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Stravinsky's Stage Works

A soldier
Key works

  • The Firebird (L'Oiseau de Feu)
  • Petrushka
  • The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps)
  • Le Rossignol (The Nightingale)
  • Renard
  • A Soldier's Tale (Histoire du Soldat)
  • Pulcinella
  • Mavra
  • Oedipus Rex
  • Apollo (Apollon Musagète)
  • The Fairy's Kiss
  • Perséphone
  • Orpheus
  • Danses Concertantes
  • The Rake's Progress
  • Agon
  • The Flood

Music for the stage dominated Stravinsky's career. In particular the ballet was central to his output from the day Diaghilev commissioned him to create The Firebird. The ballets were created throughout Stravinsky's first, Russian, period and his neoclassical period but were missing from his twelve-note period with the single exception of Agon (1957). A great many of them have found further life in the concert hall as standard repertoire classics and it is likely that a work such as The Rite of Spring is more often heard in the concert hall than in the theatre.

The Firebird (L'Oiseau de feu, 1910), Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps, 1913) are the three great ballets which confirmed Stravinsky's status as the new composer to watch in the years before World War 1. They show a rich development in just three years, from the glittering orchestral showmanship influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov in The Firebird through experiments with bitonality (two keys at once) in Petrushka to the full-blown avant-gardism of The Rite of Spring.

The theme representing the puppet Petrushka consists of arpeggios (broken chords) using the chords of C major and F sharp simultaneously. This effectively represents the apparent dual nature of the puppet-hero in the ballet - is he just a lump of wood or does he have human passions?

In The Rite of Spring this experimentalism was taken even further. The thumping string chords punctuated by reinforcement on the horns that open the Dances of the Young Girls (No 2) are really using the orchestra like a percussion instrument. The chords are built out of a chord on E and a chord on E flat sounded together. The melodies are short phrases repeated hypnotically. Throughout Stravinsky experiments with rhythm, changing time signatures and putting emphasis on "off-beats". In the final Sacrificial Dance this is taken to extremes, the time signature changing bar by bar, many unorthodox signatures (eg 5/16) being used, and emphasis thrown on the off-beats even within this complicated structure. The result is a whirlwind of exultant rhythmic invention which must have caused headaches for the first orchestras to perform it, as well as the dancers of the Ballets Russes.

Pulcinella was the ballet which signalled most clearly Stravinsky's move into his neoclassical period. It is based on music by Pergolesi but with plenty of rhythmic and harmonic quirks. It marks a period when Stravinsky worked with some of the leading talents of the day, in this case with Picasso providing the scenery, the choreographer Massine creating the libretto and steps and the premiere conducted by Ansermet. The ballet is scored for chamber orchestra with three vocal parts and there is a shorter Pulcinella Suite without voices.

In 1927 a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation allowed Stravinsky to carry out an idea he had harboured for some time, a completely classical ballet. Apollo (formerly Apollon Musagète, 1928) is his most calm and serene work, written for strings and featuring no conflict or upheaval. The birth of Apollo is shown and followed by nine allegorical dances for him and three of the muses. The choreography for the European premiere was by George Balanchine.

The Fairy's Kiss (Le baiser de la fée, 1928) is based on a Hans Christian Anderson story, The Ice Maiden, and "inspired by the music of Tchaikovsky". "A fairy imprints her magic kiss on a child at birth and parts it from its mother. Twenty years later, when the youth has attained the very zenith of his good fortune, she repeats the fatal kiss and carries him off to live in supreme happiness with her ever afterward." The music might be described as stripped-down Tchaikovsky, with a sprinkling of 1920s dissonance and a touch of Stravinsky's characteristic aloofness.

Perséphone (1933-4) is a curious hybrid work created in collaboration with André Gide. Stravinsky described it as a 'Melodrama in three scenes for tenor, mixed chorus, children's choir and orchestra'. Perséphone is played by a female speaker. At the climax she descends to the underworld and becomes Pluto's bride. This gives her the power to bring Spring back to earth. A tenor singer, Eumpolpus, acts as a listeners' guide. There are chorus numbers, sometimes with the tenor, orchestral interludes and verbal outbursts by Perséphone. Danses Concertantes (1942) is a more abstract ballet with choreography by Balanchine which is nowadays more familiar in the concert hall.

Apollo returns in Orpheus (1948), a Balanchine ballet and one of Stravinsky's last neoclassical works. In this version of the story Balanchine's choreography is an allegory about the immortality of art. Orpheus, whose song can charm the king of the underworld, reclaims his beloved Eurydice from Hades, loses her and is attacked by vengeful bacchantes. But art is eternal, and it is Apollo, Orpheus's father, who here introduces the symbols of rebirth, a vine rising with a lyre.

Agon (1957), Stravinsky's final ballet, represents a significant step on his route towards serialism. The composition was stretched out over a number of years, during which the composer became increasingly interested in Schoenberg and Webern's methods of composition. This probably explains why the beginning and end are tonal and modal, whilst the central section is twelve-note music. The choreography was again by Balanchine.

Stravinsky's relationship with the world of opera was always unorthodox and he created as many strange and experimental works as he did in other genres. The only full-scale "conventional" opera he produced was The Rake's Progress (1951). Based on a series of engravings by William Hogarth, with libretto by W H Auden and Chester Kallman, it tells the story of the downfall of Tom Rakewell, assisted by his nemesis, Nick Shadow. It is Stravinsky's final large work in the neoclassical style and is a "number" opera in the 18th century manner, but full of dissonance, bitonality and all the other effects Stravinsky used in his middle years.

He first turned to opera following his three great ballets, and his lifelong affection for the work of Hans Christian Anderson led him to choose Le Rossignol (The Nightingale, 1914) as his first opera. He had made a start on this short (45 minute) "Lyric Tale" before The Firebird and this means that the first act is not quite in the same style as the other two. The Emperor invites the Nightingale to sing at his court and is entranced. But a rival, mechanical nightingale drives the bird away. Only on the Emperor's deathbed does the nightingale return, persuading, through her beautiful song, Death herself to allow the Emperor to live.

Renard (1916) is described as a burlesque in which the action is mimed whilst the dialogue is sung by four voices placed amongst the tiny orchestra. The vain cock is twice persuaded by the fox (disguised as a nun) to come down from his perch but each time he is rescued by his friends, the cat and the ram.

The Soldier's Tale (1918) is not an opera but it can be seen as a pioneer of what has come to be called music-theatre. It is created on a tiny scale using only seven instrumentalists, two actors, a dancer and a narrator. The soldier trades his fiddle for a book that foretells what will happen in the economy. After regaining the fiddle and winning a princess (the dancer) he loses it again and realises too late its great value. The music for the fiddle player is extremely virtuosic.

Mavra (1922) is an opera buffa based on a Pushkin poem set in suburban St Petersburg. It was not a great success at its premiere and has been little seen since, despite Stravinsky's faith in the work. Oedipus Rex (1927), by contrast, has become a great success despite its unconventionalities. It is short and thus must be played as part of a double bill. It is sung in Latin but each number is introduced by a narrator in the language of the country of performance. It is very static (it is described as an opera-oratorio) and thus does not lend itself to dramatic presentation, though this does mean it can easily be presented in a concert hall. The libretto is by Jean Cocteau based on Oedipus Tyrranus by Sophocles. It is monumental and stark, an ancient heroic tragedy presented within an old ritualistic convention.

Stravinsky's final operatic work is The Flood (1962), a twelve-note "musical play" originally conceived for television. It tells the familiar biblical story of Noah in highly condensed form (it lasts only 23 minutes or so) and features dancing, a narrator, some sung roles and some spoken, a chorus and a large orchestra.

© Kevin Stephens/BBC

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