Chant du rossignol [Song of the Nightingale] (1917)

By Maya Pritsker

Written for the concert Hans Christian Andersen, performed on March 11, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Works of Hans Christian Andersen have been translated and published in Russia since 1845. The last decades of the nineteenth century, however, witnessed a special surge of interest in the writer and his tales. In 1892, Andersen’s first Russian biography was published. Three years later, Russian readers received the most complete collection of his works: five volumes, including 154 fairy tales, in excellent, still unsurpassed translation from the Danish by husband and wife team P. and A. Ganzens. This edition was recommended by the Ministry of Education for schools and libraries and became an indispensable part of each literate Russian household, thus firmly implanting Andersen’s characters, images and plots into Russian consciousness.

The seed fell into fertile soil. Andersen’s compassion for the “little man,” his melancholic and intimate voice, the wealth of his images and the beauty of his style—all were close to Russian hearts and resonated with Russia’s artistic trends of the time. Andersen’s stories were much admired by Russian writers—Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Block and Ivan Bunin, to name just a few. They also captured the imagination of the Mir Iskusstva [World of the Art] artists, especially Petr Dobuzhinsky, known for his illustrations and stage productions of the Dane’s tales.

Igor Stravinsky was one of those who grew up with Andersen’s tales (not to mention his connection with Mir Iskusstva). Andersen’s The Nightingale (“Solovey” in Russian), a parable about the power of true art as opposed to artificial and simplistic entertainment, seemed like a natural choice for his first opera. The year was 1908, and 26-year old Stravinsky was still a student of Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, often seeking his advice. His teacher’s fondness for fairy tale opera plots, particularly those that glorified nature, as well as his mastery in recreating exotic images of the East in music, rubbed off on the young composer. Nevertheless, already a master of the orchestra, Stravinsky did not follow his teacher’s musical path, but chose instead the spicy and cool harmonies of more fashionable impressionism.

The work, however, stopped after the completion of the first act. Was the cause Rimsky-Korsakov’s death, which brought a period of psychological stress into Stravisnsky’s life, or the commission of the ballet Firebird, which came soon after from Sergei Diaghilev?

Only in 1914 did Stravinsky, by then the author of three masterpieces of his Russian period: Firebird, Petrushka, and Rite of Spring, somewhat reluctantly return to the unfinished opera. Moscow’s Free Theater wanted to stage it, and the composer, although concerned about the stylistic discrepancies between the early and the later parts, added two new acts to the first of 1908. The Free Theater did not survive to realize the production, but Diaghilev came to the rescue. In 1914, the premiere of the new opera, the title of which was translated for this occasion into French as Le Rossignol, took place at the Paris Opera. It was the last prewar production of Diaghilev’s celebrated enterprise.

Soon there would be another reincarnation of Le Rossignol. In 1916, Diaghilev—seeking, as always, a new ballet project—offered to transform it for this purpose. Stravinsky, who preferred symphonic music to opera anyway, happily obliged. From the music of the second and third acts and the “Song of the Fisherman” of the first act, he created a symphonic poem, Song of the Nightingale, in the early months of 1917. It premiered in concert in 1919, and was choreographed in 1925 by Léonide Massine for a Ballet Russes production with sets by Henri Matisse.

The score captured both the poetry and irony of Andersen’s tone. It has a touch of lyrical warmth and tender melancholy in it—not typically “Stravinskian,” but obviously inspired by Andersen. The music style is in some ways reminiscent of Petrushka, with the frequent use of ostinati, sudden dynamic shifts, preference for short melodic segments, erratic rhythms, and theatrical “signals” and “gestures.” There are even some traces of impressionism. At the same time, the score looks toward Stravinsky’s style of the 1920s, when large symphonic orchestra would be rejected in favor of smaller ensembles, and the winds, percussion and piano with their clear articulation would replace more expressive strings. In the composer’s own words, in the Song of the Nightingale he “treated [the orchestra] more as a chamber orchestra and laid stress on the concertante side, not only of the various solo instruments, but also gave this role to whole groups of instruments. This orchestral treatment was well adapted to music full of cadenzas, vocalises, and melismata of all kinds…”

The poem follows the narrative. It opens with a picture of the Chinese Emperor’s Court with its lavish décor and noisy bustle. The next episode brings the first sharp contrast: a small bird, invited by ministers to please their emperor, sings its gentle, touching song (flute cadenza, then a violin’s melody, accompanied by piano, harp, and celesta). Suddenly there is another nightingale—a gilded and sparkling mechanical gift from the Emperor of Japan. It repeats the same primitive tune over and over again (piccolo, flute, oboe), but the court is charmed. The real bird, saddened, flies away to the forest and a fisherman, and the angry emperor names the mechanical one the First Singer of the Imperial Court. But when Death arrives to take the emperor (dark timbres and slow tempo), the real bird returns and saves the ailing emperor with the beauty of its song. However, it rejects the invitation to stay forever: the bird wants the freedom to sing for anyone in need. The melancholic song of a fisherman concludes the poem.