Walter Bitner

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The Firebird

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Image credit: snob.ru, Wikimedia Commons, veche.razved.ca

It is 1980, and I am 14 years old. I don’t know exactly when this happened but I feel sure it was in the summer or fall. I am standing before the record player I had received for Christmas a few years earlier, in my adolescent lair in the basement of my parent’s house in Camillus, New York. The turntable could be rotated on its side to hide within the wooden cabinet in which it was housed when not in use, and the spindle could accommodate up to 6 LPs at a time (by the time of this memory I had learned never to do this, with the hope of preserving the quality of my record collection as long as possible).

I have just unwrapped the 3 LP set Yessongs from its plastic shrink wrap and set the needle down on the record at the beginning of side A of the first LP. Yes was my favorite rock band when I was in high school (they still are) and I have saved up money from several weeks of early mornings on my bicycle delivering newspapers to buy this, only the second triple album in my collection (the first was Keith Jarrett’s Solo Concerts Bremen / Lausanne).

As I marvel at the stunning artwork by Roger Dean that not only adorns the cover but in fact nearly every surface of the package, what I hear at first are the sounds of an arena crowd anticipating a Yes concert to begin – Yessongs was the band’s first live album. But when the music begins, it isn’t Yes at all – instead I hear the tender horn solo over quiet tremolo chords in the strings that begins the Finale of Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet score The Firebird.

 

The opening of a Yes concert featuring the (now traditional) introductory excerpt recording from The Firebird. The curtain opens at the Allegro non troppo and the band walks on stage – Jon and Alan play along on cymbals as the rest of the band prepares to go into Soundchaser. This concert is from the Relayer tour, for which Patrick Moraz replaced Rick Wakeman on keyboards. ~ Queens Park Rangers’ Loftus Road Stadium, London, May 10, 1975

 

the cover of Yessongs, 1973

The crowd’s excitement and enthusiasm is audible as the Finale builds to a sweeping crescendo and the orchestra begins the majestic final section in 7/4 time that brings The Firebird to a close. As the final chord reverberates through the P.A., Rick Wakeman improvises a short series of modulating chords on organ, and the band kicks full steam ahead into Siberian Khatru.

The music of “Excerpt from ‘Firebird Suite’” is familiar to me from my childhood – I have heard this before. But this is the first time I hear it and put the name Firebird to it.

*       *       *

Over my teenage years, my musical tastes slowly evolved to dwell less on 60s and 70s art rock as I found myself spending more and more time listening to – and playing – classical music and jazz. Not long after the experience I describe above, I was visiting my grandparents and came across an LP that had The Firebird Suite on one side and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite on the other in my grandmother’s record collection (I no longer remember the performers). I copied this onto a cassette tape, and thus began a teenage obsession that became a lifelong fascination and admiration for the utterly unique, mercurial, masterful, at times beautiful, terrifying, miraculous music of Igor Stravinsky.

Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky, Los Angeles, 1939 ~ Stravinsky moved to the United States in 1939, and spent most of the 40s, 50s, and 60s living in West Hollywood. Even though he died more than a decade before I arrived in L.A. in 1983, Stravinsky’s presence and influence still could be discerned in many aspects of the city’s artistic culture.

By 1983 I was living in Claremont, California, and had gone down a deep rabbit hole – in fact, a warren – of Stravinsky’s music. Through my piano teacher Gary Davenport, who was then earning a doctorate at Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), I somehow obtained a student card to the college library there. This gave me access to the stacks in a magnificent music library, and for two years I spent hundreds of hours pouring over orchestral scores and listening to recordings – including, during those years, the majority of Stravinsky’s works, as well as music by Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg, Bartók, Wagner, Verdi, Bruckner, Mahler, Debussy, Ravel… Having a library card to that collection was a crucial asset for me, because at that time, the inexpensive paperback reprints by Dover of full orchestral scores did not yet exist, and the high costs of scores by Kalmus and other premium publishers could run to $60, $80, $100 or more… prohibitive price tags in the early 1980s for a teenage music student.

During those years Los Angeles was a hotbed of new music – as it continues to be – and I attended the world famous Monday Evening Concerts religiously while I lived in L.A. I heard Robert Craft speak at many of those events, and although at that time it was Karlheinz Stockhausen who loomed over the worldwide new music scene like a Roman emperor, to me the ghosts of Igor Stravinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Béla Bartók haunted every event and whispered through the music of nearly every avant-garde pretender I heard.

The first time I heard Firebird live was a performance of the entire ballet score by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at their old hall, Dorothy Chandler, conducted by (then Principal Guest Conductor) Michael Tilson Thomas. It was an utterly unforgettable experience – I bought a student rush ticket shortly before the show, and the only seat I could get was in the very front row, just a few feet away from MTT and the front desks of the first violins and cellos. I was riveted and sat on the edge of my seat through nearly the entire performance, which I followed along with my borrowed library score. The unearthly passage of harmonic glissandi at measure 14 made a particularly strong impression on me – I have never heard anything like it, before or since. You can only hear the full effect if you are sitting that close to the instruments. As Stravinsky himself wrote:

For me the most striking effect in The Firebird was the natural-harmonic string glissandi 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 Rimsky’s violinist and ‘cellist sons. I remember, too, Richard Strauss’s astonishment when he heard it two years later in Berlin. (The extra octave obtained by tuning the violins’ E strings down to D gives the original version a larger sound.)

Igor Stravinsky
Expositions and Developments, 1959-62

 

the famous harmonic glissandi at m.14, The Firebird, original 1910 version (click all images to enlarge)

 

Also while I lived in L.A., I attended my first Yes concert on March 26, 1984, at The Forum in Inglewood. And before Yes took the stage, “Excerpt from ‘Firebird Suite’” was played over the P.A.

*       *       *

Igor Stravinsky was born in Oranienbaum, a suburb of Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1882. His parents were Ukrainian and his father was a well-known opera singer. Igor began piano lessons at a young age, studied music theory and began composing by his teens, but initially studied law at the University of Saint Petersburg according to his parents’ expectations. Stravinsky began private studies with the influential composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1902, his father died later that year, and he soon abandoned law to pursue composition.

In 1909, the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev heard two orchestral pieces by the young composer at a concert in Saint Petersburg, and commissioned Stravinsky to write a ballet score for a company he was putting together that would present Russian ballet and opera in Paris. It was Stravinsky’s lucky break. He wrote the score to The Firebird for Diaghilev’s commission, and when the work premiered in Paris on June 25, 1910, it was a great sensation. Stravinsky’s fortune was made – Diaghilev’s company went on to become the legendary Ballet Russes, and Firebird was quickly followed by more masterpieces: Petrushka in 1911, and Rite of Spring in 1913. All three of these monumental ballet scores have continued to be popular and often performed standards of the repertoire – both as staged ballets and as standalone concert works – since they debuted over a century ago.

Igor Stravinsky and Claude Debussy in Debussy’s apartment in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, Paris; photo by Erik Satie, June 1910.

Like many conventional ballets, the story of The Firebird is based on fairy tales and folklore, cobbled together from traditional elements including a royal protagonist (Prince Ivan), an evil villain (Koschei the Immortal), a magical creature (the Firebird), and thirteen princesses! Stravinsky’s score, however, was a departure from the conventional styles of 19th century ballet music, establishing the composer firmly as a leader of the new avant-garde, and pointing the way towards the even more radical and original scores for Petrushka and Rite of Spring.

The audience that attended the premiere of The Firebird included such literati as Proust, Giraudoux, Paul Morand, Saint-John Perse (who won the Nobel prize), Sarah Bernhardt, and Debussy.

As Stravinsky remembered fifty years later:

I was called to the stage to bow at the conclusion, and was recalled several times. I was still on stage 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 great composer spoke kindly about the music, ending his words with an invitation to dine with him. Some time later, when we were sitting together in his box at a performance of Pelléas, I asked him what he had really thought of The Firebird. He said: ‘Que voulez-vous, il fallait bien commencer par quelque chose.’ (What do you want? You had to start with something.) Honest, but not extremely flattering…I was not so honest about the work we were then hearing. I thought Pelléas a great bore as a whole, and in spite of many wonderful pages.

Igor Stravinsky
Expositions and Developments, 1959-62

*       *       *

When the Nashville Symphony performed The Firebird Suite on our first subscription concert of the season last week, I was in the audience with my son and two of his close friends. All three of them were my students for many years, and were in MCYO when I was music director – together we have a long history with and shared love of orchestral music. It was particularly gratifying for me to be sitting with them that night. They have all graduated from college now, and are several years older than I was when I first heard The Firebird performed live by the L.A. Phil, nearly 35 years ago.

 

The famous horn solo that announces the finale, The Firebird, original 1910 version

 

It was as thrilling as ever. As I sat there in the darkened hall, listening to this music I have loved intensely for so long, I remembered listening to Yessongs in my parents’ basement when I was 14, and sitting in the front row at Dorothy Chandler hearing the L.A. Phil perform. Music has a miraculous power to knit together our memories and emotions, to integrate our experiences and to help us feel whole and connected with others and the world. I don’t know how I could live without it.

When the orchestra came to the end of the suite and Principal Horn Leslie Norton played the yearning, magical solo that introduces the theme of the finale, my eyes filled with tears. There are few passages in all of music that that stir my heart in quite this way, with gratitude for my life and all I have felt and experienced, and with hope for the future.

 

Igor Stravinsky conducts the finale of The Firebird, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London, September 14, 1965

 


1 Comment

  1. Noel-Carol E Bitner says:

    Beautifully expressed and shared. My heart sings when you are free to express yourself .

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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