About the Work
Even as a student, Claude Debussy’s music was condemned for “vague
impressionism,” what Debussy’s conservatory
teachers believed to be “one of the most dangerous enemies of works of art.”
This particular rebuke came while he was composing in Rome. As a winner
of the coveted Prix de Rome, Debussy was obliged to write four works for academic
approval, one of which was the completed piano score of his Printemps. Intended by Debussy as music
“covering a great range of feelings,” the evocative two-part piece personified
for the French composer the “joy of being born into a new time” after the “slow
miserable death of Nature.”
But Debussy’s teachers didn’t approve. And his experience in Rome—even surrounded
by the city’s commanding scenery and the palatial Villa Medici—was anything but
joyful. He found his musical colleagues to be affected and the creative
environment oppressive. Shortly after completing Printemps, Debussy left the three-year scholarship program early,
thus setting up an irrevocable break with the musical academic world.
Debussy had planned Printemps for
orchestra and humming chorus. It’s believed that this scored version was
destroyed in a bindery fire in Rome. In 1912, many years after Debussy
abandoned his early student effort, he
worked with the French conductor, composer, and Gounod protégé Henri
Büsser in re-orchestrating (minus chorus) the piano score. Printemps thus became the earliest orchestral work by Debussy to
have entered the repertoire.
For Debussy’s critics, impressionism
was a catch-all term for music that deviated too much from conventional
harmonic practice and the fundamentals of traditional form. For instance, Printemps is awash in ninth chords,
which, to the chagrin of Debussy’s conservative contemporaries, were used more
for the purposes of ornamentation than structural harmony.
Composed in the winter months of 1887, Printemps
predates many of the so-called formative moments in Debussy’s career: the 1889
Paris Exposition, for example, where he was exposed to the music of Java and
Indochina, as well as his 1888 and 1889 visits to Bayreuth, the Richard Wagner
shrine and opera house where Debussy first heard Parsifal. Even so, there’s much in Printemps that foreshadows Debussy’s
more mature works. The solo introduction of the first movement theme is
similar to the lone flute in Prelude to
the Afternoon of a Faun. The pentatonic nature of this gentle melody and
the oriental sounds at the beginning of the second movement also recall the
exoticism of many of Debussy’s later pieces.
In the extroverted finale, both main themes are joined in a rich orchestral
tapestry that fluently integrates the sounds of the piano. Although this work reveals nothing about Debussy an
orchestrator, there’s enough here to suggest that Büsser was a
conscientious and consummate craftsman.
Kaija Saariaho is the first woman composer from Finland to gain international
prominence and is widely regarded as one of the most influential composers
working today. After studying at the Sibelius Academy and working at the famed
IRCAM computer-music studio in Paris, Saariaho first became identified for
compositions that explored varieties of new timbres, including the boundary
between noise and music, the intermingling of orchestral and electronic sounds,
and the tone colors of acoustical overtones. Along with her contemporaries
Magnus Lindberg and Esa Pekka-Salonen, Saariaho was a co-founding member of the
influential Finnish new music ensemble Korvat auki (Ears Open!).
In a 2000 interview, Saariaho spoke candidly about her musical journey: “When I
was searching for my identity, many woman
writers were important: Edith Södergran, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath,
Anaïs Nin. I was interested in how women writers and painters had been able to
do this creative work, of which I didn’t find any satisfying examples in
In recent years, Saariaho has turned to
opera and song. In 2000, with
librettist Amin Maalouf, Saariaho wrote the hauntingly meditative opera L’amour de loin (Love from Afar). Based on the life of a 12th-century troubadour, it
won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award and has been performed throughout the
world. Saariaho followed its success with the opera Adriana Mater in 2006 and in 2010 with
Émilie, which is based on the life of
18th-century French mathematician
Émilie du Châtelet.
Composer’s Own Words
Instants was born from Karita
Mattila’s desire to have a new work to perform at recitals she was giving at
the Théâtre du Châtelet and the Barbican Centre in April 2003. From my initial
discussions with her, and knowing the vastly expressive spectrum of her voice,
I immediately had a clear idea of the feelings that I wanted this work to
evoke. I imagined a whole section of music built of contrasting images,
sub-sections of which would be compressed into short but powerful moments. This
reflection also gave the work its title: Four
Instants. The fact that these instances are associated with different
facets of love is without doubt connected to the fact that I have seen Karita
play the role of a loving woman in so many opera productions.
The cycle was originally written for soprano and piano. Trying to
extract the colors I had in my mind from the piano—while at the same time
adapting its vast expressive scale to the diminutive vocal lines—reminded me of
the work of a jeweler, who, with the help of a loop, creates rich, microscopic
details. In the new version, I wanted to achieve the same very clear, bright
sound as in the original. Because this version
was composed for a Classical-sized orchestra rather than a large
Romantic one, it retains some of the piano version’s chamber-music feel, so
that the phrases we hear from the orchestral instruments—from the winds, and so
on—are, in a way, in dialogue with the singer.
Since Karita and I are both from Finland, I first researched texts in our
native language, but I couldn’t find anything that suited my musical ideas. I
then contacted Amin Maalouf, whose texts I had worked with for previous
projects, and asked him to suggest some to me. Amin gave me some short texts,
from which I chose three, and I then asked him to write a fourth text based on
the first three. It is this text that closes the cycle: In it the singer
returns to the atmosphere of anticipation that is set at the beginning, but now
her mind is full of memories. The apparent simplicity of Amin’s texts gives
space for music. The words and short phrases are codes that hide a rich world
of sensations, colors, and fragrances.
In 1910, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was in need of a different kind of
centerpiece for its Paris season. No longer could the shrewd impresario count
on the costly productions of Russian opera that had been the company’s
mainstay. Instead, Diaghilev set his sights on a bold Russian ballet that could
prove just as seductive, exotic, and successful with the Parisian public.
For many months, Alexandre Benois, Diaghilev’s designer, had been formulating
ideas for a ballet based on Russian folklore. With the help of Diaghilev’s
choreographer, Michel Fokine, the two devised a scenario that combined a number
of different Russian fables: the beautiful but aloof Firebird, the demon
Kastchei, and the archetypal Russian hero Ivan Tsarevich.
Ultimately, what Diaghilev, Benois, and Fokine envisioned was a grand
integration of the arts, a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk
for ballet. The only thing lacking in these
early planning stages was the music. For The
Firebird, Diaghilev had entertained several different composers—including
Nikolai Tcherepnin, the company’s de facto house composer, Anatoly
Lyadov, and Alexander Glazunov—before finally taking a chance on the promising
and ambitious 28-year-old Igor Stravinsky. Diaghilev had heard Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique while in St.
Petersburg and had previously invited him to orchestrate some of Chopin’s music
for the Ballets Russes production of Les
Still, none of those efforts, or even his training with Rimsky-Korsakov, could
fully prepare Stravinsky for the challenge ahead. Within a six-month period,
Stravinsky supplied 45 minutes of music, almost all of it under the dictate of
Fokine, who was exacting in his specifications for the ballet.
In the end, however, it turned out to be a serendipitous collaboration. A
decade older than Stravinsky and with an astute musical ear, Diaghilev proved a
valuable colleague and adviser. After the public sensation of The Firebird, the two forged one of the
most important creative partnerships of the early 20th century, a period during
which Stravinsky wrote the groundbreaking ballets The Rite of Spring, Petrushka,
and Les noces.
According to musicologist Richard Taruskin, “Firebird was a ballet aspiring to the condition of opera, and this
is what made it, for its time, a progressive and controversial experiment.”
Taruskin’s statement holds especially true in the portions of the ballet that
involve pictorial description, dialogue, and other “recitative”-like
moments—i.e., segments not commonly heard in the suite versions. Stravinsky’s
daring use of harmony, orchestration, and form in these movements is nothing
short of dazzling, particularly in Supplication of the Firebird, Magic Carillon,
and Dialogue between Kastchei and Prince Ivan Tsarevich.
Still, even at its most original and progressive, this music owes much of its
inspiration to Stravinsky’s musical forebears, particularly Rimsky-Korsakov. As examples of musical homage to Rimsky-Korsakov,
Taruskin cites Stravinsky’s use of the octatonic and whole-tone scales,
as well as alternating chains of major and minor thirds to distinguish the
supernatural characters of the Firebird and Kastchei.
Stravinsky’s “borrowings” also extend to the
natural-harmonic string glissandos at
the end of the Introduction—a device used so memorably by Ravel in the Rapsodie espagnole. And the perky Dance
of the Firebird recalls music in Scriabin’s ThePoem of Ecstasy.
Yet for a composer of such relative inexperience, Stravinsky’s Firebird is extraordinary in how it
makes a complete break from the Russian ballet music of the past. And with The Firebird, Stravinsky’s revolutionary
trajectory had just begun to take flight.