Classical Connections: Fabulous Birds

Stravinsky around 1910.

A few nights ago, having nothing much better to do, I started to make a list of classical music inspired by birds.  Yes I know, sad but true.  Incidentally, I realise if this week’s title has brought unwholesome thoughts into your mind, the revelation that this column has merely feathered connections might come as a disappointment, but that’s how it is.  Life can sometimes be a bit of a let-down.

Anyway, back to the birds.  Most classical music doesn’t describe anything at all but some composers, especially those of the late nineteenth century often turned to non-musical ideas, particularly those from nature.  Even in the eighteenth century the French composer Louis-Claude Daquin wrote a tinkling harpsichord piece called The Cuckoo, though you have to listen carefully to hear the quaint cuckoo imitations.

Bird themes also appear in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute and Rossini’s opera The Thieving Magpie.  Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake has swans by the truck-load.  Then of course, there’s Stravinsky’s wonderful music for The Firebird.  This splendid work was one of the first pieces of classical music I ever discovered.

Igor Stravinsky was a young and virtually unknown composer when Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, hired him to compose for the dance company.  Stravinsky’s first project was the music for a ballet based on Russian folk tales about a legendary and magical glowing bird – The Firebird.  With choreography by Michel Fokine, the fifty-minute ballet was first performed in June 1910 and turned out to be a huge success with both audience and critics.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971): The Firebird (Finale). Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Pierre Boulez (Duration: 10:54; Video: 720p HD)

The Firebird was considered a very difficult piece to play.  In many ways, it still is.  The first twenty bars for example, are written in the scary key of C flat, enough to drive most string players into a state of apoplexy.  The work is well ahead of its time but shows a command of the most complex rhythms and there’s wonderful sparkling orchestration using some techniques which were completely new.

The music not only brought Stravinsky instant fame, but it also marked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky which resulted two further ballets Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), major works of the early twentieth century.

The Firebird was written for a massive orchestra (including quadruple woodwind and three harps), but the composer later made three smaller-scale suites for concert performance.  This recording, conducted by the French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez is the original 1910 version but it’s just the last ten minutes of the piece, starting at bar 1,022 – yes, honestly.  I have the score in front of me.  Even so, it’s a good taster to sample the exciting flavour of Stravinsky’s musical style.  One of the many magic moments is at 07:41 when, over shimmering strings, a solo horn announces the noble melody that dominates the heroic final section, written with seven beats to the bar.

If you want to hear the entire work, there’s a YouTube video of this same version played by the combined WDR Sinfonieorchester and the Kölner Philharmonie conducted by Jukka Pekka Saraste.

Many conductors have recorded their interpretations of this work.  Leopold Stokowski recorded The Firebird Suite eight times, more than any other conductor.  His last Firebird recording was with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1967 when he was aged eighty-five.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): The Lark Ascending. Janine Jansen (vln), BBC Concert Orchestra cond. Barry Wordsworth (Duration: 15:00; Video: 480p)

The Lark Ascending was written for violin and piano in 1914 and was orchestrated by the composer six years later.  The first orchestral performance was given in 1921, under the conductor Adrian Boult and today the work is nearly always heard in this version.  It’s a musical reflection on a poem by the English poet George Meredith, about the song of a skylark.  The title has a pleasing ring to it, which perhaps wouldn’t have been the case if Meredith had instead written about the Great Tit or the Little Brown Bustard.

Three years ago, BBC radio listeners voted the work Britain’s all-time favourite and for several years it stayed at the top of the Classic FM Hall of Fame.  Not surprising really, because this is lyrical evocative music in which the violin mimics the “silver chain of sound” that Meredith describes.  There’s a wonderful and compelling sense of place too.  It can only be England.

When Vaughan Williams was making sketches for the piece, he visited Margate for a short holiday – on the same day that Britain entered the Great War.  A small boy observed the composer making notes and assuming he was writing a secret code, informed a police officer who promptly arrested the composer for suspicious behaviour.