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Stravinsky, Mozart, Tchaikovsky

The Fairy’s Kiss: Divertimento
Igor Stravinsky
b. Oranienbaum, Russia / June 17, 1882
d. New York, New York / April 6, 1971

First and last performed by the RPO on December 10, 1964; Walter Hendl, conductor.

Stravinsky’s teacher, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, nurtured him in the folk-inspired Russian national school. This fact is reflected in such early works as his ballet The Firebird. But Stravinsky also felt deep admiration for a more cosmopolitan Russian composer of Rimsky’s generation – Tchaikovsky, whose ballet scores and operas he came to love as a youth. Eventually, his own inclinations led him away from the national school, towards a more global outlook. But he never lost his love for what he felt was the true musical spirit of his homeland – and for him, that meant Tchaikovsky’s unconscious tapping of the Russian soul, not, as Stravinsky called it, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “facile picturesqueness.”

In London during 1921, the Ballets Russes, for whom Stravinsky had written several highly successful scores, mounted a lavish new staging of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty. It won a huge success, virtually establishing The Sleeping Beauty’s international reputation.

Six years later, Ida Rubinstein, a former member of the Ballets Russes who had left to form her own company, commissioned a new work from Stravinsky. Stravinsky’s friend, the artist Alexandre Benois, suggested a score inspired by the music of Tchaikovsky. Stravinsky decided to take the concept one step further, basing his music on his idol’s actual compositions. To avoid direct imitation, he chose pieces, mainly piano works and songs, that Tchaikovsky hadn’t orchestrated. And his method was far from simple transcription. He used Tchaikovsky’s pieces as the raw materials for the ballet, then adapted them and filtered them through his own, decidedly non-romantic sensibilities. He also contributed considerable original material, created to mirror Tchaikovsky’s style.

For the scenario, he chose The Ice Maiden, a fairy tale by a contemporary of Tchaikovsky, Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. He changed the name to The Fairy’s Kiss. Another reason for choosing this story was its parallel with Tchaikovsky’s own life, “the fairy’s kiss on the heel of the child paralleling the Muse marking Tchaikovsky at his birth,” as Stravinsky himself remarked. The premiere took place in Paris on November 27, 1928.

Here is the full scenario: “During a storm, a mother is separated from her child, who is found and kissed by a fairy, then taken away to be looked after by villagers. Eighteen years later, the young man is celebrating with his fiancée at a village festival. The fairy, disguised as a gypsy, tells his fortune and promises him great happiness, then leads him back to his fiancée and friends. By a mill, the young man dances with his lady love, but after she leaves to put on her bridal dress, the fairy appears instead in bridal disguise. Exerting her supernatural power, she confuses the young man and persuades him to follow her. In the epilogue, the Fairy bestows her fatal kiss upon him, and encloses him forever in the Land of Eternal Dwelling.”

In 1934, Stravinsky arranged a 20-minute suite from the ballet, choosing the name Divertimento because of its largely light-hearted character. It includes music from every scene, with a special concert ending added on.

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
b. Salzburg, Austria / January 27, 1756
d. Vienna, Austria / December 5, 1791

First performed by the RPO on November 25, 1953; Erich Leinsdorf, conductor; Cecile Staub Genhart, soloist. Last performed on March 6, 2010; Christopher Seaman, conductor; Orli Shaham, soloist.

In May 1781, Mozart relocated from the cultural backwater of his native Salzburg to the bustling musical metropolis of Vienna. The city was ripe for artists with his talent and drive. Before long, he was deep into a busy schedule of composing, performing, and teaching. Because Viennese audiences loved him above all for his skill as a pianist, he focused on composing music for that instrument. He wrote 12 superlative piano concertos between February 1784 and December 1786. They are deeper in feeling, broader in scope and richer in color than any written before. In years to come, they would serve as models of their kind, ones to which Beethoven, Brahms, and other similarly high-minded composers would turn for inspiration. He began Concerto No. 23 in 1784 and completed it in early 1786. The premiere took place on March 2.

It opens in leisurely fashion, with the orchestra presenting the movement’s principal materials. The soloist then treats them with a winning mixture of elegance and delicious flights of fancy. With only the briefest of digressions, the mood throughout is utterly contented. The atmosphere changes radically in the slow movement, one of Mozart’s most poignant creations. The piano leads off, introducing a main theme in the rhythm of a Siciliano. Passionate outbursts have no place here, but just the same, Mozart sets forth the depth of his despair in most telling fashion. The finale brings further contrast, lightening the air completely. Mozart brings back the sun, more welcome than ever in the wake of the dark Adagio.

Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
b. Kamsko-Votkinsk, Russia / May 7, 1840
d. St. Petersburg, Russia / November 6, 1893

First performed by the RPO on October 24, 1923; Eugene Goossens, conductor. Last performed on February 21, 2009; Daniel Hege, conductor.

Ten years passed between the creation of Tchaikovsky’s fourth and fifth symphonies. He completed No. 5 in August 1888. It earned little favor at first – perhaps due to his middling gifts as a conductor – but it quickly found great success.

As he had done with Symphony No. 4, he based No. 5 on a recurring musical theme that represented his outlook on life at that time. By then, his attitude to fate had softened somewhat, possibly due to a rebirth in religious feeling. He now referred to it by the less intimidating name “providence.” Reflecting this shift, the Fifth Symphony’s “providence” theme is much less aggressive than its counterpart in Symphony No. 4. It appears in the opening bars, intoned quietly and soberly by the clarinets. Where the Fourth Symphony’s “fate” theme is heard only in the first and last movements, and remains unchanged from one appearance to the next, the Fifth’s “providence” theme plays a role in each of the four movements. Its character also evolves to match the emotional progress of the music.

After the introduction, the opening movement contrasts restless striving, represented in the first theme – a march-like variant of the motto – with a second subject whose heartfelt yearning is expressed with maximum eloquence by the strings. The second movement can only be described as a passionate love-idyll. Its sweeping, swelling raptures are twice interrupted, with a newly developed sense of forcefulness, by the “providence” theme.

Next comes a typically elegant Tchaikovsky waltz. He based it on a popular song he heard being sung by a boy in the street during a visit to Florence, Italy. The sole blemish on its courtly façade is provided by a brief, almost casual appearance of “providence,” just before the end. Thus softened, the once-gloomy theme sounds ripe for transfiguration.

It stands proudly on display in the slow-tempo introduction to the finale, where it is heard in a major key for the first time. The finale proper emerges swiftly out of the final bars of this passage. It is one of Tchaikovsky’s most joyous and energetic symphonic movements, strongly colored with the hearty flavors and dancing rhythms of Russian folk music.

© 2013 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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