Fireworks, Op. 4 (1908-09)

By Christopher Gibbs, Bard College

Written for the concert Revolution 1905, performed on Jan 16, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As the son of a leading bass in the Russian Imperial Opera, Igor Stravinsky’s exposure to music started young. Feodor Stravinsky was not anxious, however, for his son to pursue a musical career and insisted that he go to law school, which he did for eight semesters without ever graduating. The musical impulse could not be silenced and Igor began serious study. One of his most important influences was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose sons he had befriended and with whom he eventually took private lessons free of charge.

Rimsky, a brilliant orchestrator and author of an important treatise on instrumentation, supervised the composition of Stravinsky’s Symphony in E-flat major, which was partially performed in 1907 and presented in its entirety the following year. His next orchestral work, the Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3, is a companion piece of sorts to the more compressed Fireworks, Op. 4. Both are in the Russian tradition of brilliant, vibrantly colorful scherzos, either contained within symphonies or written as separate pieces. Fireworks also owes a clear debt in its slow, mysterious middle section to Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice (subtitled “Symphonic Scherzo after Goethe”) which Stravinsky heard Alexander Siloti conduct in St. Petersburg in October 1904.

Stravinsky supposedly wrote Fireworks to celebrate the marriage of Rimsky’s daughter Nadezhada to the composer Maximilian Steinberg in June 1908. He later recalled informing Rimsky of his plans: “He seemed interested, and told me to send it to him as soon as it was ready . . . I finished it in six weeks and sent it off to the country place where he was spending the summer. A few days later a telegram informed me of his death, and shortly afterwards my registered package was returned to me: ‘Not delivered on account of death of addressee.’” Although Rimsky did die just three days after the wedding, Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin is suspicious of the chronology related in this story. His detective work suggests that Stravinsky composed the work well after the wedding (he calls Fireworks “a belated wedding present”), most likely in the fall of 1908. In any case, Stravinsky was still refining the orchestration in May of the following year and it was finally premiered at one of Siloti’s concerts in January 1910. (There are reports of conservatory or private performances leading up to the event.)

Both the Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks tremendously impressed the impresario Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned Stravinsky, then in his mid-twenties, to write for the upcoming season of the Ballets Russes in Paris. His first assignment was to orchestrate two pieces by Chopin for a planned revival of Mikhail Fokine’s ballet Chopiniana, retitled Les Sylphides. This initial collaboration with Diaghilev eventually led to the Firebird, Petrushka, Rite of Spring, and other works. Stravinksy conducted Fireworks often during the course of his long career. (With a duration of less than four minutes, it serves as an attractive concert opener or encore.) One of the most important performances, recorded for posterity, came in October 1962 during his historic return visit to Russia after an absence of nearly five decades. Robert Craft, his assistant and interlocutor, reports that Stravinksy asked the Composers’ Union to invite Rimsky’s daughter, for whom he had written the work so many years earlier, but “the old lady declined because she had always known that I. S. detested her husband, the composer Maximilian Steinberg.”