Stravinsky: Feu d’artifice

performed by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly, or below with the Columbia Orchestra under the composer’s baton

(cover image by Jingda Chen)

And now for something completely different.

It’s almost shocking to me, despite being the sole writer and organizer and everything-er of this blog (so you think I’d know), that Stravinsky has appeared only twice in the nearly 800 music posts I’ve done up to this point, a very early piece, and a much later piece.

I’d actually thought we already discussed this piece, but while it may seem suitable for a first post of the new year, it’s actually just a setup for what’s coming later in the week. I realized we hadn’t discussed it yet, and it’s a small piece, so here we are, in the interest of context and order and organization.

Feu d’artifice, or ‘Fireworks,’ or Фейерверк, is a very short piece, coming in at or under 4 minutes. The composer describes it as “a short orchestral fantasy,” but for its brevity, I’d describe it less as a fantasy as much as an impulse, a single thought.

It dates from 1908, and was composed as a wedding present for the daughter of Stravinsky’s former teacher Nikokai Rimsky-Korsakov. The dedicatee and new bride, Nadezhda, had gotten married just days before her father died. Her husband, Maximilian Steinberg, was also a student of Rimsky-Korsakov and apparent rival to Stravinsky. Steinberg was apparently at one time considered to be the future of Russian music, and I don’t know what form this rivalry took or when it began, but it does seem interesting to me that a wedding gift ultimately led to his being overshadowed by the giver of said gift.

The work was first performed (now coming up on exactly 110 years ago) on February 6, 1909, conducted by Alexander Siloti (who himself studied under Nikolai Rubinstein, Sergey Taneyev, Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt, and conducted the world premiere of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto; a connected guy).

The piece is scored for a pretty standard large Romantic-style orchestra, and the composer makes fantastic use of it. You could almost consider this piece a bridge that connects the colorful, brilliant style of Rimsky-Korsakov to what Stravinsky would later accomplish, even if this is not indicative, obviously, of his late style.

Listen to the flutters of the flute that set almost the entire ensemble alight. It’s wildly colorful, full of texture and fanfare, much like the eponymous fireworks themselves. Wait for the first big thud, the kind of explosion you associate with later Stravinsky, and the magical strings that follow:

Is that slithering string figure not so very familiar? It’s like the piece is a character study for what would come later. Clarinet chirps here and there, resulting in a more lush, elegant passage. There’s triumph and celebration, but besides the outstanding color and bristling energy we get for this piece in the spirit of the marriage celebration, the associations are much closer to what would come of the piece rather than the piece itself.

Sitting in the audience for a performance of this piece (perhaps the premiere) was one Serge Diaghilev, “Russian art critic, patron, ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes.” He was impressed enough by the composer’s small piece here, specifically the orchestration, to approach the young Stravinsky regarding a collaboration that would make up a significant part of both of their careers, but that part of the story is for another post, so stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.

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