Following the premiere of the Rite of Spring in 1913, Igor Stravinsky was in a dilemma deciding what to do as an encore to such a revolutionary work. The outbreak of World War I, which shut down any possibility for new large productions, postponed that decision. He spent the war years in Switzerland, composing, by necessity, for small ensembles, such works as L’histoire du soldat and the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, songs, etc.
With the approach of peace Sergey Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, who had premiered Stravinsky’s great pre-war ballets, went back into action. But money and time were short. Instead of commissioning new works, Diaghilev chose to use re-orchestrations of early music, a much faster and cheaper process. His first new productions were Vincenso Tommasini’s orchestration of Domenico Scarlatti keyboard sonatas entitled The Good-Humored Ladies and Ottorino Respighi’s orchestration of Rossini tunes, La boutique fantasque.
Visiting Naples in 1919 while performing with the Diaghilev ballet, dancer and choreographer Leonid Massine had found an old manuscript of a play entitled “The Four Pulcinellas.” He talked Diaghilev into commissioning a new ballet based on the play, with sets by Picasso and music of the Neapolitan composer Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736), arranged for modern orchestra by Stravinsky. This was Stravinsky’s first major commission in six years and he grabbed it.
While the composer claimed, “The material I had at my disposal consisted of numerous fragments and shreds of compositions either unfinished or merely outlined, which by good fortune had eluded academic editors,” the truth is that these were complete manuscripts copied by Diaghilev from scores in the libraries of London and Naples and mostly misattributed to Pergolesi. The majority were, in fact, compositions by the obscure eighteenth-century composers Domenico Gallo and Carlo Ignazio Monza, as well as the Dutch nobleman Count Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer. To increase sales, unscrupulous music publishers had published these works under the better-known name of Pergolesi, who died at the age of 26, leaving little instrumental music behind.
Diaghilev showed the manuscripts to Stravinsky and suggested the composer use them as the basis of a ballet on the subject of the amorous adventures of Pulcinella, the deceitful scoundrel of the Italian Commedia dell’arte (appropriated by the British as Punch).
The Commedia dell’arte emerged early in the sixteenth century as an improvisatory street theater in parody of Venetian and North Italian society. It incorporated elements of pantomime, acrobatics, masks, music and dance. Pulcinella, one of the characters, was a grotesque clown with a long nose.
Politically, the Commedia dell’arte troupe was the descendant of the court jester, the sole figure who could make fun of the aristocracy and royalty without losing his head. By mid-eighteenth century, the Commedia dell’arte had declined but gave rise to the opera buffa (comic opera). Its heirs, in turn, were such operas as Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Rossini's The Barber of Seville, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.
In the original ballet, Stravinsky used some vocal texts from Pergolesi’s operas. The text does not actually refer to the events on the stage but rather conveys the mood of the scene. The premiere took place in Paris in May 1920.
In 1922 Stravinsky arranged a concert suite of nine sections from the ballet, which was first performed in Boston in December 1922. After 1945, he reorchestrated many of his earlier works, including the Pulcinella suite in 1947. At the request of his friend, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, Stravinsky also made a transcription of some of the sections for cello and piano, which was published under the title Suite italienne; he subsequently rearranged this version for violin and piano.
The ballet – and the suite – tells the story of Pulcinella pursued by two lovesick girls. Their behavior enrages their jealous fiancés who beat up Pulcinella and plan his murder. Pulcinella becomes aware of the plot and, with the aid of his friend Furbo who impersonates a magician, fakes his own murder and subsequent resurrection in front of the assembled townsfolk. He then takes his revenge on his attackers, but in the end blesses their marriage and decides at the same time to marry his own mistress who had remained faithful to him.
How much did Stravinsky change the source music? Because the melodic structure and harmonic language is still that of the eighteenth century, it first appears that Stravinsky changed very little. But as one listens more closely to the subtle tweaking of the earlier music, it becomes clear how Stravinsky left his own signature. He gave the music a clean, lean, modern orchestration with an emphasis on solo writing, put in a few “wrong notes,” retired the monotonous regularity of phrasing with some unexpected tempo changes and extra measures here and there. These and a few unusual key changes alter the whole character of the music.
A look a the opening Sinfonia is a case in point. An introduction of this type would have been played from start to finish by a full eighteenth century orchestra. Instead, Stravinsky carves up his ensemble, introducing the instruments one at a time and changing the instrumentation for repeats. Note also the irregularity of the phrasing, created by the insertion of an extra measure in the oboe passage at the very end of the example.
It is the very regularity of the following Serenata, that makes the "modern" interventions at the end so striking. Or take the odd coda tacked on at the end of the rather regular Scherzino. The little Tarantella trips over itself before it even gets going, and the melody suddenly disappears into the chattering accompaniment of "wrong notes."
Pulcinella is one of those "easy listening pieces" that people take for granted, but like the Commedia dell’arte, from which it got its inspiration, it contains a wealth of arch humor and clever double entendres.
Flute Concerto in D minor
One of the most popular musicians in the former Soviet Union, Aram Khachaturian was trained as a biologist. Already an amateur composer, he gradually added lessons in cello and composition, finally succumbing to his passion by entering the Moscow Conservatory for professional training.
An Armenian – although born in Georgia – Khachaturian had a knack for driving rhythms and stirring melodies, blending the orientalism of his native folk idiom with the lush tradition of Russian Romanticism. Beginning with his Piano Concerto in 1936, the later Violin Concerto and the ballets Gayane and Spartacus, he created a series of compositions that garnered worldwide popularity.
In spite of his leadership role in the Soviet Composer’s Union and his expressed opposition to modern experiments, Khachaturian was not spared the scrutiny and interference of the Soviet musical bureaucracy. Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and a host of lesser composers, he was severely criticized in 1948 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party for his “formalist” transgressions. Only after Stalin’s death in 1953 did he feel free again to compose.
Khachaturian wrote his Violin Concerto in 1940, dedicating it to the great violinist David Oistrakh, who premiered it in November of that year. Its traditional classical form, lyricism, colorful orchestration and dazzling virtuosity made it instantly a popular success. In 1968, at the composer’s suggestion, Jean-Pierre Rampal transcribed it for flute. Rampal kept as close to the original as he could, but had to compose a new first movement cadenza.
Although the Concerto is technically in D minor, the composer explores Armenian modes that alter the sequence of whole and half steps within the octave. It opens with a few bars of a dance motive, immediately followed by the flute’s introduction of the principal theme. The tempo slows for the dreamy, flowing second subject reminiscent of Borodin. This second theme reappears in the finale. Khachaturian develops all three musical ideas, expanding and combining them freely. Rampal’s birdcall-like cadenza starts as a duet for the flute and solo clarinet; it comes before the recapitulation, rather than near the end of the movement.
The bassoon solo that begins the second movement suggests a Middle Eastern improvisation, its serpentine melody taken up by the clarinet. The soloist enters with a hauntingly beautiful theme over muted strings. As the theme slowly unfolds, Khachaturian elaborates it with modal decorations.
A brilliant flourish by the full orchestra signals the rondo finale. After the soloist enters with a lively rondo theme, the gentle second theme from the first movement returns, only now transformed into a lively dance. The two themes are combined in a brilliant finish. Here, the technical requirements of the soloist, especially rapid staccato playing, are formidable.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
|Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky|
Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20a
In the summer of 1871 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky spent some time at his sister’s family home. For the entertainment of the children, he composed and staged a scena called Swan Lake, with a cast consisting of two children, his brother Modest and wooden toy swans. Nothing is known about the music, nor whether five years later any of it made its way into a commission from the Imperial Theaters to compose a ballet.
Tchaikovsky, short of money and still struggling for recognition in his own country – although rapidly gaining a reputation abroad – settled on the story of Swan Lake which he had admired for years and in whose somber ending he saw a reflection of his own dark moods.
The source of the story and of the scenario is unknown, although it contains elements recognizable throughout European folk literature. It tells of Prince Siegfried, whose mother arranges a ball during which he is to choose a bride. Lured away from a hunt by a flock of swans, the prince discovers that they are actually the princess Odette and her maidens, enchanted by the evil sorcerer Von Rotbart so they can take their human form only at night. Siegfried falls in love with Odette, who tells him that only constant and selfless love can break her spell. In an attempt to thwart the lovers, the sorcerer sends his daughter Odile to the ball. Odile, dressed entirely in black, is literally and figuratively a carbon copy of Odette, and Siegfried, of course, mistakes her for his beloved. He declares his love for the impostor, thereby losing his love forever and condemning Odette to the bonds of her enchantment. The original version of the ballet ends with the death of both Odette and Siegfried engulfed in the lake.
Tchaikovsky started work on the project in the spring of 1875, finishing it in April of the following year. Its premiere in March 1877 was an unmitigated disaster, partly the result of Bolshoy in-house political infighting, partly the inadequacy of the choreographer, conductor, dancers and orchestra.
Swan Lake was a revolutionary work. Its intensely dramatic score was so demanding for choreographer, dancers and orchestra that from its premier, music from other composers was increasingly substituted for Tchaikovsky’s original score; it was finally dropped from the Bolshoy repertoire after 1883. Tchaikovsky himself never saw a satisfactory performance of the complete work, although he saw a production of the second act in 1889 in Prague that gave him “one brief moment of unalloyed happiness.”
Its revival in 1895, two years after the composer’s death, was a resounding success, with lavish staging and new choreography by Marius Petipa. It restored Tchaikovsky’s music – with certain alterations of the musical sequence and a scenario modified by the composer’s brother Modest. It is this version that made it the world’s most popular ballet, and most of the later versions have stemmed from this production. Choreographers, however, frequently alter the ending, doing in Rotbart and mounting a grand apotheosis of the lovers.
During the summer of 1880, Tchaikovsky’s benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, wrote him that she had engaged the services of a young French musician to tutor her daughters. That French musician was the 18-year-old Claude Debussy, who during the course of the summer made piano four hands arrangements of a number of dances from Swan Lake, which became his first published work.
Tchaikovsky himself intended to arrange an orchestral suite from the ballet but apparently never got around to it. After his death, anonymous arrangers extracted suites from the long ballet with many combinations and permutations of the dances, some following the gist of the story line, others arranged on musical criteria alone. The first one, consisting of six dances and of unknown parentage, was published in 1900 and became known as Op. 20a. It is a pastiche including what have become the most well known excerpts from the ballet and vaguely follows the story line and original order of the 29 individual numbers.
The Op. 20a Suite opens with the beginning of Act 2 that introduces the iconic oboe solo and Leitmotif of the ballet. The following Valse is taken from Act 1, in which Siegfried is entertained by a bevy of prospective brides. The Danse des cygnes (Dance of the Swans) is known for its choreography in which four swan maidens link hands across their bodies and perform rapid staccato steps in unison. The Pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried features beautiful violin, harp and cello solos, supported by a pair of oboes for the swan maidens’ refrain. Of the ballet’s “national dances,” the arranger selects the Danse Hongroise. The suite concludes with the tragic dénouement.
|Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2010|