published on Ars Musica website July 14, 2012
FEINGOLD ON STRAVINSKY
The first ballet my mother took me to see was the Firebird. If she had taken me to see The Nutcracker like all the other mothers, conceivably I’d now be writing about Tchaikovsky.
In my early teens, I was fortunate to watch some of the great collaborations of Balanchine and Stravinsky such as Agon and Orpheus. In fact I did not really listen to the music as separate from the ballet. At that time, they were fused into one entity.
Fast forward a few years. I am now in college, taking a music history course. That was when I bought my first Stravinsky recording. Of course, it was the Symphony of Psalms.I played it over and over—my habit with music that I really like—until it became engraved in my memory where it still resides today, a good many years later. Only this year I will be able to sing it. Will wonders ever cease!
Stravinsky is considered one of the most important composers of the 20th century.
Born in 1882 in Orienbaum, the site of an 18th-century park and palace complex near St. Petersburg, in later life Stravinsky lived in Switzerland and then America.
He began piano lessons as a young boy, and is said to have composed at the piano. After a short period in law school, in deference to his parents’ wishes, he was deep into studies of music with Rimsky-Korsakov. In 1909, he was discovered by Diaghilev and together they began a famous and important collaboration. Diaghilev presented the Russian opera and ballet in Paris. Stravinsky spent a lot of time in Europe to work with him and was there at the outbreak of WWI. Events were such that he didn’t return to Russia for half a century.
Stravinsky’s ballets for Diaghilev did not follow in the tradition of Tchaikovsky. They challenged the formal, rhythmic and harmonic conventions then current. Even the music of the Firebird, which now sounds relatively tame to our 21st-century ears, was so disturbing to Pavlova that she refused to dance it. It was not his dissonance, however, as much as his rhythmic complexity that troubled most of the dancers of the Ballets Russes. When dancing The Rite of Spring they made peace with his rhythms as best they could.
A creative genius always looks for new ways in which to express himself. Stravinsky moved to a neoclassical style in the early 1920s. Symphony of Psalms was composed in this period.
Symphony of Psalms
In 1930, Serge Kussevitzsky commissioned a symphony to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra which resulted in the composition of theSymphony of Psalms.
Gabriel Paichadze, his publisher, wanted an orchestral piece without chorus, “… something popular”; but Stravinsky had had the idea of a psalm symphony in his mind for some time, and that was what he insisted on composing (Craft,Dialogues*).
“He decided to choose ‘a choral and instrumental ensemble in which the two elements should be on an equal footing, neither of them outweighing the other’”(Craft, Chronology*).
This colorful example of the manuscript shows that Stravinsky did some extensive revision!
- The first performance of the symphony was in Europe, Société Philharmonique de Bruxelles, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, 13 December 1930, conducted by Ernest Ansermet.
- First performance in America, Boston Symphony Orchestra Boston, 19 December 1930, conducted by Serge Koussevitzky.
In his chorus of mixed voices, SATB, he preferred that children sing the soprano and alto parts, if possible.
Stravinsky’s orchestration was always very different from that of the Russian 19th-century composers who preceded him. In Symphony of Psalms, the orchestra, though large, has no violins, violas or clarinets. The instruments he chose were
5 Flutes (one doubling Piccolo), 4 Oboes, Cor Anglais, 3 Bassoons, Contra Bassoon
4 Horns in F, Trumpet in D, 4 Trumpets in C, Bass trombone, Tuba
Timpani, Bass drum, 2 pianos
Harp, Cellos, Double Bass
This size of this orchestra allows for many doublings of parts which produce a very rich sound.
A Note on the Third Movement
Stravinsky wrote the third movement of this work first. For the text, Psalm 150, we have the many ways in which the Lord can be praised. As a poem of continuous praise, one might have expected continuously serene music. But Stravinsky chose to portray the praise of God’s power, might and greatness by letting the orchestra take off dramatically, using it as an entity in itself.
The Lord’s might having been properly extolled, he came back to a slow invocation of the many musical metaphors found in this Psalm for expressing praise—with timbrel and dance, with stringed instruments and organs, with the high sounding cymbals—until the listener aches for the resolution of the final “Alleluia Laudate, laudate, laudate Dominum.”
This juxtaposition of the tranquil and the dramatic is reminiscent of what Leonard Bernstein does in the second movement of his Chichester Psalms. In it, Bernstein interrupts the lyrical The Lord is My Shepherd with a dramatic whirlwind of Psalm 2: Why do the heathens rage?” Stravinsky, always economical, achieves this contrast within the framework of a single Psalm.
After the Symphony of Psalms
During his later years in Paris, Stravinsky had developed professional relationships with key people in the United States: he was already working on his Symphony in C for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A few months after WWII broke out in September 1939, he moved to the United States.
Stravinsky had started working with Balanchine, one of Diaghilev’s protégés, as early as 1928. This collaboration culminated in the New York City Ballet productions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, which was where I encountered them. By the time Stravinsky wrote Agon, his rhythms were very much attuned to the dance.
In the 1950s, Stravinsky began writing serial compositions, some of which used the twelve-tone technique originally devised by Arnold Schönberg. As always, his made this technique his own. No one would possibly have attributed his serial compositions to Schönberg or Webern.
Stravinsky’s reputation in Russia and the USSR rose and fell. Performances of his music were banned from around 1933 until 1962, the year Khrushchev invited him to the USSR for an official state visit. In 1972, an official proclamation by the Soviet Minister of Culture ordered Soviet musicians to “study and admire” Stravinsky’s music and she made hostility toward it a potential offence.
*Robert Craft is an American conductor and writer. He is best known for his intimate working friendship with Igor Stravinsky a relationship which resulted in a number of recordings and books.
August 30, 2015
published in http://www.susanjfeingold.com
“Finding Franz” a review by Susan J Feingold
A concert of miniatures
On Sunday afternoon, Aug. 30, 2015, Tim Krol, Lyric Baritone, sang a number of short lieder written by the 19-th century German composer Robert Franz (1815-1892).
Another lieder composer? Nineteenth century lieder composers wrote about similar subjects, setting poems written often by the same poets. However for those of us who love lieder, another composer, whose songs stand up to comparison with Schubert and Schumann, can only be welcomed.
Tim gave us some background on Franz who just set any poem that interested him. He did not make order among them. So Tim made his own order, and it stood the audience in good stead.
We went from ‘Nature and Longing’, to ‘Darkening Skies and Storms’, my favorite. I enjoyed Franz’s dramatic songs the most.
The concert ended with Robert Franz’s Greatest Hits, songs you can actually find on YouTube. Not, I might add, with the exquisite interpretation heard in this concert.
Mrs. Franz, we found out, had been a composer herself, but stopped writing upon her marriage. Tim imagined her looking over Robert’s shoulder and participating in that way!
For Tim Krol and Michael Hey, accompanist, Bravi!!
Laura Bozzone’s dramatic reading of the poems enhanced the music for those of us who are not fluent in German.
A Note on Miniatures:
Franz’s accompaniments were often quite simple, but effective. However, some of the songs ended too abruptly for me. The accompaniment ended with the end of the poem, leaving the listener a little stranded, waiting for closure to be provided by the piano, which was not always forthcoming. As composer myself, I took careful note of this!
Tim put his soul as well as his heart into his interpretations. Not every singer can sing lieder. I know of one world famous operatic tenor who attempted it and just did not “get it”. Tim is a natural and I hope this will not be his last lieder concert.
February 25, 2016
Kattie Zaffran: A Wedding Anxiety Cabaret Reviewed by Susan J Feingold
Katie Zaffran on the anxiety of marriage – in all of its ridiculosity! from Plath to e-harmony, to arranged Hindu marriages (the stress is on the parents:) From marriage barbies to the crazies. (You were at my dress rehearsal?) Katie is one sensational songstress. Captivating! absolutely! (She wants to be a mutha who is also a mutha- complicated!) We loved her and wanted More! So we sang along with “Love & Marriage” and after 2 drinks I hit the high notes without any problem;-)