06 May 2011

Stravinsky – Scherzo Fantastique

Written by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – IGOR STRAVINSKY – Stravinsky’s long and productive life is easily separated today into distinct phases or periods. The clarity with which contemporary scholarship can identify these evolutionary shifts speaks to a certain genius in the composer for self re-invention and an almost willful sense of historical timing. In 1908, Stravinsky was nearing the end of his pupil days under Rimsky-Korsakov (an ending hastened by the master’s death) and poised for his first great leap.     

THE MUSIC – The importance of Scherzo Fantastique for the young Stravinsky was not so much in what it was but rather what it did. In a performance which also included his Fireworks, Stravinsky was able to win the ear of Serge Diaghilev, who was in need of a composer for his budding Ballet Russe project. The first significant result of their artistic interaction would be nothing less than The Firebird, a work which set Stravinsky on the path to lasting international stardom. Scherzo Fantastique itself owed much to the music of the French impressionists and uses as its programmatic source a literary work by the Symbolist (and Debussy muse) Maurice Maeterlinck entitled La vie des abeilles (The Life of the Bee). The future Stravinsky is subtly present in the music with harmonies that are, in his own words to Rimsky-Korsakov, alternately “fierce, like a toothache” and “agreeable, like cocaine.” Though the Scherzo was Stravinsky’s first independent, non-academic orchestral work, his teacher’s touches are still evident in the orchestration and the magical, “fantastic” qualities of the musical story-telling. Rimsky-Korsakov certainly heard portions of the work and spoke of it fondly with his friends, but he never heard it performed in concert. It is difficult to know what the master might have ultimately found in his star pupil’s fledgling effort, but we do know what Diaghilev saw. The daring chance he took on such an unknown and unproven 26-year-old changed the course of 20th century orchestral history.                                 

THE WORLD – 1908 was the year of the first airplane passenger and the founding of the Boy Scouts in Britain. Also, first heard in 1908 was the now traditional baseball song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

THE CONNECTION – Utah Symphony regularly performs the works of Igor Stravinsky, but these concerts represent the Masterworks premiere of Scherzo Fantastique.

by Jeff Counts