Our music for this week is the Divertimento for Violin and Piano (or, in this case, orchestra) by Igor Stravinsky. In fact, you’ll only be hearing the fourth movement, as performed by Augustin Hadelich with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
As you might be able to tell from the style of the piece, the Divertimento was originally a movement from a ballet titled “The Fairy’s Kiss” that Stravinsky wrote in 1928. It is said that Stravinsky, who admired his Russian predecessor Tchaikovsky but also hated the fact that Tchaikovsky was more famous than he was, viewed this ballet as the moment he surpassed Tchaikovsky in terms of musical greatness. While I can’t vouch for one or the other, I can positively affirm this piece as being a wonderful example of the transition between Romantic and 20th-century classical music. Stravinsky does an unbelievable job of blending the newness of the 20th-century atmosphere with the rich and historical folk melodies of Russian music that are so often heard in Tchaikovsky’s music.
Augustin Hadelich grew up on a farm in northern Italy, where his parents were both musicians who tended a vineyard on the side. He showed incredible musical promise at a young age and was touring Germany and Austria as a soloist at age 10. In a tractor explosion accident while working on the farm at age 15, Augustin was severely burned on the left side of his body. After a remarkable recovery and years of tireless practice and study, he emerged onto the international stage by winning the Indianapolis International Violin Competition. Since then, he has risen to international acclaim and is widely known as one of the greatest talents of our time.
The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra is the world’s premiere chamber (miniature) orchestra. Created in 1972 by a few NYC musicians who enjoyed chamber music, it quickly separated itself from the crowd by pledging to never rehearse or perform – or even hire – a conductor. In this sense, Orpheus is truly unique – it is almost an enlarged quartet rather than a small orchestra.
To finish our series on music for the organ, we will be listening to the second movement of Aaron Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. My apologies for the lack of a live performance in today’s video.
Widely considered the greatest American composer of all time, Aaron Copland wrote music that defined the ethos of the United States of America. His famous Third Symphony, his ultra-famous “Appalachian Spring,” and his mega-famous “Fanfare for the Common Man” are featured every July 4th by orchestras around the country. Yet Copland did not write only orchestral music; he was also open to experimenting with unique orchestrations and uncommon instrument selections, as evidenced by his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.
Copland wrote this symphony in 1924 while studying in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, who many consider to be the greatest composition teacher to have ever lived. The legendary Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Sergei Koussevitsky asked Copland to write an organ symphony in which Boulanger herself would solo as the organist. Though not a fan of the organ, Copland agreed to write the symphony.
The second movement, which you will hear today, is a broad, burly Scherzo that seems to have been inspired by Copland’s classmate in Paris, the great Igor Stravinsky. Listen for the irregular note groupings and uneven accents that Copland sprinkles throughout the movement to give it a jolting, punchy style. In his words: “The Scherzo was my idea of what could be done to adapt the raw material of jazz.”
This week’s music is the “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
The Firebird is a musical rendition of a Russian folk tale about a magical creature called a firebird, whose favorite food is golden apples. Prince Ivan, in an effort to overcome the evil wizard Kashchei’s rule over the kingdom, goes into Kashchei’s garden looking for a tree that grows golden apples. Ivan captures the firebird, but lets it go in return for one of its feathers. He is then captured by Kashchei, escaping only by waving the firebird’s feather and summoning the firebird to his rescue. The firebird leads Kashchei and his monsters in a dance that is so exhausting that Kashchei and his monsters fall asleep. This is known as the “Infernal Dance,” which you will hear today. Prince Ivan then, with the help of the firebird, kills Kashchei and frees the kingdom. The firebird flies away, never to be seen again.
Stravinsky wrote the score for The Firebird in 1910 as part of a collaboration with the famous choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, and the music began his rise to international stardom. Soon after its premiere, Stravinsky created The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, and his violin concerto, all of which were met with critical acclaim. The music of The Firebird is considered to be a prime example of Stravinsky’s style, but I find this claim to be misleading. Stravinsky’s style is hard to pin down due, I believe, to his astounding versatility. For instance, he wrote entire symphonies in the Baroque style, yet his violin concerto sounds more like a late Romantic composition. He wrote very modern-sounding pieces like The Rite of Spring while also crafting orchestral suites in the style of Mozart. In short, Stravinsky was a consummate master of composition who did not have a single style. The genius of The Firebird is yet another example of his brilliance. The music is glittering, dissonant, and sometimes even unnerving, yet Stravinsky finds unique ways to surprise the listener with flashes of harmonic resolution.
We continue our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”
The “Rite of Spring” was a complete scandal when it was first performed. Stravinsky wrote it as the score for a French ballet in 1929, and the audience was horrified by Stravinsky’s disregard for conventional harmonic structures. When combined with Russian Ballet director Serge Diaghilev’s jolting choreography, the dissonant sounds of Stravinsky’s music were anything but “spring”-like. However, this notoriety ended up serving “The Rite of Spring” well. It is now performed just as often in orchestral settings as it is in ballet settings. The music has come to define an era of music.
“The Rite of Spring” is based on a representation of Russian rituals and culture that Stravinsky had been wanting to compose for many years. The themes are simple and dark, depicting furious storms and violent struggles. Stravinsky described it as “a musical-choreographic work . . . unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring.” There is no specific storyline that unifies “The Rite of Spring,” just a serious of separately choreographed scenes that represent moments in time.