It’s been a week since my last blog, so time for a new one! This past week I’ve been busy studying my part for the piece Dumbarton Oaks, which is written by Igor Stravinsky. In April, we will perform this piece at the conservatory. This piece is a chamber concerto for a small group of string- and wind players. I haven’t played or heard the piece before, so I was curious about what kind of piece it would be. I love Stravinsky’s work. Earlier this year we played a reconstruction of the Pulcinella Suite with the early music department, which was great, so I couldn’t wait to play some more Stravinsky (this time with the classical department).
This chamber concerto is part of Stravinsky’s neo-classical repertoire. When I started to listen to the piece it somehow reminded me of Le Baiser de la fée, which has the same kind of fairytale feel to it. I started to have images of elves, gnomes and trolls in the forest. That’s why I decided I wanted to find a set of paintings that matches each movement of the chamber concerto. Quite soon, I found someone that lived in the same era as Stravinsky and made illustrations for Russian folklore tales.
Ivan Bilibin, born in Russia, was an illustrator and designer that was associated with Ballets Russes in Paris. He made illustrations for ‘The firebird and the grey wolf’, ‘Vasilisa the beautiful’, ‘Bylina’ and many more tales. For Stravinsky’s piece, I chose three illustrations. You can click here to listen to the recording while looking at the illustrations. Let’s start!
For the first movement, I chose a scene from the first tale that is mentioned. On this illustration, you see Ivan Tsarevich (the youngest son of the king) trying to catch the firebird that has been stealing golden apples from his father’s tree. The king says that whichever of the three sons catches the bird, will be his heir and gets half of his kingdom. Ivan only manages to catch the firebird’s feather. I chose this painting because the beginning of the piece sounds like a bird that is singing a song (this part is played by the flute). As the piece unfolds, it starts to sound more complex, which for me indicates the chase after the firebird.
The second movement starts more innocent and simple. The harmonies are not difficult to understand, but again, the further we go, the more complex it gets. That’s why I chose an illustration in which you see Vasilisa at Baba Yaga’s hut in the woods. The beginning of the piece represents the beautiful and naive Vasilisa that is walking in the woods. The middle section of the piece starts to get grimmer if you listen closely to the harmonies. That’s why I think the skulls on the picture represent the danger that is present very well. Even though the theme from the beginning comes back at the end, it doesn’t sound like the same innocent melody that we heard before. The very ending of this movement starts abruptly and ends uncertain. What will happen with Vasilia?
The last movement of the piece reminded me of an army of trolls. I couldn’t find a painting with trolls, but I did find a painting that depicts Volga and Mikula, two Russian epic heroes. This image of a big army suits the beginning of Stravinsky’s last movement of the concerto. If you listen closely you can recognise the footsteps of the horses that are marching. I think about how they march through the forest and find something enchanting that makes them stop for a moment. You can hear this enchanting moment in the middle of the piece, that is played by solo strings instruments. After this special moment, the macabre feeling starts to return in the piece, and so does the army march on.
I hope you felt inspired by the illustrations and enjoyed the piece, I know I have! By the way, did any of you hear a little bit of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto III in the first movement of Stravinsky’s piece?
Author: Nino Natroshvili
Violinist and student at the Utrecht Conservatory, the Netherlands.