Program notes written for Ithaca College Symphony Orchestra’s concert on February 5, 2017.
Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 16 (Grieg)
Grieg was only 24 years-old when he composed this concerto—the only concerto he completed in his life. It was premiered in Copenhagen on April 3, 1869, and a months later, it was premiered in his own country in Oslo, Norway. Like many composers before him, Grieg never quite finished the work, revising it throughout his career until he died. At least seven discrete revisions exist, and the one you are hearing today comes from the last of those revisions comprising of hundreds of changes, including the ones Franz Liszt recommended to Grieg when he presented the piece to the revered master. This concerto is also the first piano concerto to have been recorded, and it remains as one of the most popular both for audiences and performers.
At the beginning of the movement, grand gestures stretching the entire dynamic range of the timpani and the pitch range of the piano are juxtaposed with intimate, sweeping melodies. The rhythmic march-like statement from the woodwinds that follow are engulfed by the lyricism of the strings, and Grieg never allows the pianist and the orchestra to find a routine moment. It is only after the marshalling of the trumpets that an abridged version of the familiar returns. Grieg’s rhapsodic cadenza brings the movement to a close.
Grieg breaks the conventional structure of the sonata form (the typical template of most first-movements in symphonies, concertos, and sonatas) in this movement. The tightly knit sonata-form is refreshed by Grieg’s usage of the mediant rather than the dominant as the second key area, much like what Beethoven did in his Waldstein Sonata among others.
The Firebird Suite (1919)
The Firebird put Igor Stravinsky on the map when it was premiered at the Paris Opera in 1910. When Diaghilev, one of the most established concert producers of his time, first heard Stravinsky’s music, Stravinsky was an unknown talent who had only published three works, the Symphony in E-flat, Scherzo fantastique (the Fantastic Scherzo), and Feu d’artifice (Fireworks). He had been a private student of Rimsky-Korsakov. Even though not being at the conservatoire diminished his opportunities, Stravinsky found luck when Diaghilev attended a concert which included Stravinsky’s Feu d’artifice. It was that piece that impressed Diaghilev enough to commission the young composer to orchestrate some music for an upcoming ballet production. Later, when Diaghilev’s composer withdrew from Diaghilev’s project to bring Russian ballet to Western audiences, the young Stravinsky was signed on to compose the music. The result of that project, The Firebird, was also the first ballet staged by Diaghilev (who later produced the Rite of Spring) that used only all-new music.
The original ballet from 1910 runs for approximately 45 minutes, which is a little over the twice the length of the suite being performed today which is from 1919. In the 1940s, Stravinsky began to detest his own earlier style and removed most of the bits from the original ballet that he considered superfluous, or in his own words, “patchy,” to form the 1945 suite.
The story was written by Alexandre Benois and Michel Fokine (the choreographer), and while it borrows a character from established Russian folklore (a magical glowing bird that can either curse or become a blessing), the story of the ballet is unique. The 1919 suite, the suite being performed today, is the shortest of the three versions, and in essense, is an abridged version of the suite from 1945 Today’s performance includes the following scenes from the original:
Introduction: Stravinsky paints the scenery of this magical realm.
Dance of the Firebird: Firebird almost gets caught by Prince Ivan!
Firebird’s Variation: Firebird flees Prince Ivan in the forest.
The Princesses’ Khorovod: The 13 princess whom have been kidnapped by Katchei dance in a round. Prince Ivan falls in love with one of them.
Infernal Dance of King Katchei: The Firebird enchants King Katchei and his minions into a frenzy of possessed dancing. (Previously, Katchei had captured Prince Ivan. And, Prince Ivan, having caught and freed the Firebird earlier in exchange for a future favor, requested the Firebird’s help.)
Berceuse (“Lullaby”): The exhausted King Katchei and his minions fall asleep. This allows Prince Ivan to find and destroy King Katchei’s immortal soul in an egg hidden deep inside the forest.
Finale: As evident by this movement’s original title (“Disappearance of Katchei’s Palace and Magical Creations, Return to Life of the Petrified Knights, General Rejoicing”), the mood is celebratory, and everyone is rejoicing their freedom from Katchei.