The Door to Modernism Opens – and Closes Again
Music by Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Prokofiev
Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Can a whole new era be precipitated by a solitary flute melody? It has frequently been claimed that the symphonic poem Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune opened a door to modernism: that Claude Debussy’s “first masterpiece” marked the beginning of so-called musical impressionism, but more than that, the beginning of modern music altogether.
Stéphane Mallarmé wrote his poem L’Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun) between 1865 and 1867. In 1876 it was published and immediately taken up in the Impressionist circles surrounding Édouard Manet. But it was not only visual artists who responded to the poet’s disquietingly novel conception of the Faun’s internal monologue: the young generation of composers was immediately struck by the profound musicality of Mallarmé’s verse. Excitedly, they exchanged views about his works and organized musical readings – none of which actually materialized. Not until the early 1890s did Debussy cautiously approach the poem in a rendering for piano. Its orchestral version was premiered in 1894 and, in spite of a mediocre performance, enthusiastically received.
Debussy’s Prélude begins with that solitary flute melody, which will return ten times but always in a different harmonic “light”. In addition to clear allusions to traditional formal principles (including sonata and song forms), there is also a formal affinity with the poem itself: its 110 lines find an equivalent in the composition’s 110 bars, though without suggesting a consciously calculated musical translation of the verses. “The music”, wrote Debussy, “is a very free illustration of Mallarmé’s beautiful poem. By no means does it claim to be a synthesis of it. Rather there is a succession of scenes through which pass the desires and dreams of the faun in the heat of the afternoon.”
Four orchestral tableaux from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel
Composed in 1906-07, Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, The Golden Cockerel (Le Coq d’or),was based on Alexander Pushkin’s eponymous folk tale of 1834. In this musical fable, King Dodon is the ruler of a decadent society plagued by vague external threats but unable to adopt an initiative to protect or defend itself. An astrologer with a strange bird seems to offer an effective solution: the Cockerel can crow to warn of any danger. Dodon’s sons go off to fight but are both killed. Now Dodon himself must join the battle – reluctantly, as he is dreaming of a seductive woman. Emerging from a tent at the edge of the battlefield, where he expects to find his chief enemy, is the beautiful woman of his dreams, the Queen of Shemakha, to whose charms he immediately succumbs. He marries her, but eventually the Astrologer claims his reward: the queen’s hand in marriage, which he had earlier been promised. Furious, the king strikes the Astrologer dead. When the Cockerel swoops down and kills the king, the queen flees, leaving behind the terrified people without a ruler, again dreading an uncertain future. (In the suite, the story is encapsulated in four parts: 1. King Dodon in his Palace; 2. King Dodon on the Battlefield; 3. King Dodon with the Queen of Shemakha; 4. The Wedding and Lamentable End of King Dodon.)
Rimsky-Korsakov probably recognized in this fable the kernel of a political commentary: the people’s devotion to their ruler and the latter’s clownishly decadent incompetence are directly portrayed in the music, set in sharp relief against the Queen of Shemakha’s exotic flair and the Astrologer’s high altino tenor, which together create a world utterly contrasted in sound with that of the lethargic Dodon.
Concert suite from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird
Sergei Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky were both students of the then elderly Rimsky-Korsakov, and although they were sometimes critical of their teacher, his powerful influence on both younger composers’ orchestration is unmistakable: their handling of instrumental colours and techniques, of the direct connection between poetry and music, between stage and sound, and, not least, their art of musical narrative are all but unthinkable without the old master’s influence.
The commission for the Firebird ballet was transferred to the young, still relatively unknown Stravinsky, apparently because other composers had kept the impresario Sergei Diaghilev waiting too long. A new production for his Ballets Russes was scheduled for 1910 to follow up on the previous year’s successes and, eventually, Diaghilev turned to Stravinsky to provide the score. The ingredients for the new ballet’s success were carefully calculated: a fairytale subject with lavish exoticism to entice ear and eye in equal measure. Stravinsky, appreciating his assignment, collaborated with the Ballets Russes dancer and choreographer Mikhail Fokine to translate into music the scenario based on a Russian folk tale, and he composed a dazzling, sumptuous score with no stinting on exoticism. Like Rimsky-Korsakov in the Golden Cockerel, he exploited the element of contrast: two acoustical worlds – diatonic and chromatic – are juxtaposed, representing the opposing worlds of the story, in which the “forces of good” (Tsarevich and the Firebird) triumph over the power of evil (Kashchey).
Stravinsky already conceived a suite from the ballet’s material in 1911; another, far less lavishly scored, followed after the end of World War I (version of 1919); and there would also be a third suite (in 1945) as well as further arrangements of “hit numbers” from the ballet.
Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet music
Composed well after the turbulence of early 20th-century modernism and the political upheaval of the Russian Revolution, Sergei Prokofiev’s narrative ballet Cinderella came into being during the period of Stalinist cultural policies and the explosion of wartime violence. These historical circumstances help to explain why it sounds neither like a fairy-tale interpretation characteristic of its period (e.g. Rimsky-Korsakov’s) nor like an exhibition of Western modernity (e.g. Stravinsky’s). The music responds to the universally famous story with a vibrant merriment that hardly suggests that the ballet was composed in the middle of the war. Or does it? The other few dance-theatre pieces written in the Soviet Union during World War II also largely avoid topical subjects, instead turning to Russian legends and fables, retold in an accessible fashion and set to music in adherence to the principles of socialist realism.
Prokofiev’s Cinderella received its premiere in Moscow in November 1945, with a production three years later in London launching its international fame. The composer also took advantage of arrangements in order to adapt the dance-theatrical music for use in the concert hall. Before the premiere had even taken place, he published a piano reduction of the orchestral score, and in 1946 he prepared three orchestral suites (opp. 107, 108 and 109). Today’s performance presents excerpts from the ballet music.