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Program Notes - The Firebird

Symphony No. 4
David Diamond

b. Rochester, N.Y. / July 9, 1915;
d. Rochester, June 13, 2005

Through his highly communicative and superbly crafted music, Diamond secured a position in the front rank of American composers. His catalogue includes eleven symphonies, operas, incidental music for theatre and film, concertos, miscellaneous orchestral works, chamber and vocal scores. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1966, and received the William Schuman Award for his life’s work in 1985.

In 1945, he began both his third and fourth symphonies. No. 4 was commissioned by the foundation that Serge Koussevitzky, music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had created in 1942 to encourage the composition and performance of new music. Diamond dedicated the symphony to Koussevitzky’s wife, Natalie. The BSO gave the premiere performance on January 23, 1948, with Leonard Bernstein substituting for the ailing Koussevitzky.

“The entire symphony was created with the idea of…Gustav Fechner’s theories of life and death,” the composer wrote, “as, I – a continual sleep, II – the alternation between sleeping and waking… and III – eternal waking, birth being the passing from I to II and death the transition from II to III.” Whether listeners choose to consider these ideas when listening to the symphony is a personal matter. It makes a wonderful, emotionally satisfying effect in purely musical terms.

The first of the three compact movements is genial in character. Diamond’s orchestration exhibits both a rich instrumental palette and an appealing transparency. The two main themes are combined at the climax, after which the music concludes with a relaxed coda. The second movement opens with a slow, stern proclamation before moving on to the heartfelt lyricism that is its primary emotion. It rises to an eloquent climax, then subsides to a contented conclusion. The finale displays plentiful vigor and triumphant high spirits, laced with contrasting passages of warm expressiveness.

Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22
Camille Saint-Saëns

b. Paris, France / October 9, 1835;
d. Algiers, Algeria / December 16, 1921

The second, and by far most popular, of Saint-Saëns’ five piano concertos resulted from his friendship with the great Russian pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein. The prospect of an appearance in Paris during the spring of 1868 inspired Rubinstein to ask his French colleague to write a concerto which the two of them could perform together. Rubinstein made it clear that he wished to have Saint Saëns to play the solo part, reversing roles from previous joint performances.

By the time they had agreed to pursue this project, however, just three weeks remained before the scheduled concert. Saint Saëns set immediately to work and completed the concerto in 17 days. The audience at the premiere on May 13 received it with indifference, but countless others have embraced the concerto with delight.

The three movements offer an exceptionally wide range of moods, leading one writer to say that it “starts with Bach and ends with Offenbach.” The first movement alternates austerity with tenderness. The second is a playful scherzo, featuring gossamer orchestration and a gracefully waltzing second theme that lingers long in the memory. The finale is a breathless tarantella whose energy never flags from first bar to last.

Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36
Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov

b. Tikhvin, Russia / March 18, 1844;
d. Lyubensk, Russia / June 21, 1908

Rimsky-Korsakov composed this exalting concert overture in 1888. He took the themes from the Obikhod (1772), a collection of traditional church canticles that was the first music printed in Russia. The solemn opening section unmistakably evokes the chanting and the responsorial style of an Orthodox Church service. It is based on two canticles: Let God arise and An angel wailed. The main section in fast tempo employs the vigorous but stern canticle Let them that also hate Him flee before Him, and the joyous Christ is arisen. Mid-way through, solo trombone takes the spotlight in a solemn recitative imitating the voice of the Russian Deacon. Reminiscences of earlier themes appear amidst the jubilant concluding section, as the music proceeds, bells tolling and brass thundering, to its triumphant conclusion.

Suite from The Firebird (1919 revision)
Igor Stravinsky

b. Oranienbaum, Russia / June 17, 1882;
d. New York, N.Y. / April 6, 1971

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.

© 2006 Don Anderson. All rights reserved.

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