Stravinsky’s Firebird and the Other John Adams

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I had the privilege of writing (and man, a lot of time researching) program notes for the Southeastern Minnesota Youth Orchestra (SEMYO) which is playing a few ambitious pieces this weekend.

SEMYO is one of the few groups in Rochester Minnesota where you’ll find a pretty decent concentration of Asians, drawn from jr and high school students from the regions around the southeast Minnesota, and featuring young soloist  William Cao performing the Schumann Piano Concerto. When Luther College symphony orchestra came to town, it was fabulous and I had already seen it as of the few groups featured on PBS christmas broadcasts. Yet  I couldn’t spot more than a couple of Asian faces, and looked them up to find the Iowa college is 92% white with fewer than 1.7% Asian Americans. Surely there is a recruiting opportunity, if not some silly “diversity” affirmative action criterion when the national population of Asians is about  6%, and 11% of those taking the SAT (p.81)  and the college percentage at top colleges ranges from a quarter to half of some places in California like UC Irvine, and whites fading into minority status. I’ll have to get around to all the rumors floating about studies by Ron Unz that Asians appear to have hit a new quota ceiling since the old 1980s admissions wars.  But I think the big problem is still  that most Asian Americans, not to mention the foreign students from China, Japan, Korea (and the other dozen countries too numerous to mention..) are still trying to get into the same dozen colleges that are now admitting fewer than 10% of applicants, and it’s probably worse for students who don’t fall into some preference category. There are plenty of fantastic colleges like Luther with pretty good test scores (SAT Math: 510 / 640 ) and marvelous music programs that are dirt easy to get into (72%) if you don’t mind going to some school Asian parents have never heard of.

Luther College Symphony Elgar Cello Concerto

Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony

Anyways, back to those notes…

The Firebird Suite (1919)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes — ‘Firebird’ (Royal Ballet, 1960)

Igor Stravinsky is widely recognized as one of Russia’s and 20th century’s greatest composers, and he was an American citizen after the 1940s. Stravinsky’s father mingled with composers such as Borodin and Mussorsky as an opera singer. The young Stravinsky quit law school to take private composition lessons from Rimsky Korsakov. In 1909, Stravinsky was discovered by Sergei Diaghilev who commissioned the relatively unknown talent for his new production of the Firebird for the Ballet Russe. During this period, Impressionism (1872-1925 Ravel, Respighi) was gaining as the Romantic period was ending (1800-1910 Brahms, Tchaikovsky). The 1910 Paris premiere brought Stravinsky great acclaim, and he was catapulted to fame as Russia’s latest great composer. Later he composed two more ballets, Petrushka, and the Rite of Spring, the latter of which was so radical, that critics staged a riot. Besides for the ballet, the Firebird suite was used to illustrate the destruction and rebirth of the Mt. St. Helens eruption in Disney’s Fantasia 2000.

The 1919 Suite is the most popular version distillation of the ballet music which was inspired by Russian folklore and songs. To those families who have seen or bought every Disney Princess video and watched it 5 times, the formula will be familiar. The story matches up Crown Prince Ivan with Princess Tsarevna against the sorcerer Katschei the Immortal. The magical Firebird appears in one of the most spectacular and coveted ballerina roles in flaming red finery

The Introduction shows off the Firebird bounding around the forest to dazzling pizzicato and harp glissando as Prince Ivan stands fascinated by her. Unlike the mythical Warner Brothers Roadrunner who cannot be caught, the Prince catches her. But he shows pity and promptly releases her. In gratitude, the Firebird gives him a magic feather, and promised to return to the Prince at his call.

In the Princesses’ Round; Khorovode the prince encounters an enchanted castle where he meets thirteen beautiful princesses led by the Princess Tsarevna. The flutes lead an enchanting theme which one could compare with John Williams’ theme for Princess Leia; many have theorized that Stravinsky has inspired many themes from movies such as Star Wars.

The prince tries to follow the ladies as they return to the castle, but he meets Katschei the Immortal and finds himself surrounded by his minions. The Prince draws his magic feather from his tunic to negate Katschei’s “turn-into-stone” spell. He then calls upon the Firebird, who arrives and leads the palace guards in the furious Infernal Dance of King Katschei. The dance builds to a furious orchestral climax as everyone falls from exhaustion.

In the Berceuse, the Firebird lulls the minions to sleep with a soothing bassoon solo alongside harp and strings. Then the Firebird reveals that the King’s immortality lies in a magical egg. The prince snatches and smashes the egg, vanquishing Katschei once and for all.

In the Finale, a solo horn recalls a variation of princess theme as the prisoners become free and Prince Ivan weds his bride. It all builds to a spectacular, dramatic climax.


Two Fanfares for Orchestra:

John Coolidge Adams (born 1947)

Most people have heard of the president John Adams, but to those familiar with late 20th century music, John Coolidge Adams is the century American composer who has been called eclectic and inventive. Said to be America’s most widely performed contemporary composer, John Adams is one of the American composers along with Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Philip Glass who developed the minimalist style of contemporary music in the 1970s and 1980s. Adams is also known for politically themed operas such Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic (about the atom bomb) and the Death of Klinghoffer which was controversial in its portrayal of terrorism. Adams composed the Two Fanfares for Orchestra in 1986, the bold Short Ride in a Fast Machine and the more somber Tromba Lontana.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine

The playfully titled Short Ride in a Fast Machine is one of Adam’s best known orchestral works. It was composed in 1986 as one of two works in The composer explained the title by the feeling of “You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t?” The title would prove problematic when scheduled for the BBC-sponsored concert series in London. After Princess Diana died in an automobile accident in 1997, and yet again after the 9-11 airliner attacks, performances were canceled out of sensitivity issues. Nevertheless, the piece has become one of the most performed pieces composed in the past 25 years.

Short Ride is a short but spectacular fanfare-like spectacle. It is noted as an example of minimalism which is based on repeating material. It also uses “polyrhythmic dissonance” which combines both tonal and rhythmic dissonance. While most classical pieces use traditional cadences of harmony and rhythm to set off and partition the beginning and ending of phrases and recurring melodies, it continually builds in waves of musical perpetual motion.

A high wood block sets the rhythm and the fundamental tick in the opening section. Conflicting rhythms are added which disrupt the metronomic stability of the block and sets up a more complex dissonance as the musicians are often switched between measures of different meters and changing numbers of notes fit into each measure. The technique of “gating” changes pitches in harmony using different musical modes.

A strong brass section highlighted by trumpets sets up an evolving and building theme contrasted by a layering of woodwinds and strings. A switch to a low wood block signals the middle section, as brass is contrasted against strings punctuated by snare drums. The final section dispenses entirely with the wood block, driven by high and low brass to a dramatic conclusion.

Tromba Lontana

Tromba Lontana was commissioned by the Houston Symphony to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Texas declaration of independence from Mexico. In contrast to the brash and kaleidoscopic Short Ride, the composer create a more somber atmosphere of mystery. Allmusic describes a combining of “pulsing bells and woodwind figures, sustained string tones, and a searching, restive brass line into a texture characteristic of his works of the 1980s.” It has been compared to Ive’s Unanswered Question which also contrasts a solo trumpet against a lush chorale of strings. While it is common to note music for being included in movie soundtracks, this post-minimalist piece was featured in the soundtrack for the strategy video game Civiilzation IV which also includes other works by Adams.

The composer explained he created a “a four-minute work that barely rises about mezzo piano and that features two stereophonically placed solo trumpets (to the back of the stage or on separate balconies), who intone gently insistent calls, each marked by a sustained note followed by a soft staccato tattoo. The orchestra provides a pulsing continuum of serene ticking in the pianos, harps and percussion. In the furthest background is a long, almost disembodied melody for strings that passes by almost unnoticed like nocturnal clouds.”



About the Author

MIT electrical engineering computer science graduate has written conservative columns on politics, race / culture, science and education since the 70s in MIT The Tech and various publications in including New Republic and National Review.