we think the pianist can give no more, Prokofiev demands more. And this is in the concerto’s slow movement! By contrast, the cadenzas in the tempestuous last movement are points of repose in an otherwise relentless piece. The perpetual motion of the scherzo and march-like drive of the intermezzo add to the impression of barbarism. This is highly original music, and, like its 22-year-old composer, brash, irreverent and aggressive. It is not surprising that a public nurtured on music by Rimsky-Korsakov and his successors would find this music baffling. Today, however, audiences understand its dissonances as exciting, its power as breathtaking, and its aesthetic as engaging.

—Kyle Gann



Suite No. 2 from Bacchus et Ariane, Op. 43

• Born: April, 5, 1869, Tourcoing, France | Died: August 23, 1937, Royan, France
• Work composed: 1930
• Premiere: (complete ballet) May 22, 1931 with choreography by Serge Lifar; (suite no. 2—ballet’s second act) February 2, 1934, Paris Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux conducting
• Instrumentation: 2 flutes (incl. 2 piccolos), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 harps, celeste, bass drum, cymbals a2, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, strings
• CSO notable performances: ix previous subscription weekends | Premiere: February 1955, Thor Johnson conducting | Most recent: April 2011, Roberto Abbado conducting
• Duration: approx. 20 minutes

Roussel, an approximate contemporary of Ravel and Debussy, was an important figure in French music. An uncompromising, original and talented composer, he is credited with reconciling two divergent trends in early 20th-century music in his country: the impressionism of Debussy and the academicism of d’Indy. Although he was a teacher and counted among his students Satie, Varèse and Martinů, Roussel’s influence was small. His style was inimitable, and he left no disciples, although his art was highly respected during his lifetime. The ballet Bacchus et Ariane is one of the finest scores by a composer whose music deserves to be far better known.

Roussel came to composition probably later in life than any other major composer. Although he did show musical promise in his youth, he opted instead for a career as a naval officer.

In the Navy he traveled extensively, particularly to the Far East. Whenever time permitted on these journeys, he tried to study harmony from a book, but he found it difficult to understand the technicalities of music without a teacher. He also tried his hand at composing and even had a few performances of his pieces. A fellow naval officer offered to show some of Roussel’s manuscripts to the famous conductor Edouard Colonne. His friend reported that Colonne had been impressed and had advised Roussel to give up his naval career and become a composer. In actuality, the friend had never shown the music to Colonne. The friend believed so strongly in Roussel that he invented the story of the conductor’s praise in order to encourage Roussel to follow his musical instincts. Impressed by what he believed was an authoritative evaluation of his talents, Roussel sought out the director of the Roubaix Conservatory for a second opinion. This time the encouragement was real, and Roussel made his fateful decision. He resigned his commission in 1894 and went to Paris to study music. He was then 25 years old, an age by which most composers have finished their formal education.

Roussel’s first musical success came three years later, when two of his works shared first prize in a contest. The following year he enrolled at the newly formed Schola Cantorum and became a student of composer Vincent d’Indy. He studied composition, orchestration and music history from d’Indy for the next nine years, completing his education at the age of 38. During these years Roussel spent his vacations on ocean voyages, to assuage his nostalgia for his former life. His love of the sea remained with him his entire life and became part of his identity as an artist.

D’Indy appointed Roussel a professor at the Schola Cantorum, a position the composer held until the outbreak of World War I. Despite health problems he was able to enlist in the wartime Navy. By the end of the war, his health was so bad that he had to retire to the Brittany coast to convalesce. He continued to compose large works, and his reputation grew. In 1929 he was honored by a festival of his music in celebration of his 60th birthday. In 1931 he visited the United States for the premiere of his Third Symphony, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He was then the leading composer of France: Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Debussy and Satie were dead, and the output of Ravel and d’Indy was intermittent at best. At the same time the premiere of Bacchus et Ariane secured Roussel’s reputation as a composer of theater music.

The Second Suite from Bacchus et Ariane is the second act of the ballet. In his biography of the composer, Basil Deane provides the following scenario and commentary:

At the beginning of Act II Ariadne awakens and, finding herself alone, climbs to the summit of the rocks. Looking seaward, she discerns the receding sail of Theseus’ galley. Terrified, she attempts to throw herself into the sea, but falls instead into the embrace of Bacchus. Together they resume their dream dance. Their lips unite in a kiss which releases a Dionysiac enchantment, whereupon the island comes to life, and vine-wreathed fauns and maenads spring from among the rocks, crowding the scene. Two of them offer a golden goblet filled with grape juice to Ariadne. She drinks and, intoxicated, dances with mounting frenzy, first alone, then with Bacchus. The entire troop of followers joins in a Bacchanalia, while the god conducts Ariadne to the highest pinnacle and crowns her with a diadem of stars ravished from the heavenly constellations.…

Ariadne’s repose is evoked by a texture of subtle transparency, and her terror by a modernized version of a time-honored device, a succession of chords of the diminished seventh. Ariadne’s solo dance is an instance of Roussel’s ability to coordinate different elements in a sustained rise to a climax. The increasing abandon of the dancer is depicted by an intensification of the melodic line, by means of chromaticism, a progressive accelerando, a crescendo from pp to ff, and the expansion of a restrained texture to the sonority of the full orchestra. The exultant energy of the lovers’ pas de deux is matched by the swaggering 10/8 rhythm, and the concluding Bacchanalia sweeps forward with ever-mounting excitement to the final apotheosis of Ariadne.


— Jonathan D. Kramer


L’oiseau de feu (“The Firebird”) Suite

• Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, Russia
• Died: April 6, 1971, New York
• Work composed: November 1909–May 18, 1910
• Premiere: (complete ballet) June 25, 1910, Paris Opéra, Ballets Russes
• Instrumentation: 2 flutes (incl. piccolo), 2 oboes (incl. English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals a2, suspended cymbals, tambourine, triangle, xylophone, harp, celeste, piano, strings
• CSO notable performances: 25 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: March 1925, Igor Stravinsky conducting | Most recent: September/October 2011, Julian Kuerti conducting
• Duration: approx. 21 minutes

Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes had an enormously successful debut performance in Paris in the summer of 1909. Diaghilev and his chief choreographer, Michel Fokine, began to make plans for future performances in the city that most appreciated their talents. Fokine felt it necessary to add to their repertory a ballet on a Russian folk subject. After reading several folktales, he decided that the legend of the Firebird could be adapted to the dance. He worked out a scenario in which Katschei the Immortal, one of the most fearsome ogres in Russian folklore, is defeated by the Firebird.

Then came the crucial question of who was to be the composer. Rimsky-Korsakoff would have been the logical choice, since he had written an opera on the subject of the Firebird a few years earlier, but he had died unexpectedly in 1908. Nicholas Tcherepnin and Sergei Vassilenko were considered, but Diaghilev decided to commission Anatol Liadov, who had written a number of orchestral works based on fairy tales. Liadov proved to be a slow worker, however, and reportedly was just buying the music paper at the time Diaghilev had hoped to receive a finished score.

Diaghilev and Fokine had recently heard a concert that included two works that greatly impressed them: Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks by the relatively unknown young composer Igor Stravinsky. So the commission went to Stravinsky. The composer was flattered to receive what turned out to be the first of several commissions from the great impresario.
Clearly in the popular tradition of Rimsky-Korsakoff, who had been Stravinsky’s teacher, Firebird was nonetheless boldly original and extremely colorful. The composer was not completely comfortable writing descriptive music, but he knew the importance of the commission and produced exactly what Diaghilev needed. The ballet, while not typical of Stravinsky, became (and remains) his best known work. An amusing story shows how popular the work is: a stranger once came up to the composer and asked if he were indeed the famous composer, Mr. Fireberg!

As soon as the score was ready in piano reduction, the company began to rehearse. Many people heard Stravinsky play the exhilarating new music at the keyboard. A typical reaction was that of French critic R. Brussel, who had been invited by Diaghilev to hear the ballet score:

The composer, young, slim, and uncommunicative, with vague meditative eyes and lips set firm in an energetic-looking face, was at the piano. But the moment he began to play, the modest and dimly lit dwelling glowed with a dazzling radiance. By the end of the first scene, I was conquered; by the last, I was lost in admiration.

Ballerina Anna Pavlova was originally cast in the title role, but she found the music incomprehensible. She was replaced by Tamara Karsavina, whose knowledge of music was only rudimentary. She had to rely on the composer for help:

Often he came to the theater before a rehearsal began in order to play for me, over and over again, some particularly difficult passage. I felt grateful, not only for the help he gave me but also for the manner in which he gave it. For there was no impatience in him with my slow understanding, no condescension of a master of his craft towards the slender equipment of my musical education. It was interesting to watch him at the piano. His body seemed to vibrate with his own rhythm. Punctuating staccatos with his head, he made the pattern of his music forcibly clear to me, more so than the counting of bars would have done.

Finally the company was ready for Paris. There were rehearsals with the orchestra, and at last the performance. It was the first great triumph for Stravinsky, and it solidified the reputation of the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev went on to commission two more major ballets from Stravinsky, Petrouchka and Rite of Spring, plus several smaller works. He also sought out other leading or promising composers, including Debussy, Ravel, Falla and Prokofiev.

Three times Stravinsky returned to Firebird to extract the concert suites that today are heard far more often than the complete ballet. The composer’s reason was partly artistic and partly practical. Once he began to have a career as a conductor, Stravinsky wanted to be able to perform a suitable set of excerpts from his most popular theater work. Furthermore, the ballet had been composed in Czarist Russia and therefore was not protected under international copyright agreements. The same is true, incidentally, of his other two early ballets, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky was thus robbed of substantial income. To try to remedy this problem, he copyrighted the later Firebird Suites.

The first suite (sometimes called Symphonic Suite) was extracted in 1911, when the piece was still new. It uses the same large (“wastefully large,” Stravinsky later called it) orchestra. In fact, it was printed from the same plates as the complete ballet, with appropriate omissions and a few small changes. This suite ends with the exciting “Infernal Dance.”

In 1919, after Stravinsky had left Russia and was living in Morges, Switzerland, he made a different Firebird Suite (sometimes called the Concert Suite) for conductor Ernest Ansermet. The orchestra is of normal rather than outlandish size. This suite omits two movements that appear in the 1911 version, but it adds at the end the “Berceuse” and “Finale.”

When the 1919 suite was published, its score was full of mistakes. Many of these errors found their way into the third version (sometimes known as the Ballet Suite), which Stravinsky derived in 1945 from the second version and from the complete ballet. Although the 1919 suite has always been the best known of the three, only in 1985 did it become available in a corrected edition.

KEYNOTE. Stravinsky faced a compositional challenge in The Firebird. How could he musically differentiate the natural (Ivan, the Princess, the finale’s hymn of rejoicing) from the magical (the Firebird, Katschei)? His idea, derived from Rimsky-Korsakoff’s opera The Golden Cockerel, was clever. The natural characters and scenes were composed in a diatonic style, while the supernatural were interpreted with chromatic music.

The orchestration in Firebird is spectacular. Although he was still in his 20s, Stravinsky was already a master of scoring. The famous passage of natural harmonic string glissandos, at the end of the introduction, is one of the most beautiful sonorities in the piece. Some of the other well-known effects, such as trombone and French horn glissandos, were added only when Stravinsky made the Firebird Suite of 1919. The colorful orchestral and rhythmic drive of the “Infernal Dance” foreshadow the brutally primitivistic world of the Rite of Spring, composed three years later.

—Jonathan D. Kramer