Program Notes: The Firebird

During this 2015.16 concert season, we’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of several noted European composers. Last fall, we marked the sesquicentennials of Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius. This weekend, we continue to celebrate Sibelius and add to the list Paul Dukas (b. 1865). First we travel to the Italian Riviera with Edward Elgar, then hear Sibelius’s sumptuous violin concerto. After intermission, we take delight in two fantastical fairy tales – ballet music by Paul Dukas and Igor Stravinsky.

In the South (Alassio), Op. 50

Edward Elgar

Born 2 June 1857 in  Broadheath, England; Died 23 February 1934 in Worcester, England

Composed: 1903-1904

Premiere: 16 March 1904; London

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, snare drum, triangle), 2 harps, celeste, piano, strings

Approximate Duration: 20 minutes

Edward Elgar is no stranger to lovers of classical music. He is best known for his orchestral works – Enigma Variations, Pomp and Circumstance marches, concertos for violin and cello, and two noble symphonies. He was also an enthusiastic composer of choral music, writing oratorios, cantatas, partsongs, and church music. In 2013, MSO audiences were fortunate to hear The Dream of Gerontius, arguably the finest oratorio ever penned by an Englishman.

Figuring among Elgar’s orchestral works are two splendid concert overtures, Cockaigne (1901) and In the South (1904). Many writers have observed that the latter is really a tone poem, one that easily bears comparison with Richard Strauss. In this instance, the “South” refers to Italy – more specifically, to the town of Alassio, situated on the Italian Rivera, halfway between Genoa and Nice. Elgar and his family spent the Christmas and New Year holidays there in 1903–04. It became their favorite vacation destination.

After the success of the Enigma Variations (1899), Elgar’s compatriots had hoped he might be the one to pen the “great British symphony,” a work that would pose a challenge to the continental composers who dominated the field at that time. In 1903, he had a great success with the premiere of his oratorio The Apostles. However, it did little to relieve the pressure Elgar felt to write a true symphony, the one he knew his nation expected. In traveling to Italy with his wife Alice, he had hoped a two-month holiday there might be the tonic he needed.

In Alassio, the longed-for symphony did not materialize, but Elgar’s surroundings did inspire music within him, but music suitable for a smaller canvas. Initial inspiration came during an afternoon stroll near Alassio. “I was by the side of an old Roman way. A peasant stood by an old ruin and in a flash it all came to me – the conflict of armies in that very spot long ago, where now I stood – the contrast of the ruin and the shepherd – and then all of a sudden, I came back to reality. In that time I had ‘composed’ the overture – the rest was really writing it down.”

The leaping, exultant opening theme represented, said Elgar, “Maybe the exhilarating out-of-doors feeling arising from the gloriously beautiful surroundings – streams, flowers, hills; the distant snow mountains in one direction and the blue Mediterranean in the other.”

We next hear a pastoral portrait of “a shepherd with his flock straying about the ruins of the old church – he piping softly and reedily and occasionally singing.” There follows a pugnacious, march-like passage meant to depict “the relentless and domineering [Roman] forces of the ancient day, and to give a sound-picture of the strife and wars, the ‘drums and tramplings’ of a later time.”

The nocturne-like scene that follows offers a marked contrast: A solo viola introduces the theme, reminiscent of a Neapolitan song, before passing it to the solo horn. (Repeated requests led to its separate publication as “In Moonlight,” set to a text by Shelley.) Once the flight of fancy has had its say, Elgar recapitulates the themes of the opening, including the quieter rustic passage, before an emphatically triumphant conclusion.

Recommended Recording: John Eliot Gardiner, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)


Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47

Jean Sibelius

Born 8 December 1865 in Hämeenlinna, Finland; Died 20 September 1957 in Jarvenpää, Finland

Composed: 1903

Premiere: February 1904; Helsinki

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

Approximate Duration: 31 minutes

Jean Sibelius began playing the piano at age nine. He didn’t like it. At 14, however, “the violin took me by storm,” the composer wrote, “and for the next ten years it was my dearest wish, my overriding ambition, to become a great virtuoso.” Sadly, his goal remained unrealized: By the age of 14, many would-be virtuosos are already seasoned players. Additionally, the instruction available to the young Johan (he later Gallicized his name, emulating an uncle) was provincial at best – and he had a propensity for performance anxiety. He nevertheless became proficient enough to play in the orchestra of the Vienna Conservatory when he was a student there (1890–91), and even auditioned – albeit unsuccessfully – for a seat in the Vienna Philharmonic.

Of solemn disposition, Sibelius was not drawn to composing concertos. Certainly he was not of the ilk that produced the flashy concertos of his day, and the violin concerto is his only completed concerto for any instrument. As music writer David Hurwitz points out, “the work sounds as much like Sibelius as it does a violin concerto. In other words, at no point does it turn into a gratuitous display of technical tricks at the expense of the composer’s own idiomatic voice. His natural preference for low, dark sonorities permits him to write in his normal style for the orchestra, while at the same time fashioning a perfect accompaniment for the solo violin.”

It was the German virtuoso Willy Burmester, a student of Joseph Joachim, who encouraged Sibelius to write a violin concerto; he hoped to give the first performance. Sibelius crafted the concerto during 1903 and settled on a premiere date in March 1904. Unfortunately, circumstances caused the composer to set an earlier date, one that did not work for Burmester’s schedule. (Most probably, the “circumstances” were money woes: The time when Sibelius wrote the violin concerto was somewhat turbulent, with accumulating debts and bouts of heavy drinking.) Deeply offended, Burmester refused ever to play the concerto.

The first performance was given at Helsingfors (Helsinki) on 8 February 1904. Victor Nováček was the soloist and Sibelius conducted the Helsingfors Philharmonic. The composer revised the work the next year, making it more compact and slightly lessening its technical demands. The new (and present) form had its premiere in Berlin under the baton of Richard Strauss, with soloist Karl Halir, on 19 October 1905. The next year, Maud Powell introduced the piece to the United States.

Full of Romantic-era passion from start to finish, the concerto affords a wide range of musical expression. Sibelius essentially casts the violinist as a singer, conveying the gamut of human emotion – whether in an Italianate melody, a melancholy daydream, or a foot-tapping dance rhythm. Interestingly, we don’t hear the close-knit dialogue between soloist and orchestra characteristic of the violin concertos of, say, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.

The lengthy first movement (Allegro moderato) contrasts passages of melancholy and restraint with passages of great intensity and force. It is cast in sonata form, but with an extensive cadenza replacing what normally would be the development section. In the slow movement (Adagio di molto), a bourbon-hued contralto voice sings an affecting melody (“sonorous and expressive”) of vast breadth. The form is simple (ABA), but the orchestral colorings are wistful, seductive, and sophisticated. The closing Allegro, ma non tanto’s first theme is introduced by the soloist, accompanied only by an insistent pounding ostinato in the timpani and basses. Its second theme has a lumbering rhythm, once described by British musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey as “a polonaise for polar bears,” a description few program-notes writers can resist quoting.

Recommended Recording: Hillary Hahn; Esa-Pekka Salonen, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)


La Péri (poème dansé)

Paul Dukas

Born 1 October 1865 in Paris, France; Died 17 May 1935 in Paris

Composed: 1911

Premiere: April 22, 1912; Paris

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, celeste, strings

Approximate Duration: 19 minutes

Nowadays, Paul Dukas is most often remembered for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, that perennial favorite of young peoples’ concerts. (And who can forget the images of Mickey Mouse and water-toting broomsticks in Walt Disney’s Fantasia?) Perhaps one of the reasons we don’t hear a lot Dukas’ music is that he didn’t leave us much. Meticulous to a fault, some might say, the composer relegated most of his compositions to the fireplace. In fact, La Péri almost suffered the same fate: Composed “for a bet,” it was spared only by the intervention of several respected friends, who begged Dukas not to destroy the manuscript.

Dukas studied at the Paris Conservatoire, where Debussy was a friend and fellow student. He cultivated his musical craftsmanship to a high degree and developed an ear for orchestral color that made his work particularly influential in that regard. He was also a music writer, professor, critic, and editor. In the latter role, he made important contributions to the catalog of the Durand publishing house, creating well-considered editions of the keyboard works of Beethoven, Scarlatti, Couperin, and Rameau. In addition to those already mentioned, his surviving works include the three-movement Symphony in C, an ambitious piano sonata, and the opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue, among others.

For his only ballet – he called it a poème dansé (danced poem) – Dukas turned to an ancient Persian legend. In Persian mythology, a péri is a fairy creature. (Nineteenth-century composers were fascinated by these tales: Robert Schumann, no less, wrote a large-scale oratorio called Das Paradies und de Peri.) In Dukas’ scenario, the young prince Iskender is journeying far and wide in search of the lotus flower that will grant immortality. He encounters a beautiful péri, sleeping in a jewel-bedecked bower with the lotus in her hand. Gazing upon her, Iskender falls in love. Without waking her, the prince snatches the flower, but when she awakens she performs the dance of the péris. At the climax of the dance, Iskender returns the lotus in exchange for a kiss. The fairy then melts into the glowing light of sunset and Iskender realizes he has lost her forever. He feels the darkness surround him, knowing that his end is near.

In crafting his many-hued musical setting, Dukas pulled out all the stops, creating a tour de force of Impressionist orchestral color and technique. The score is a rich tapestry of elegant, wispy effects and deliciously opulent instrumental shadings. Two themes engage in a drama of confrontation, like Iskender and La Péri. Much of the piece portrays the impassioned dance of the Péri. The popular fanfare that opens the work, often excerpted, bears no thematic relationship to the ballet itself. Added as an afterthought, it might have been a signal to audiences of the day to quiet down before the soft opening of the main body of the poème.

The composer dedicated La Péri, his last published work, to Natalie Trouhanova, the Russian ballerina who danced the title role at its Paris premiere in 1912. The stage was decorated with golden mountains, crimson valleys, and trees laden with silver fruit. The evening also included the premieres of three other ballets – by Maurice Ravel, Vincent d’Indy, and Florent Schmitt, each conducted by its composer.

Recommended Recording: Jesús López-Cobos, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Telarc)


Suite from The Firebird (1919 Version)

Igor Stravinsky

Born 17 June 1882 in Lomonosov, Russia; Died 6 April 1971 in New York City, New York

Composed: 1909-1910; rev. 1919

Premiere: 25 June, 1910; Paris

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, xylophone) harp, celeste, piano, strings

Approximate Duration: 22 minutes

With his ballet The Firebird, the 28-year-old Igor Stravinsky found immediate and lasting fame. (“I was once addressed by a man in an American railway dining car, and quite seriously, as ‘Mr. Fireberg,’” a much older Stravinsky related.) Composed between November 1909 and May 1910, the ballet was first performed at the Paris Opéra on 25 June 1910. Gabriel Pierné conducted. The next day, the composer was a celebrity. How did this “overnight” popularity come about?

In 1906, the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev had taken a major exhibition of Russian art to the Petit Palais in Paris. The following year, he presented five concerts of Russian music in the city, and in 1908 mounted a production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, starring Feodor Chaliapin, at the Opéra. This led to an invitation to return the following year with ballet as well as opera, and thus to the launching of his famous Ballets Russes. The company’s first night, 19 May 1909, was a sensation.

For the 1910 season, Diaghilev wanted to present a ballet based on the Russian legend of the Firebird. Unable to convince various composers – including Nikolai Tcherepnin, Alatole Liadov, Alexander Glazunov, and Nikolai Sokolov – to provide a score, the impresario finally turned to the wet-behind-the ears Stravinsky. Diaghilev had first heard Stravinsky’s music two years earlier at a concert in St. Petersburg, immediately asking the young composer to help orchestrate music for the 1909 Parisian ballet season. Thus, Stravinsky was in the right place at the right time.

The Firebird was a tremendous success. Stravinsky relates: “The first-night audience at the Paris Opéra glittered indeed … I sat in Diaghilev’s box, where, at intermissions, a stream of celebrities, artists, dowagers, aged Egerias of the Ballet, writers, balletomanes, appeared. I met Proust, Firardoux, Paul Morand, St. John Perse, Paul Claudel, Sarah Bernhardt… I was called to the stage to bow at the conclusion, and was recalled several times. I was still onstage when the final curtain had come down, and I saw coming toward me Diaghilev and a dark man with a double forehead whom he introduced as Claude Debussy. The composer spoke kindly about the music, ending his words with an invitation to dine with him.”

Over the years, Stravinsky fashioned three suites from the ballet: in 1911, 1919, and 1945. The latter two reduce the instrumentation of the original ballet, which Stravinsky had called “wastefully large.” A master of orchestral writing, Stravinsky trimmed the number of players without diminishing the music’s bold audacity. “For me, he wrote, the most striking effect in The Firebird was the natural-harmonic string glissando near the beginning, which the bass chord touches off like a Catherine wheel. I was delighted to have discovered this, and I remember my excitement in demonstrating it to [my teacher Rimsky-Korsakov’s] violinist and cellist sons. I remember, too, Richard Strauss’s astonishment when he heard it two years later in Berlin.”

In all its various versions, Stravinsky’s score for The Firebird blends rich harmonies, the vigor of Russian folk music, and the orchestral magic he learned from Rimsky-Kosakov – conjuring music of tremendous power and beauty.

Synopsis of the complete ballet

The ballet centers on the journey of Prince Ivan Tsarevich, the hero of many fables in Russian folklore. While hunting in the forest, he strays into the magic garden of King Kastchei, a green-taloned ogre and sorcerer. Kastchei’s immortality is preserved by keeping his soul in a magic egg hidden in a casket. In the garden, Ivan spies the Firebird, a magnificent creature covered in scarlet plumage. She is picking golden apples from a silver tree (“Dance of the Firebird”). He chases and captures the Firebird, but she begs to be released and he obliges her. As a token of thanks, she offers him a brilliantly colored feather, whose magic will protect him from harm.

Prince Ivan then meets 13 princesses who are under Kastchei’s spell; he falls in love with one of them (“Dance of the Princesses”). When he tries to follow them into the magic garden, a great carillon sounds and he is captured. The sorcerer is about to turn the prince into stone when Ivan waves the feather, summoning the Firebird. She intervenes, bewitching the monsters and making them perform an elaborate, energetic dance (“Infernal Dance”). Her subsequent lullaby (“Berceuse”) puts Kastchei to sleep, and she reveals the secret of his immortality. While Kastchei and his minions sleep, the Firebird directs Ivan to a tree stump where the casket with the egg containing Kastchei’s soul is hidden. Ivan opens the casket and smashes the egg, killing Kastchei. The captive princesses are freed, and Ivan and his beloved princess are betrothed amid general rejoicing.

The movements of the 1919 suite are listed below, with brief commentary.

Introduction and Dance of the Firebird

Muted cellos and basses plunge us immediately into the world of the fairy tale, intoning a spooky theme associated with Kastchei. We hear a natural-harmonic string glissando, an orchestral device invented by the composer. This “special effect” is produced by the player sliding a finger lightly up and down the string without pressing it to the fingerboard. In Kastchei’s illusory garden, Prince Ivan encounters the Firebird. She is depicted with opulent colors and radiant trills.

Dance of the Princesses

A khorovod is a Russian folk dance in which the participants are arranged in a circle. Prince Ivan watches the princesses who have been captured by Kastchei performing the dance – to simple, diatonic music. He falls in love with the one destined to be his bride.

Infernal Dance of King Kastchei

To protect Ivan, the Firebird casts a spell over Kastchei and his notorious henchmen. Stravinsky’s frenetic rhythms force them to dance themselves to exhaustion.


The lullaby of the Firebird lulls the hypnotized Kastchei to sleep. Its melody is played by the bassoon, accompanied by ethereal harmonies in the strings, flute, and harp. Ivan is instructed to destroy the giant egg containing the monster’s soul, and Kastchei’s power vanishes.


A solo horn intones the score’s best-known melody, announcing the jubilant arrival of sunlight. Together with Ivan and his betrothed, the rescued captives celebrate with music that swells and rings out in glorious triumph.

Recommended Recording: George Szell, Cleveland Orchestra (Sony)

Program notes by J. Mark Baker.