Beginning of Stravinsky’s Ballet Music

   Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) became well-known because of his ballet music (though he certainly wrote much more than that). This kickstart to his career is not surprising, as he was exposed to Russian ballet greats while growing up (Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballets, dancers Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina, etc.) (Joseph 2011, 16). He worked on three significant productions with the company Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913) (Schouvaloff and Borovsky 1982, 9).

   The Ballets Russes revitalized ballet in Paris and set the standard for other productions (Joseph 2011, 28-29). This was a company founded by Sergei Diaghilev in 1909. He recruited designers, choreographers, and composers to create original content (as much as he was able to, at least) to do each ballet’s story justice (Harris-Warrick, Goodwin, and Percival 2001). This was an expensive but artistically strategic endeavor. The interdisciplinary, collaborative nature of this company was important, resulting in spectacles of carefully designed dance, elaborate music, imaginative staging, and detailed costumes. In his role as composer, Stravinsky had to work closely with the choreographer to coordinate the music and dancing.

   The first two Diaghilev-Stravinsky ballets included choreographer Mikhail Fokine (Walsh 2001). The Firebird premiered on June 25, 1910 (Joseph 2011, 1). Once the Ballets Russes became known from The Firebird, they went on to have a successful premiere of Petrushka on June 13, 1911 (Walsh 2001). The third major Stravinsky-Diaghilev collaboration was the Rite of Spring, which premiered on May 29, 1913 (Walsh 2001). This time the choreography was done by Vaslav Nijinsky. This ballet was initially not well-received because of the jarring nature of Nijinsky’s choreography. One of the misconceptions about this ballet is that there was a riot at the premiere (perhaps it should have been called The “Riot” of Spring); however, while there was indeed great dissatisfaction at the premiere, it is unlikely that a riot occurred.

   There are two general themes that can be seen in these three ballets. First, all three of these ballets used larger orchestras and more elaborate music than normal. Usually ballet music is straightforward and subservient to the choreography. While this is somewhat the case for these three ballets, the music is more complex and almost equal to the dancers on stage. That is why these three Stravinsky pieces, despite being originally for ballet, can be successfully performed as suites (i.e., just the music, no dance or costumes).

   Second, all three of these evoke a sense of Russian nationalism since they draw upon the region’s folklore (folk songs, dress, stories, etc.). This was an interesting choice on their part, as Russia itself was going through a political identity crisis at the time, transitioning from a Tsarist system through revolution and government reforms. However, these nationalistic, folkloric aspects cannot be as easily discerned in the suite versions of these pieces, apart from melodies.

   Because of these embedded meanings, it is important to understand that Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring was originally written for a multimodal experience, not just the orchestral concert hall. For example, you’ve likely already experienced two of these in an audio-visual context: Disney’s Fantasia incorporates part of Rite of Spring, and Fantasia 2000 uses some of The Firebird. You’ll notice that both scenes use fire, a fitting visual representation of the energetic, powerful nature of Stravinsky’s scores for these ballets.

   It was these three ballets that helped Stravinsky go on to write music for other productions like Pulcinella. Before you listen to the Pulcinella suite at our Masterworks II concert, read the program notes carefully. Can you pick up on how the music was written in conjunction with the plot?

Written by Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)

References:

Harris-Warrick, Rebecca, Noël Goodwin, and John Percival. 2001. “Ballet.” Oxford Music Online.

Joseph, Charles M. 1999. “Diaghilev and Stravinsky.” In The Ballet Russes and Its World, edited by Lynn Garafola and Nancy Van Norman Baer, 189-218. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Joseph, Charles M. 2011. Stravinsky’s Ballets. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Schouvaloff, Alexander, and Victor Borovsky. 1982. Stravinsky on Stage. London: Stainer & Bell Ltd.

Walsh, Stephen. 2001. “Stravinsky, Igor (Fyodorovich).” Oxford Music Online.

Ástor Piazzolla & Tango

    Tango originally came from (at least in its Argentine form) brothels of the Buenos Aires working class (Moore and Clark 2012, 296). Male European immigrants in Argentina had to compete for women, so they danced to attract potential partners. Tango combines older Latin dances (zarzuela, habanera, candombe, milonga) and European ones (polka, waltz). The upper-classes of Argentina, France, and other European nations were unable to resist tango’s allure. Eventually, the bulk of society was drawn in by this innovative and festive dance:  the film Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) and musician Carlos Gardel especially helped popularize the tango (Gorin 2001, 15). As tango became more mainstream, Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) went on to be a master of tango. Starting in the 1950s, tango took a more radical turn, largely because of Piazzolla. While doing this, he retained tango’s…

…poignancy and lyricism while rejecting its tendencies toward sentimentality and bouts of morbid self-pity. He revised its harmonic language by incorporating influences of Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy, Giacomo Puccini, and Olivier Messiaen, as well as the occasional nod to the cool jazz of Mulligan and Lennie Tristano. He moved away from the dance floor but infused the music with a new vitality by using three-part fugues, a walking bass, jazz-style improvisation, and urgent, brutish accents in echoes of Béla Bartók (Gorin 2001, 16).

    This description might seem eclectic, but it can be explained by his exposure to various styles. Piazzolla was an avid traveler and in turn absorbed a plethora of musical forms. He mainly went between four cities: New York, New York; Paris, France; Mar del Plata, Argentina; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Signs of talent and strong musical appetite became apparent unusually early. During his childhood in New York, he studied and gigged with local Argentine-American musicians, most notably the tango superstar Carlos Gardel (Azzi and Collier 2000, 12-15). But Piazzolla’s full immersion into tango truly began in Argentina. For example, he was an apprentice under respected tango band leader Aníbal Troilo (Azzi and Collier 2000, 24-25). 

    But, brimming with ideas and ripe to innovate, Piazzolla was no longer content under the tutelage of other composers. He was ready to display his own musical acumen. Piazzolla began to form his own ensembles, starting with Orquesta Típica de Astor Piazzolla in 1946 (Azzi and Collier 2000, 37). He would continue to lead small groups of tango musicians (duos, trios, etc.) for the rest of his career. Part of what made his ensembles pleasantly innovative were the arrangements and structures of his music, which harken back to his classical music training. He developed many of these skills during his lessons with the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, which is no small achievement: she taught many other classical composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and others.

    While talented, Piazzolla did face many challenges with his radical approaches to tango. For example, he formed an octet to perform and spread jazz-tango, which sparked a cultural war between the anti-piazzollistas (fans of traditional tango) and piazzollistas (supporters of his nuevo tango). The group’s use of electric guitar, a non-traditional tango instrument, sent many tango-puritans ablaze and crusading: Piazzolla even received death threats over this octet (Azzi and Collier 2000, 58-60). Another instrument that he emphasized, which also sparked fierce backlash, was the bandoneón, the first of which he received from his dad at eight years old (Azzi and Collier 2000, 8). The bandoneón (which you can hear at our Masterworks III concert) is similar to  the accordion. Think of tango’s diverse strands of influence as you listen to Piazzolla’s concerto at our concert. See if you can hear how it fits together like a puzzle—identify the tango, classical, jazz, and other components.

Written by Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)

References:

Azzi, María Susana, and Simon Collier. 2000. Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gorin, Natalio. 2001. Astor Piazzolla: A Memoir. Translated, annotated, and expanded by Fernando Gonzalez. Portland: Amadeus Press.

Moore, Robin, and Walter Aaron Clark. 2012. Musics of Latin America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Why You Should Disconnect and Relax with the Atlantic Classical Orchestra

   Each day, our world is getting more and more connected. Everything around us high-tech and “smart”, and we are constantly in a state of sensory overload. We are all multi-taskers – answering e-mails, taking calls, and listening to music on our wireless headphones at the same time. We can reach each other from across the globe instantly and we are always thinking about the next thing. Can you think of the last time you let all of that go to experience just one thing for just thirty minutes? You should give an Atlantic Classical Orchestra concert a try. Here’s why:

The ACO brings the magnificent sound of untouched strings directly to the Treasure Coast.

 

   The music is stripped down to the core, and the beauty comes from the 200 year old instruments that don’t require anything extra to make their rich, vibrant, and beautiful sound. There is no amplification, no plugs or speakers. It is a different kind of sensory overload, one that is valuable, special, and far and few between today. What you may not expect but will come to learn at an ACO concert is the wonderful energy you will experience by being there. A piece takes 30 minutes to play, and in this connected world it is nice to share that experience with several hundred other people. “That experience has human value,” Music Director David Amado shares, “It forces you to just let go – you have to learn to just let go and sink into the moment. Where it takes you is where it takes you. It’s your own experience yet you are sharing in it with several hundred other people in the room.” You will leave feeling mesmerized, in awe, and refreshed. This is energy and art in it’s purest form, and you won’t want to miss it. To experience the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, attend one of their Masterworks concerts this season. More information can be found at www.atlanticclassicalorchestra.com .

If Beethoven was deaf, how did he compose?

Although Beethoven was known for being deaf, there is a big misconception about his disability. Beethoven was, indeed, deaf, but for the majority of his life he had perfect hearing. In fact, it wasn’t until he was 30 years old that his hearing started to diminish. By that time, he had already composed many piano concerts, six string quartets and had even composed his first symphony. Luckily, the loss of his hearing was a slow process, which allowed Beethoven to continue composing music. Since he had played and listened to music for the first three decades of his life, he was extremely familiar with how he wanted music to sound. 

His hearing ability dwindled over the next few years, and unfortunately he lost all of his hearing by the age of 44. However, his intuition was strong, and he had a strong memory. He was still able to recognize and imagine how music should sound! Beethoven’s earlier works were composed using a full range of frequencies, but in his later works, lower notes were used. This was due to his hearing loss. As his hearing began to fail, he started to use notes that he was able to hear more clearly. He still continued to use higher notes in his compositions, and towards the end of his career he began using them again. It is said that towards the end of his career, he was relying exclusively on his imagination, therefore using higher notes once more.

Just How Big Were Rachmaninoff’s Hands?

Sergei Rachmaninoff was a Russian pianist, conductor and composer. He began playing piano at a young age and created his first Piano Concerto when he was only 18 years old! He is arguably one of the most famous and talented in classical music.

Perhaps what makes Rachmaninov stand alone 
in his ability were his unusually large hands. 

Yes, you read that right. Rachmaninov is well known for the size of his hands. His large-sized hands allowed him to play the piano almost unlike anyone else. It is believed that he had the largest hands in classical music, making him able to reach 13 piano keys from his pinky finger to the tip of his thumb. His incredibly large span length makes his pieces quite a challenge to play by those who aren’t expert piano players. His impressive range only makes him that much more of an impressive artist!