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Joshua Bell + The Rite of Spring


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Program Notes


FRI SEP 28, 8 pm • SAT SEP 29, 8 pm  

LOUIS LANGRÉE conductor • JOSHUA BELL violin 

STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Feu d’artifice (“Fireworks”), Op. 4

SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 47

Allegro moderato
Adagio di molto
Allegro ma non tanto

INTERMISSION

STRAVINSKY

Le Sacre du printemps (“The Rite of Spring”)

Part I: The Adoration of the Earth
Part II: The Sacrifice


Feu d’artifice (“Fireworks”), Op. 4

Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum (near St. Petersburg), Russia

Died: April 6, 1971, New York

Work composed: 1908, rev. 1909

Premiere: January 9, 1910, St. Petersburg, Alexander Siloti conducting

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes (incl. English horn), 3 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, triangle, 2 harps, celeste, strings

CSO notable performances: 6 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: April 1923, Fritz Reiner conducting | Most recent: May 1982, Michael Gielen conducting | Igor Stravinsky himself led the CSO in its October 1965 performances of Fireworks.

Duration: approx. 4 minutes

Igor Stravinsky started his composing career under the tutelage of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the single most important influence during the younger man’s formative years. Stravinsky’s early works are all about the ways he processed and eventually outgrew that influence.

Fireworks marks a pivotal moment in the young Stravinsky’s evolution. It was his “Op. 4,” his fourth acknowledged work after a fairly conventional Symphony in E-flat major, a song cycle after Pushkin (The Faun and the Shepherdess), and the brilliant Scherzo fantastique. (He would soon discontinue the practice of giving his works opus numbers.) The Rimsky connection was emphasized by the fact that Fireworks was intended as a wedding gift for the master’s daughter Nadia, who married another Rimsky student, Maximilian Steinberg. Steinberg later went on to inherit his father-in-law’s position as professor of composition at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Stravinsky and Steinberg were not friends, to say the least; Stravinsky never got over his feelings of professional jealousy for his now-obscure colleague, not even after the latter’s death, as we can see from his conversations with conductor-writer Robert Craft, a close associate of Stravinsky’s. The dedication must have been more a gesture to the bride’s father than an actual wedding present to the couple. As it turned out, however, Rimsky never saw the work. He passed away unexpectedly on June 21, 1908, three days after the wedding. Stravinsky later claimed that the package containing the score of Fireworks was returned to him with the notice “Not delivered on account of death of addressee.” Recent scholarship has cast serious doubts on this story. Be that as it may, Fireworks represents a major step forward in Stravinsky’s stylistic evolution. Rimsky-Korsakov’s influence is less conspicuous than in the Scherzo fantastique, and Stravinsky’s own voice begins to emerge.

KEYNOTE. Fireworks calls for a rather large orchestra, yet it projects a relatively light sound. In the first section, the rapid figures in the woodwinds and strings evoke a flickering fire while the brass instruments interject a rhythmic motif that gradually takes over the entire orchestra. Before that happens, however, we pause for a brief middle section in a slower tempo. The flutes and upper strings play a simple but intensely chromatic melody that alludes to the opening of Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice, although the harmonies are more daring, stretching traditional tonality almost to the breaking point. The final section is based on a triumphant theme in conventional E major, yet orchestrated with great originality.

The concert at which Fireworks was first performed turned out to change Stravinsky’s life forever. In the audience was Serge Diaghilev, the powerful director of the Russian Ballet, and his attention was immediately drawn to the young composer. Diaghilev lost no time in hiring Stravinsky to orchestrate two piano works by Chopin for the ballet Les Sylphides. Soon afterward, Diaghilev commissioned the original score of The Firebird that rocketed the composer to international fame.

Peter Laki

Concerto in D Minor for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 47

Born: December 8, 1865, Hämeenlinna, Finland

Died: September 20, 1957, Järvenpää, Finland

Work composed: 1903

Premiere: February 8, 1904, Helsinki, Jean Sibelius conducting; Viktor Nováček, violinist. Revised version premiered October 19, 1905, Berlin, Richard Strauss conducting; Karl Haliř, violinist

Instrumentation: solo violin, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, strings

CSO notable performances: 22 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: February 1907, Frank Van der Stucken conducting; Maud Powell, violinist (one of the first American women to achieve international acclaim as a concert violinist) | Most recent: October 2015, Louis Langrée conducting; Karen Gomyo, violinist | Among the other notable violinists to have performed this work with the CSO are Vadim Repin (including at Carnegie Hall and on a U.S. tour), Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg (including at Carnegie Hall), David Oistrakh, Isaac Stern, and Jascha Heifetz (twice); Joshua Bell previously performed the concerto with the CSO in 1991.

Duration: approx. 31 minutes

It is not surprising that Sibelius should have composed several works for the violin, since as a young man he aspired to be a violinist. He even performed the first movement of the Mendelssohn Concerto while a student in Vienna.

My tragedy was that I wanted to be a celebrated violinist at any price. Since the age of 15, I played my violin for ten years, practically from morning to night. I hated pen and ink, and unfortunately I preferred an elegant violin bow. My preference for the violin lasted quite long, and it was a very painful awakening when I had to admit that I had begun my training for the exacting career of an eminent performer too late.

Between the composition of his Second and Third symphonies, Sibelius wrote his Violin Concerto for Willy Burmester, former concertmaster of the Kajanus Orchestra. Burmester delayed playing the work, however, and Sibelius instead arranged for a performance by Viktor Nováček. Nováček, who was less accomplished than Burmester, was not quite up to the fiendishly difficult passages that had been composed with a great virtuoso in mind.

Critic Karl Theodor Flodin, a long-time supporter of Sibelius, reviewed the new work:

It is clear that the composer did not want to write one of those violin concertos which are really nothing but orchestral works with an obbligato solo part. He knows the fate of these modern concertos—to be played once and then set aside.… So he chose rather the other alternative—to let the soloist remain sovereign ruler the entire time, with a display of traditional pomp and circumstance. But here he collides with the whole solid mass of what has been said before, written before, and composed before. Impossible to come up with anything really new. And on that hidden reef the ship has foundered.

The composer took this criticism to heart and rewrote the concerto, giving greater prominence to the orchestra. The new version was dedicated to a young Hungarian violinist, Franz von Vecsey.

Still another soloist premiered the revised concerto. Karl Haliř, a member of the Joachim Quartet, played the work in Berlin under the direction of Richard Strauss. Sibelius was flattered that the famous composer would show an interest in his work, and he appreciated the care with which Strauss rehearsed. “As an instance of Strauss’s extraordinary conscientiousness in performing the works of other contemporary composers,” wrote Sibelius, “it should be mentioned that he had three rehearsals with just the orchestra for practicing the accompaniment. But the Violin Concerto needs it.” Many years later Strauss is reported to have said, “I know more about music than Sibelius, but he is the greater composer.”

KEYNOTE. Sibelius once advised a student, “I warn you against long preludes and interludes. And this refers especially to violin concertos. Think of the poor public!” Indeed, the violin enters after less than four measures of string oscillations. It plays a long, rhapsodic line, the first of three themes. There is no formal development section in this movement, since each theme is carefully developed when first stated.

The adagio opens with wind duets. The violin enters with a long, lyrical line in the low register. After an orchestral interlude the solo instrument plays complex two-voice counterpoint, in which the two parts have quite different rhythms—a true test of the soloist’s musicianship and technique.

The second movement’s repeated-note syncopations are transformed into the finale’s long-short-short rhythm (the timpani contradict constantly with short-short-long). As in the first movement, the strings begin their repetitive accompanimental figure alone for a few measures before the solo violin enters with the main theme. The rhythmic vitality of the second theme is enhanced by a constant interplay between 6/8 and 3/4 meters. At the recapitulation the full orchestra plays an exciting transformation of the opening. Virtuosic runs in the solo violin end this flashy concerto.

Jonathan D. Kramer

The Rite of Spring (“Le Sacre du printemps”)

Work composed: summer of 1911–March 8, 1913; revised slightly 1947

Premiere: May 29, 1913 in Paris, Pierre Monteux conducting

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (incl. piccolo), piccolo, alto flute, 4 oboes (incl. English horn), English horn, 3 clarinets (incl. bass clarinet), bass clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 4 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), contrabassoon, 8 horns (incl. 2 Wagner tubas), piccolo trumpet in D, 4 trumpets in C (incl. E-flat bass trumpet), 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 timpani, antique cymbals, bass drum, crash cymbals, guiro, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, strings

CSO notable performances: 17 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: April 1936, Eugene Goossens conducting | Most recent: November 2011, Kristjan Järvi conducting | Igor Stravinsky himself led the CSO November 1940 performances of Le Sacre du Printemps.

Duration: approx. 33 minutes

Occasionally—very occasionally—circumstances conspire to bring together the right artist, the right intellectual climate and the right external stimuli to produce a work so revolutionary, so powerful, so deeply reflective of its times that humankind can never be the same again. One such work is The Rite of Spring. Even those who have never heard this work are touched by the raw emotions it exposes, because it reverberates in much of the music, popular as well as concert, heard today. Its techniques of discontinuity and juxtaposition, furthermore, are reflected in all art media and in popular entertainment as well.

Like many revolutionary works, The Rite of Spring takes its inspiration from extramusical sources. Composers, particularly in the experimental second decade of this century, frequently found that unusual texts, plots or scenarios suggested novel approaches to composition. While it is surely true that Stravinsky’s earlier ballets, such as Petrouchka and Firebird, point the way to Rite of Spring, his wish to depict ancient pagan rites helped him to create a unique musical language. After composing Rite the composer moved on; such music cannot be repeated. Its influence can be felt in some subsequent Stravinsky compositions, but never again did he recapture (nor try to recreate) the frenzied ritualistic music of The Rite of Spring.

KEYNOTE. During the spring of 1910, Stravinsky had a fleeting vision: “I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” He mentioned this image to his friends, painter Nicolas Roerich and impresario Serge Diaghilev. Diaghilev immediately seized on the idea for a ballet, and he asked Roerich and Stravinsky to work out a scenario.

Stravinsky’s preliminary version of the scenario has been preserved:

It represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring. The piece has no plot, but the choreographic succession is as follows:

First Part: The Kiss of the Earth. The spring celebration. It takes place in the hills. The pipers and young men tell fortunes. The old woman enters. She knows the mystery of nature and how to predict the future. Young girls with painted faces come in from the river in single file. Games start. The spring Khorovod [mock abduction of the bride]. The people divide into two groups, opposing each other. The holy procession of the wise old men. The oldest and wisest interrupts the spring games, which come to a stop. The people pause trembling before the great action. The old men bless the spring earth. The kiss of the earth. The people dance passionately on the earth, sanctifying it and becoming one with it.

Second Part: The Great Sacrifice. At night the virgins hold mysterious games, walking in circles. One of the virgins is consecrated as the victim and is twice pointed to by fate, being caught twice in the perpetual circle. The virgins honor her, the chosen one, with a marital dance. They invoke the ancestors and entrust the chosen one to the old wise men. She sanctifies herself in the presence of the old men in the great holy dance, the great sacrifice.

Many factors contribute to the exciting language of The Rite of Spring. The orchestral palette is vivid, colorful and imaginative—from the pungent opening bassoon in its highest register, to the ensuing dense combinations of wind figurations, to the soaring horns of the “Ritual of the Ancients.” The tonal language is also unique. Rite is full of simple, folk-like melodies, often with not more than four or five different notes. These tunes are usually accompanied by less straightforward combinations of notes in biting dissonances or shimmering textures.

Despite its unique approach to melody and harmony, the music is primarily rhythmic. At times the rhythm is elemental, as in the repeated string chords with horn accents that open “The Auguries of Spring” or the 11 powerful drum and string strokes that separate the “Mystical Circles of the Young Girls” from the barbaric “Glorification of the Chosen Victim.” Almost everywhere the rhythm is exciting and irregular, particularly in the “Sacrificial Dance.” Stravinsky chose simple melodies and slowly changing harmonies to help the listener focus on the inexorable rhythms. He constantly changed the repeated melodies and rhythms, often only slightly, so that we never know which variant to expect. Thus we are caught up in the excitement of the unpredictable and are continually assaulted by the unexpected. It is no wonder that the music, and the ballet that went with it, provoked violence at its first hearing.

Diaghilev knew that The Rite of Spring was going to have a major impact. As he wanted the ballet to be as compelling as the music, he engaged the great Nijinsky to do the choreography, despite the dancer’s inexperience directing and despite his ignorance of even the fundamentals of music. Stravinsky worked closely with Diaghilev and Nijinsky because he was particularly concerned about the relationship of the dance to the music. The composer had specific images in mind, and he jotted down in the score instructions to Nijinsky.

Dancers were not accustomed to such precise instructions from a composer, nor to such unusual music. Grigoriev writes that the company called the Rite rehearsals “arithmetic classes because, owing to the total absence of tune in the music, the dancers had to time their movements by counting the bars.”

Not surprisingly, the rehearsals presented great difficulties for the dancers. Not only did they have to relate to music of unprecedented complexity, but also they often had to dance independently of that music. It is hardly surprising that Nijinsky demanded 120 rehearsals.

Despite the dancers’ difficulties and comparable problems with the orchestra musicians, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company was finally able to present the work in Paris. The riot provoked by the first performance is now legendary. During the orchestral introduction, the audience laughed and protested. Several eyewitness reports testify to the pandemonium once the curtain rose. Carl van Vechten related that the audience began…

…to make cat-calls and to offer audible suggestions as to how the performance should proceed. The orchestra played unheard, except occasionally when a slight lull occurred. The young man seated behind me in the box stood up during the course of the ballet to enable himself to see more clearly. The intense excitement under which he was laboring betrayed itself presently when he began to beat rhythmically on top of my head with his fists. My emotion was so great that I did not feel the blows for some time.

Romola Pulsky, later to marry Nijinsky, reported, “One beautifully dressed lady in an orchestra box stood up and slapped the face of a young man who was hissing in the next box. Her escort arose, and cards were exchanged between them.” Jean Cocteau observed the old Countess de Pourtalès stand up and cry out, “This is the first time in 60 years that anyone has dared to make fun of me!”

An obvious but often overlooked aspect of this riotous reception is that, if the commotion made the orchestra inaudible, then the protests must have been directed against what the audience was seeing, not hearing—because the orchestra could not be heard over the audience commotion, Nijinsky stood backstage and shouted the counts to the bewildered dancers.

When, 50 years later, the manuscript score of The Rite of Spring was returned to Stravinsky, he wrote across the final page, “May whoever listens to this music never experience the mockery to which it was subjected and of which I was the witness in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, Spring 1913.”

The favorable reception subsequently accorded The Rite of Spring remains a footnote to the story of its scandalous first reception. The Nijinsky choreography was received calmly and enthusiastically at the two remaining Paris performances and at all seven London presentations.

After the summer of 1913, the Nijinsky choreography was retired from the Ballets Russes repertory, never to be danced again. This is unfortunate, since its conception was deeply linked with Stravinsky’s compositional ideas. In 1914 Pierre Monteux, who had conducted the premiere, directed Rite’s first concert performance. On this occasion the composer was carried from the hall in triumph on the shoulders of the crowd. The future of the work was sealed: although it has been revived as a ballet (with new choreography, except for one fascinating attempt to reconstruct the original dance) a number of times, the work has survived mainly in the concert hall. Stravinsky actually came to prefer this more abstract manner of presenting the piece, despite the effort he had put into coordinating the dance with the music. He decided that the dance was expendable, perhaps because of the physicality of the music.

Jonathan D. Kramer