About this Recording
8.557501 - STRAVINSKY, I.: Rite of Spring (The) / The Nightingale (Craft) (Stravinsky, Vol. 3)
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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

The Rite of Spring

“Composing The Rite, I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard.”

— Igor Stravinsky

Stravinsky was inspired by a vision of The Rite of Spring while completing The Firebird. His own title for it was Vesna Svyashchénnaya, Holy Spring, and he was never happy with Léon Bakst’s more memorable Le Sacre du printemps, believing that “The Coronation of Spring” was closer to his original meaning.

Soon after the success of The Firebird, Stravinsky contacted Nicolas Roerich, artist, archaeologist, ethnologist, whom he met through his nephew, a fellowpupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, to share his vision and to propose collaboration in a “choreodrama. “Who else could help me,” he wrote to the St Petersburg critic N. F. Findeyzen, “who else knows the secret of our ancestors’ close feeling for the earth?” During the summer of 1910, however, Stravinsky’s imagination was seized by Petrushka, and when Dyagilev and Nijinsky visited him in Lausanne to discuss Vesna Svyashchénnaya, they were astonished to hear sketches for a puppet drama, which so fascinated Nijinsky that he persuaded Dyagilev to postpone The Rite. Stravinsky explained the predicament to Roerich, but urged him to continue with the scenario, and also to design its costumes and sets. The following summer, after the triumph of Petrushka, Stravinsky returned to The Rite. Wanting him to see the Princess Tenisheva’s collection of Russian ethnic art, Roerich asked Stravinsky to meet him at Talashkino, her country estate near Smolensk, to plan the structure of the ballet. En route to the creation of this prehistoric work, Stravinsky found himself sharing the cattle car of a freight train with a glowering, slavering bull—a tauromachian encounter that surely must have heightened the young composer’s atavistic imagination. The work with Roerich, the plan of action and the titles of the dances, was quickly completed.

The Rite was conceived as two equal and complementary parts, The Adoration of the Earth, which takes place in daytime, and The Sacrifice of the Chosen One, which takes place at night. The Introduction to Part One represents the reawakening of Nature. The curtain rises at the end of it for the Augurs of Spring, in which an old woman soothsayer is accompanied by a group of young girls. The Ritual of Abduction follows, then the Round-dances of Spring, the Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes, the Procession of the Sage, the Sage’s Kiss of the Earth, and the Dance of the Earth.

Part Two, “The Sacrifice,” or as the composer called it, “The Great Offering,” begins after an Introduction to “the secret night-games of the maidens on the sacred hill”. The music accompanying these mysterious rituals is quiet but foreboding. After two intimations of danger, effectuated first by harsh chords in muted horns, then by muted horns and trumpets, and by eleven savage drum beats, a wild dance, the Glorification of the Chosen One, erupts, leading without pause to the Evocation of the Ancestors, the Ritual Dance of the Ancestors, and the Sacrificial Dance.

The Sacrificial Dance began with an unpitched notation of the rhythmic germ written during a walk with Ravel in Monte Carlo in the spring of 1912. Pierre Monteux, who would conduct the riotous première of The Rite in Paris, 29th May, 1913, was also in Monte Carlo, and was present when Stravinsky played the notyet- completed score for Dyagilev on the piano. Monteux wrote to his wife: “Before Stravinsky got very far I was convinced he was raving mad.… The walls trembled as he pounded away, occasionally stamping his foot and jumping up and down.”

In a state of exaltation, exhaustion, and “with a terrible toothache”, Stravinsky finished the composition on 17th November, 1912. Most of the instrumentation in score form was completed by the end of March 1913. The vaulting energy of the penmanship close to the end reflects the force of his drive to complete his work. The note-stems, flags, and beams of the wind instruments, followed later by those of the strings, incline steeply toward the right. The bolder, larger notes were evidently written at high speed; simply to see them is to be swept along with the feeling that a powerful creation is coming to its end. After the last bar, Stravinsky signed and dated the score 4th April, 1913. His comment in the upper-right-hand corner of the final page translates as follows:

May whoever listens to this music never experience the insult to which it was subjected and of which I was the witness in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris, Spring 1913.

– Igor Stravinsky. Zurich, 11th October, 1968.

The Nightingale

Stravinsky had just completed the first scene of The Nightingale, a one-act opera in three scenes, when Dyagilev invited him to compose The Firebird. He put the opera aside for this ballet and its successors, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, then returned to the vocal work between July 1913 and 28th March, 1914. The première took place in Paris on 26th May, 1914, conducted by Pierre Monteux.

Stravinsky chose Hans Christian Andersen’s tale partly because music itself is the story’s underlying subject, the power of music not only to delight and to move, but also to conquer death, for The Nightingale is a version of the Orpheus legend. Stravinsky loved Andersen’s stories—Le Baiser de la fée is based on another—and he managed to incorporate some of Andersen’s fantastic touches into the libretto. He invited Stepan Stepanovich Mitusov, a friend from the Rimsky- Korsakov circle, to compose the libretto with him. Mitusov in turn consulted Vladimir I. Belsky, the librettist for three Rimsky-Korsakov operas. On 9th March, 1908, in Belsky’s St Petersburg apartment, the threesome fashioned the scenario. The original draft of scene one survives in Stravinsky’s hand, and is remarkably close to the final version.

Scene One: The forest at dawn. A fisherman is mending his net and lamenting his fate, in which his sole consolation is the singing of the Nightingale. The Nightingale arrives and comforts the Fisherman with its song. The bird flies away at the approach of a group of courtiers that includes the Emperor of China’s chief retainer (Chamberlain), Bonze (Chaplain), and Cook, who tells the Chamberlain that the Nightingale sings at dawn in these very trees, and that they will now hear it. But just then the Fisherman’s cow begins to moo (upward glissandos in cellos and basses) and everyone is transported. The Fisherman respectfully reveals that it was his cow. The Cook confirms this, but promises that the Nightingale will start to sing right away. In the meantime some frogs croak (oboes). The Chamberlain lets it be known that the Emperor wants to see the Nightingale at court, hear it sing, and, in the event of success, reward it with the order of the golden slipper. The Nightingale agrees and flies down onto the Kitchen Maid’s arm. —Exeunt omnes.

Scene Two: The porcelain palace of the Chinese Emperor. The Chamberlain appears and chases everyone away, for the Emperor is coming with his entourage. The procession of the Chinese Emperor (Chinese March). The Nightingale is brought out, the Emperor commands him to sing, and when he does, the Emperor’s eyes fill with tears. Suddenly the Japanese ambassadors arrive bearing a gift from their Emperor, an artificial nightingale. This is wound up to sing. The offended real nightingale flies away, and the offended Emperor angrily denounces it and bestows the title “Court Singer on the Left-hand Night Table of His Highness” upon the artificial nightingale. The Emperor orders the mechanical nightingale to be wound up again. It starts to sing, but the music stops abruptly, the cylinders turn, hum, squeak, and the machine falls silent. After a great commotion, the disappointed Emperor orders his followers to their bedchambers. Everyone retires.

Scene Three: The Emperor’s Bedchamber. In the foreground is an anteroom, from which courtiers appear to ask the Chamberlain whether the Emperor has died. He lies on the bed in spiritual torment. Death sits upon him, watching him, and the evil deeds he has committed hover around him. He wants to be comforted, calls for help, and asks his artificial bird to sing for him, although “there is no winder to wind you up”. Unobserved, the real nightingale flies in from the garden, perches on a windowsill, and begins to sing. After one song Death curls himself into a shroud, moves away and disappears, flying out the window. As the Nightingale sings on, the ghosts of the Emperor’s evil deeds also vanish, and he falls asleep. The Nightingale finishes, and the Emperor awakes. He sees the little bird in the window and begs it to stay in the palace forever. The bird cannot accept the offer but it promises to fly to the Emperor to inform him of the sufferings of the poor and of all that goes on in his Great Kingdom. The little bird flies away. The courtiers, thinking the Emperor already dead, approach on tiptoe; but the Emperor meets them, dressed in royal robes and carrying his orb and sceptre, which he clutches to his heart. In the dawn light, he says “good day” to the dumbfounded courtiers.

Stravinsky’s orchestral palette, different and distinctive in every work, is never more exotically colourful than in The Nightingale, which is a virtual catalogue of avian imitations: tremolos, trills, appoggiaturas, gruppetti, string harmonics, pizzicato glissandos, flautando and ponticello effects, harp and piano arpeggios, harp harmonics, and the retuning of cello strings to produce harmonics on unusual pitches. The voice of Death is introduced by four icy high notes in the celesta, and Death’s aria is accompanied by the strangulated sound of a cello playing a double appoggiatura on the bridge of the instrument in a high register. After vanquishing Death in their vocal duel for the Emperor’s life, the Nightingale sweetly sings to him accompanied by mandolin and guitar. In the “Chinese March,” the mandolin doubling the soft melody of the trumpet is a previously unheard instrumental colour, and the percussion effects explore a greater range than in any other Stravinsky work except Les Noces. Stravinsky also increases the range of cymbales antiques of The Rite of Spring from two to six pitches, five of them tuned to the “black-key” pentatonic scale. The high trumpet in D, another hold-over from The Rite, alternates with a second instrument in E flat. The oboe’s rapid two-note descending scale figure, representing the mechanical movement of the Japanese nightingale, is yet another brilliant instrumental invention; no wonder Stravinsky wrote next to his sketch for the passage: “I am very pleased with this”.

Robert Craft


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