FAIRY TALES CONCERT NOTES
Youngster Maurice Ravel was musically gifted and destined for a music career from early childhood. He entered the Paris Conservatory at age 14 where he studied for the next 15 years. From the beginning of his musical career Ravel followed a clear, direct path. He learned through studies of the classics that in order to know one’s own technique, one must learn the technique of others; no one ever finishes the jobs of learning and shaping a technique or a style.
The shy composer avoided tragedy in his art; his favorite themes dealt with Spanish rhythm, dance, comedy and enchantment. Ravel’s natural gift for orchestration and musical “coloring” created scores that were unmatched for his brilliant use of instrumental timbres. His music has been compared to French gardens in which trees and shrubs are trimmed to precise shapes and flowers are laid out in well-ordered patterns. He took painstaking time to polish each work to a shimmering crown of jewels; as a result the composer’s life-long output totaled fewer than 70 works.
Ravel was a complex, sensitive person with an unusual fascination with the world of children. A life-long collector of toys, he also loved children’s stories and illustrations, and often sneaked away from social get-togethers to play with the toys and games of youngsters in residence.
In 1908 the composer wrote a children’s piano duet for two of his young friends. The work consisted of five tableaus from ancient French fairy tales that dealt with moralistic issues. In translation the suite is “The Mother Goose Suite,” but the composer singled out a single image from each story rather than musically illustrate the whole plot. His representations are the musical equivalent of watercolors and etchings and contain a complete range of dynamics and emotion.
I. Pavane of the Sleeping Princess
This presents a graceful, ancient dance by attendants surrounding the Sleeping Princess Florine. Both flute and harp are featured prominently in this baroque dance.
II. Little Tom Thumb
Tom’s frustrated wanderings in the woods are depicted by continual meter changes by string passages, while the woodwinds play a quiet “walking” melody. Twittering birds (flute, piccolo) swoop down to steal the crumbs left to mark his return path.
III. Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas
Exotic Javanese music paints a picture of the little empress taking her bath while her pagodas (tiny munchkin-like people) sing and play on their miniature percussive instruments. The musical flavor is turn-of-the-century orientalism styled by pentatonic scales.
IV. Beauty and the Beast
The clarinet represents Beauty in the tempo of a waltz, while the role of the Beast is assumed by a contrabassoon. A dialogue between the two alternates between brusque growls and lilting melodies. After a loud climax and a measure of silence, an expressive solo violin announces with a delicate glissando the change of the Beast into a handsome prince. A moment before this, Beauty had decided that she would marry the beast because of his inner beauty and kindness.
V. The Enchanted Garden
Everyone lives happily and in peace in this musically delicate watercolor depicting the splendor of an enchanting fairyland. The music builds to a grand fanfare celebrating that all is good and beautiful.
Like his fellow Spanish composers Enrique Granados and Manuel de Falla, Joaquín Rodrigo traveled to Paris to study composition and piano. Although he had lost his eyesight to a severe illness at age three, he became an accomplished pianist and a star composition student of Paul Dukas (composer of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). In the early 1930s Rodrigo had to return to Spain when the family’s wine business went bankrupt, but he succeeded in obtaining a scholarship and returning to Paris for further studies. During the Spanish Civil War, he traveled extensively in Europe, especially through France and Germany, finally returning home in 1939 to settle in Madrid. The premiere in 1940 of his Concierto de Aranjuez catapulted him to world recognition. In 1947 the Manuel de Falla chair was created for him at Madrid University where he composed and taught for the rest of his long life.
Rodrigo’s style is far removed from the major currents of European musical development in the twentieth century. Rather, it reflects Spain’s classical and folk music, art and literature, frequently using old Spanish melodies as his themes. His harmonic language is so conservative that the eighteenth-century composer to the Spanish court, Domenico Scarlatti beats him hands down in the use of dissonance and adventurous harmonies. Rodrigo composed about 170 works, including eleven concertos, 60 songs and music for the ballet, theater and film.
The Concierto de Aranjuez has remained Rodrigo’s most popular work. While he maintained that there was no program implied, the title refers to a famous royal enclave on the road to Andalusia on the Tagus river near Madrid. According to the composer, the music “…seems to bring to life the essence of eighteenth-century court life, where aristocratic distinction blends with popular culture. …The Concerto is meant to sound like the hidden breeze that stirs the treetops in the parks; it should only be as strong as a butterfly and as delicate as a veronica [a pass with the cape at a bullfight].”
The harp solo that opens the Concerto sets up a series of strummed chords that promise, but delay, the arrival of the principal theme.
Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird belongs to his first creative period, when his music still showed the influence of the colorful, folk-based style favored by his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. It came into being thanks to impresario Sergei Diaghilev. For the second Parisian season of his celebrated company, Les Ballets Russes, Diaghilev envisioned a lavishly mounted new dance production, its plot adapted from Russian fairy tales. He entrusted the scenario and choreography to esteemed dance master Mikhail Fokine.
When his first choice as composer, his former music teacher Anatoly Liadov, was judged too slow to complete the score on time, Diaghilev cast about for a replacement. Familiar with Stravinsky through the orchestrations he had contributed to Diaghilev’s ballet Les Sylphides, and impressed with two of Stravinsky’s brief, original orchestral pieces (Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks), Diaghilev offered the 27-year-old composer a tentative commission for The Firebird.
Given such an opportunity, Stravinsky had no qualms in setting aside his opera The Nightingale, whose first act he had recently completed. “I had already begun to think about The Firebird when I returned to St. Petersburg from Ustilug in the autumn of 1909,” he wrote, “although I was not yet certain of the commission (which in fact did not come until December, more than a month after I had begun to compose; I remember the day Diaghilev telephoned me to say to go ahead, and my telling him I already had).
“Early in November, I moved from St. Petersburg to a dacha belonging to the Rimsky-Korsakov family about 70 miles south-east of the city. I went there for a vacation, a rest in birch forests and snow-fresh air, but instead began to work on the Firebird. I returned to St. Petersburg in December and remained there, until in March I had finished the composition. The orchestra score was ready a month later, and the complete music mailed to Paris by mid-April. I was flattered, of course, at the promise of a performance of my music in Paris, and my excitement at arriving in that city, towards the end of May, could hardly have been greater.” The premiere on June 25, 1910 achieved a glittering triumph, launching him into the front rank of contemporary composers.
He arranged three suites from the full score of The Firebird, in 1911, 1919 and 1945. The RPO will be performing the second of these, which is by far the most popular. It contains roughly half the music of the complete score. It follows the sequence of the original scenario. With the help of a magic firebird, the hero, Prince Ivan, rescues a group of spellbound princesses from the clutches of an evil magician, Kastcheï. Stravinsky’s music is highly atmospheric, colorful, imaginative and melodious. It includes two Russian folk songs, one a lyrical tune for the princesses, the other the majestic hymn which closes the score. The whirling, nightmarish Infernal Dance performed by Kastcheï and his monstrous subjects is a tour de force of orchestral brilliance.