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Programme Notes

Information for this evening’s performance Thu 14 Jun 2007 7.30pm

Stravinsky Les Noces Interval

Debussy First Rhapsody for Clarinet Prokofiev October Cantata

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971) Les Noces (‘The Wedding’) (1923)

Scene 1: The Bride’s Chamber | Scene 2: At the Bridegroom’s Scene 3: The Bride’s Departure | Scene 4: The Wedding Feast

Irina Vasilieva soprano | Olga Savova mezzo-soprano Andrey Ilyushnikov tenor | Gennady Bezzubenkov bass John Alley | Catherine Edwards | Elizabeth Burley Andrew Ball piano | Neil Percy | David Jackson | Chris Thomas Ben Hoffnung | Helen Yates | Sam Walton percussion Nigel Thomas timpani | Members of the Mariinsky Chorus

These ‘Russian choreographic scenes’ took Stravinsky longer to complete than any other of his major works. The time and thought he devoted to perfecting his score are some indication of its importance to him as a distillation of his ideal Russia of the imagination. It’s also a model of his rhythmic and harmonic techniques, of his inventive approach to the blend of words and music, of his transformation of earthy folklore into timeless ritual.

In 1912, while working on The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky was looking ahead to ‘a choral work on the subject of a Russian peasant wedding’. The composition of what he then decided was to be a voice-led ballet took place between 1914 and 1917, but even when the short score was complete it took him years to find the right instrumental sound to accompany the voices. He first thought of a huge orchestra, even larger than that of The Rite, presumably rejecting this on practical grounds. Another projected instrumentation was for a 39-

piece ensemble with only a handful of strings, but including harpsichord, harmonium and cymbalom; a further idea was for a combination of mechanical player-piano, harmonium, two cimbaloms and percussion. Only in 1922 did he settle on the final instrumentation: four pianos, with an assortment of tuned and untuned percussion.

Les Noces was first performed by Diaghilev’s company in Paris in 1923, conducted by Ernest Ansermet. The dancers and four pianos were on stage, the singers and percussion players in the pit. Natalia Goncharova designed the simple costumes and décor, the choreography, also plain and essential, was by Bronislava Nijinska. Since then, the French title has stuck, but there’s no reason for English speakers not to call it The Wedding. The Russian title is Svadebka, diminutive of ‘Svadba’, suggesting the sort of wedding customs commonly practised among the 19th-century peasantry. Stravinsky wrote of ‘typical wedding episodes told through quotations of typical talk’. His text, compiled from various folk collections, is a collage that evokes a bewildering mixture of Christian and pagan traditions: ‘As a collection of clichés and quotations of typical wedding sayings it might be compared to one of those scenes in Ulysses in which the reader seems to be overhearing scraps of conversation without the connecting thread of discourse.’ What unifies the work is not the sense of the words, but the music that springs from them. The driving rhythms are rigidly organised, a common pulse underlying all the changes of tempo and meter.

Everything is stylised and de-personalised. There’s no particular narrative, nor do the voices, in their various combinations, represent specific characters. The four scenes are continuous. In the first, the bridesmaids plait the weeping bride’s hair; in the second the bridegroom is prepared by his friends and seeks his parents’ blessing. The third scene shows the bride’s departure from her parents’ house and the lamenting of the two mothers. The fourth and longest scene is the riotous wedding feast, at the end of which the newly-weds withdraw, the voices fall silent and bell sounds extend the moment into eternity.

Programme note © Andrew Huth

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