On That Note

A scene from Disney's depiction of
The Firebird from Fantasia 2000.

This week was big:  Sunday, 27 May saw the beginning of my 24th year on this earth.  This happened to be spent on Long Island.  Ironically enough, I found myself reading about the history of the Christian church on the seven and a half hour ride north into the heart of Megapolois with little, if any music on.  Weird - I know, right?  Upon arrival, this was more than compensated for with being the passenger in my cousins' cars whenever we drove somewhere.  They are in some, but not necessarily many ways, very much stereotypical Long Islanders: heavy on the horn with little grace towards any other driver on the road other than themselves, little to no acknowledgement of speed limits, and an obession with contemporary pop music (with no substancial reason for why other than "it's just good." or "you don't like that beat?").  In these situations, I found myself rolling my eyes as I slightly cringed and looked out the window for duration of the whatever song I happened to be listening to at the moment.

For this reason, I decided to revert  back to my classical music roots for this post.  Two steps forward, one step back, right?  Having played bassoon in the past, a standard orchestral excerpt crept into my mind earlier this week and brought a random craving for the "Berceuse" section of The Firebird Suite (1919).  Like any craving I get, this was quickly satisfied.  Naturally, I didn't just listen to this section of the piece alone, but revisited the entire thing.  What a a great piece of music.  If you haven't listened to its entirity, I suggest you change this.  Pieces of classical music have a stereotype of being long and boring.  The Firebird is neither.  At a typical performance time of 25 mins, sure, it may be longer than most of today's pop, but it is short in the world of classical music when compared to a Mahler symphony.  Given concise writing by Stravinsky, the piece always has motion, helping it seem even shorter than it actually is.

Moltres, Pokemon #146 and one of the Three
Winged Mirages, is a more contemporary
 version of the cross-cultural firebird figure
phenenomen.  Consider these other figures.
If I really wanted to do Igor Stravinsky the justice he deserves in writing The Firebird, my writing could go into much more detail.  Since I neither have the time or capacity to serve the right amount of justice, I'll do what I can.

Written for a ballet, the suite has become a standard in the classical music repertoire.  Originally published in 1910, there have been three editions of the piece from ballet score form (50 mins long) to suite form (for concert performances alone without the ballet).  The 1919 version is the most commonly performed of the three suites, although the 1945 version contains the most music from the original full score.  The music is programmatic, in that it aims to tell a story.  This plot is centered around Russian folklore of the firebird and Prince Ivan.  The orchestration for the piece is relatively massive, as it calls for strings, double winds, three harps, piano, and a variety of percussion instruments.  The Firebird is the first of Stravinsky's three great ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring (which actually caused a riot at its Parisian premiere).

Starting in twelve-eight time with a sinister introduction that includes the cello and bass, the mood is set immediately off the bat.  Whenever I listen to the beginning section of the piece, I think of someone raising one eyebrow and looking over their opposite shoulder (to which eyebrow was raised) with a great sense of suspicion.  Stravinsky does a remarkable job, if I can say so, at developing a color palate for the piece, and this section no doubt sets the introduces the base colors of said pallet.  Brass soon come in with long tones, heightening the already existing sense of suspense.  From here, the piece fuses artistic exploration, yet rarely strays from producing enjoyable music.  It is easy for composers to explore composition concepts at the expense of making music for an audience.  The piece continues with demanding instrumental skill, made known by solos throughout the piece.  The video below offers an example of this.  While not necessarily the most technically demanding excerpts, the section requires higher levels of artistic interpretation in their solo lines.  This is due to the lyric nature of such solos.  Such phrases fall on deaf ears if delivered dull and lifeless, not expressed in an artistic manner.

Check out this video.  Please see through the video/audio quality.  It's not everyday that a composer, especially of Stravinsky's stature, conducts their own composition and is recorded doing such.  This is the 1945 edition of the piece.  Slightly different from the 1919, the 1945 was edited primarily to satisfy copyright requirements in America.  The composer had moved from Russia to the United States where he resided in Los Angeles and New York.


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