Program Notes: Stravinsky’s Firebird + Clarinet Star Anthony McGill

June 13, 2022

Flying On the Scaly Backs of Our Mountains (world premiere commission)

Wang Jie
Born 1980 in Shanghai

The composer has supplied the following note:

Sometime between 1050 and 1100 AD, the celebrated polymath Su Dongpo traveled, journaled, and left few minds unstirred for centuries to come. “The true face of Mount Lu is lost to my sight, for it is right in this mountain that I reside.”

Travel poetry during his time radiated metaphors. They were never just about the scenery. This poem concluded that the decision to live “in” a mountain risks losing the sight of the true face. Maybe it’s also the big picture. I struggle with this idea.

Dongpo also lived during a time when being a polymath meant fame and glory. Today, he has a Wikipedia page in twenty-four languages. The list of his achievements goes on: calligrapher, gastronome, painter, pharmacologist, poet, politician, and writer. Moreover, he was a notoriously strong personality in all parts of public life. Unlike today, they used to dig big personalities, those Chinese living in the Song Dynasty. Reverence and envy aside, I suspect one thing about him most people haven’t thought about.

He didn’t rock climb. I do that. He didn’t feel the true faces of the mountain under his fingertips. I feel that – all the wrinkle and dimple as the mountain releases its past to the little me.

There is nothing we rock climbers wouldn’t sacrifice to lose ourselves right “in” the mountains, groove upward, and top out. Nothing. Not even life. When we succeed, we get to watch from above, a nod of approval from mother earth. The true face reflective of a universe bigger than the biggest picture men can ever dream of.

With Eldorado Canyon as my courage, I’d like to add a verse to Dongpo’s legendary poem:

The true face of Mount Lu is lost to my sight, For it is right in this
mountain that I reside.

Our spirit resides at the summit,
For it is the only place that we fly,
On the scaly backs of our mountains.
The truth unleashes from the sky.


Clarinet Concerto No. 1 in F Minor, Op. 73

Carl Maria von Weber
Born November 18, 1786, in Eutin; died June 5, 1826, in London

Weber, the first great German Romantic composer, had a direct influence on Wagner and even on Strauss and Mahler, yet his own music had its roots in the 18th-century Viennese classicists. His first teacher, his older brother, had studied with Joseph Haydn. He studied with Haydn’s younger brother Michael in Salzburg. 

In 1811, Weber spent several months in Munich, where the first clarinetist in the court orchestra, Heinrich Bärmann (1784-1847), impressed him greatly. Weber called Bärmann was “a truly great artist and a splendid man.” On April 3, 1811, Weber completed a clarinet concertino, and on April 5th Bärmann gave it its first performance. The King found the music so pleasing that he immediately commissioned two clarinet concertos from Weber that he completed in April and May. As the story goes, Weber wrote the first movement of Concerto No. 1, and even orchestrated it, in a single day! 

The concerto follows a conventional three-movement form. The dramatic first movement, Allegro, although it follows sonata form, unusually gives the first theme to the orchestra and only the second one to the soloist. The cellos introduce the first subject which is based on a rising and descending minor triad, while the clarinetist introduces the poignant second theme, con duolo. Bärmann’s cadenza comes soon after a return of the opening theme. The short recapitulation brings back the initial theme before the clarinet plays some sparklingly brilliant virtuosic runs. The movement subsides quietly and somewhat mysteriously. 

The central movement, Adagio ma non troppo, strongly contrasts with the preceding movement; it is very lyrical, with its aria-like solo lines played over rocking string chords. A more dramatic central section intervenes to disturb the calm songfulness, but only temporarily, as a passage of remarkable beauty for the soloist and horns intervenes. The lyrical opening theme returns before the soloist and horns bring the movement to a gentle close. 

The last movement, a spirited, dance-like rondo, Allegretto, gives the soloist plenty of opportunities for virtuosic display. The episodes provide interesting contrasts. The first is in a minor key, and recalls, slightly, the turbulent first movement. The second episode contains a delightful dialogue between the oboe and the soloist. The work concludes in a lively, optimistic mood. 

The accompanying orchestra includes two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. 


Première Rhapsodie for clarinet and orchestra

Claude Debussy
Born August 22, 1862, in St. Germain; died March 25, 1918, in Paris

In 1909, Debussy was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Music Section of the Paris Conservatory; he composed two test pieces for its clarinet competition of 1910. One was this Rhapsody, which all contestants were required to prepare. The other was a Petite Pièce, which was to be read at sight. Debussy originally composed both with piano accompaniment and later orchestrated the rhapsody.

Debussy once described the Clarinet Rhapsody as “one of the most pleasing pieces I have ever written.” The composer-conductor Pierre Boulez finds it “hesitating between reverie and scherzo, very much the work of Debussy at ease. The virtuosity [of the solo part] is not the kind that shows itself off in a vainglorious way, nevertheless [there are] a good number of snares for the soloist, all in good humor. He can also demonstrate refinements of tone and phrasing with the dreamy, slow melodies.”


Firebird Suite (1919)

Igor Stravinsky
Born June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum, Russia; died April 6, 1971, in New York City, NY

When the great impresario Sergei Diaghilev was planning a ballet on the old Russian legend of the Firebird for his 1910 Paris season, he commissioned a score from the composer Anatoly Liadov (1855-1914). Three months later, when Liadov was asked how the work was progressing, he replied, “Marvelously! I’ve already bought the music paper.” Impatient at the unexpected delay, Diaghilev withdrew the commission, and late in the summer of 1909, decided to give it instead to Igor Stravinsky. The year before, Diaghilev had heard two of Stravinsky’s early orchestral works; subsequently, he gave him some orchestration assignments and liked what he did with them. Diaghilev was quite certain that the young composer could handle the responsibility of writing an original score for a new ballet.

Stravinsky was a bit nervous about the commission because the music had to be ready so quickly. He immediately set to work and completed the score in May in time for the première at the Paris Opera on June 25, 1910. Thus began the Stravinsky-Diaghilev association that led later to the creation of Petrushka, the Rite of Spring, Le Rossignol, and Pulcinella.

In the 1960s, Stravinsky recollected, “Like all ‘story’ ballets, [The Firebird] demanded ‘descriptive’ music of a kind I did not want to write. Some years later, I asked [Debussy] what he really thought of The Firebird. He said, ‘What difference does it make? You had to begin with something.’ Honest but not flattering. The Parisian audience wanted a taste of avant-garde, Ravel said, and The Firebird was, according to Ravel, just that. To this I would add that while it is more vigorous than most of the ‘composed’ folk music of the period, it is also not too original — good conditions for a success. I was prouder of some of the orchestration than of the music itself. The Firebird has been a mainstay in my life as a conductor. I made my debut with it in 1915 in Paris, and since then I have performed it nearly a thousand times, though ten thousand would not erase the memory of the terror I suffered that first time.”

Diaghilev’s lush 1910 production of The Firebird allowed Stravinsky to score the ballet for a huge orchestra, giving the young composer a rich palette of musical colors with which to paint his pictures. In 1911, the composer drew a suite of excerpts from the successful ballet, but later, fearing that the expense of engaging so many musicians was preventing the piece from being performed, he prepared a shorter suite of excerpts for a smaller orchestra. The shorter version is the popular 1919 Suite. Stravinsky’s remarkable orchestration for The Firebird, even in the reduced orchestration of the 1919 Suite, creates sounds that are quite astonishing and marvelous, foretelling what would come later in Stravinsky’s oeuvre. 

The scenario of The Firebird tells the story of the Firebird, who, with Prince Ivan’s help, struggles against the evil magician, Kashchei. Interestingly enough, many considered the composition of the twenty-seven-year-old Stravinsky to be musically so interesting that it could be better appreciated in concert performance without having to deal with the distraction of the complicated events that take place on the stage when the work is danced. Nevertheless, even when listening to the music without seeing the ballet, it is helpful to know the story on which the music is based. 

Prince Ivan finds himself one night wandering through the garden of King Kashchei, an evil magician and monarch whose power is contained in a magic egg that he keeps in an elegant box. While in Kashchei’s garden, Prince Ivan captures a Firebird, but is willing to spare the bird’s life if it gives him one of its magic tail feathers. The Firebird submits, willingly. The Prince continues onward and encounters thirteen enchanted princesses. The most beautiful of them, who has fallen under Kashchei’s spell, leads him to a place where Kashchei’s evil guards can capture him. Before he can be enchanted, the Prince uses the power of the magic tail feather to summon the Firebird. The Firebird reveals the secret of the magic egg from which Kashchei derives his power. The Prince is able to locate and destroy the egg, breaking the spell of evil enchantment. He can now marry the Princess, who is no longer in thrall to Kashchei.

The suite opens with the low strings introducing Kashchei’s magical realm. The sudden trembling (tremolo) of the string section announces the arrival of the Firebird. In depicting the Firebird, Stravinsky’s use of chromatic lines helps create the shimmering sound that indicates the firebird’s glittering feathers. Trills further depict the firebird.

Stravinsky uses syncopation to help create the sense of the bird’s movement in the Firebird’s Dance to variations on a Russian song. The Princess Khorovod movement, which follows, brings calm. The prince sees the princess with whom he is destined to fall in love; high woodwinds punctuate her dance. He also watches the young women performing folk dances, including the Khorovod, a round dance.

Next comes the Infernal Dance of King Kashchei. In his dance, Kashchei and his retinue are forced to dance themselves into exhaustion. In this savage dance, Stravinsky incorporates simultaneous combinations of different rhythms to bring forth an unsettling and disorienting effect as well as to suggest general frenzy. 

In the Berceuse, a tender lullaby, a solo violin is highlighted. As the Firebird lulls the monsters to sleep, both the sound of the bassoon and soft, diminishing string tremolos enhance the effect. Finally, after a solo horn plays a folk tune, there is a prominent harp glissando. With the evil spells broken, the Finale depicts a stunning wedding processional for the Prince and his Princess with all the instruments joining together to celebrate the union and to conclude this brilliantly orchestrated fantasy. 

The Firebird Suite is scored for two flutes (one doubling piccolo), two oboes (one doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, xylophone, harp, piano (doubling celeste), and strings.

Program notes © Susan Halpern unless otherwise noted.

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