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DETAILS:

Composed:1928

Length: 35 minutes

Orchestration:3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, and strings


First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 13, 1937, Igor Stravinsky conducting

In 1928 the great Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein - once a star for Sergei Diaghilev, then a competitor - formed a new company. For the first season, she commissioned a number of new works, among them Ravel's Boléro and Stravinsky's Baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss). Since 1928 was also the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's death - and the actual date was observed in the Russian churches of Paris - Stravinsky decided upon a "compatriotic homage" to his predecessor.

The idea, however, had been suggested to him by Alexandre Benois, the Russian painter who had designed Petrushka (1911) and The Song of the Nightingale (1914). "I was overjoyed to learn that you have reached an in-principle agreement with Ida Lvovna [Rubinstein]," Benois wrote to Stravinsky in December 1927. "We wish to present Tchaikovsky as seen by Stravinsky. For quite a while I have wanted to do something with Uncle Petya's music, something not necessarily based on his ballet music." Benois then lists a number of Tchaikovsky's piano pieces as a possible "base on which a subject could then be imposed." He concludes: "I would like to add a prayer: 'God grant that this proposition will prove interesting to you and that this dream that I have been nurturing might, thanks to you, really come to pass.'"

Come to pass it did, and rather faithfully too. Stravinsky ultimately used seven of the pieces on Benois' list, plus some songs of his own selection. Most would be unfamiliar to the general listener, as indeed some were to Stravinsky himself. "My only precept in selecting the music," he wrote, "was that none of the pieces should have been orchestrated by Tchaikovsky - i.e., my selections would have to come from piano music and songs. I was already familiar with about half of the music I was to use; the other pieces were discoveries."

The subject imposed on this musical patchwork was that of Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Ice Maiden." For Stravinsky, "it suggested an allegory of Tchaikovsky himself. The fairy's kiss on the heel of the child is also the muse marking Tchaikovsky at his birth - though the muse did not claim Tchaikovsky at his wedding as she did the young man in the ballet, but rather at the height of his powers."

The musical result was a very lyrical score that baffled many with its very sweetness and seemingly unabashed romanticism, although it comes from a brief period of equally genial and graceful works, including the ballet Apollo and the Capriccio for solo piano and orchestra. Stravinsky himself later wrote, more than a little disingenuously, that he could only vaguely remember which themes were Tchaikovsky's and which were his.

For Leonard Bernstein, Stravinsky's catalog was "an encyclopedia of misalliances," a concatenation of paradox, contradiction, and incongruity. "And what do these mismatched components produce," Bernstein asked rhetorically in his famous Norton lectures? "Indirection, obliquity, the indispensable mask of our century - the objectified emotional statement delivered at a distance, from around the corner and perceived, so to speak, second-hand. Second hand? Stravinsky, that consummate original? Yes, second-hand; because the personal statement is made via quotes from the past, by alluding to the classics, by a limitless new eclecticism.

"This is the essence of Stravinsky's neoclassicism: he is now the great eclectic, the Thieving Magpie, 'La Gazza Ladra,' unashamedly borrowing and stealing from every musical museum. And this quasi-plagiaristic principle supported his compositional style over three long decades, in one way or another. It can be overt as in Pulcinella, which is based on actual pieces by Pergolesi, transformed by Stravinsky's personal modernisms. Or in Le baiser de la fée, where the same machinations are wrought upon Tchaikovsky's music."

The argument for objective distance and ironic comment here could be supported from many instances in the score, notably the musical punctuation at the ends of phrases and sections. Stravinsky's use of the song then well-known as "None But the Lonely Heart" at the end of the pas de deux and the abrupt end of that scene suggest some the contradictions and subtexts involved.

But the argument for Griffiths' "creative humility," for sincerity of appreciation and discovery, is at least as strong. For one thing, Stravinsky always appreciated the effect Tchaikovsky's music made with his own in concert: it was only Tchaikovsky who appeared regularly on programs Stravinsky himself conducted. In some ways, Stravinsky's evocation of Tchaikovsky's orchestration in The Fairy's Kiss is more remarkable than what he does with Tchaikovsky's themes. The opening of the ballet is a virtual textbook in scoring a la Tchaikovsky, particularly in the distinctive woodwind treatment.

Most telling is the ease with which passages that sound completely Tchaikovskian morph into something utterly Stravinskian: displace an accent or two, acidwash the texture, and suddenly the dichotomies dissolve. It becomes not an issue of either/or, but of both: Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky, old/new, rhetorical/personal. Tchaikovsky's music was a mirror in which Stravinsky saw himself clearly. In The Fairy's Kiss we perceive a compound image, one that tells us more about Stravinsky than about Tchaikovsky, to be sure, but then that was always going to be the case.

After its original production, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska, The Fairy's Kiss had several other important stagings, notably those of George Balanchine and Frederick Ashton. Stravinsky later cut the score in half and arranged it for violin and piano as a Divertimento, which he then restored to its orchestral guise. It is in this form that it is best-known today. (Balachine choreographed the Divertimento for his Stravinsky Festival in 1972.) For these performances, the "fragments" chosen by conductor Vladimir Jurowski represent about three-quarters of the full ballet.

-- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.