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In a letter from Paris dated August 18, 1913, the composer Claude Debussy wrote to Igor Stravinsky: “Excuse me for being late in thanking you for a work whose dedication is priceless to me…The music from the Roi des Étoiles (King of the Stars) is still extraordinary. It is probably Plato’s ‘harmony of the eternal spheres’ (but don’t ask me which page of his). And, except on Sirius or Aldebaran, I do not foresee performances of this ‘cantata for planets.’ As for our more modest Earth, a performance would be lost in the abyss.”

As it turned out, Debussy’s observations were correct; King of the Stars was extraordinary at the time for its luminescent orchestral textures and harmonic daring. And though it has never been performed on either of the two stars to which Debussy referred (to our knowledge), it took over 25 years before a first performance in 1939.

Following the success of the ballet Petrushka, Stravinsky retired to his family estate in Ustilug to begin work on The Rite of Spring. It was during the summer of 1911 that the first mention of King of the Stars appears in a post card from Stravinsky to the composer Florent Schmitt. He also mentions that he is playing “…only Debussy and Scriabin…,” two composers whose harmonic languages sound throughout much of the piece. Perhaps it is also the spectre of Scriabin’s “mystical” aesthetic that lurks behind Stravinsky’s choice of the astrologico-mythologico-apocalyptic symbolist text of the Russian poet Constantine Balmont’s Zvezdoliki (King of the Stars) , the accurate translation of which is “Star Face” or more poetically, “Celestial Visage.”

The reasons for Stravinsky’s composing this “astral” cantata for men’s chorus and orchestra are unknown. It may be that it functioned as a vehicle to work out sonorous and harmonic details introduced in parts of Petrushka, details that he would further exploit and develop in The Rite of Spring, especially the sonorities of the opening movement of part II, “Mysterious Circles.” In any case, the boldness of the motto based on the word Zvezdoliki which begins the work, consists of three chords that establish a pattern of centrifugal sonic expansion characterizing the entire score. The lack of tonal gravity demonstrated by the first chords of this music is not only a musical realization of the extra-terrestrial subject matter of the text, it is emblematic of the character of much of the music of the 20th and 21st centuries. Add to this the many rhythmic subdivisions and difficulties with intonation due to the acoustic of the close spacing of the voices (three sections each of tenors and basses), and we can better understand the reasons for Debussy’s statement regarding performance prospects for King of the Stars.

Formally, the music follows the divisions of the text: the first two sections coincide with the first two complete sentences. The third section is the longest, concluding with the words “for ever and aye.” A chorale follows, ending with an “Amen.” The final section opens with a return of the ascending melodic gesture first stated in the strings following the unaccompanied motto with which the piece began.

Composer and writer Steven Lacoste, who serves as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Archivist, holds a Ph.D. from UCLA and lectures on music theory at California State University at Long Beach.

DETAILS:

Orchestration:
piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd =
piccolo 2), 4 oboes (4th = English horn), E-flat clarinet, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, tam-tam, 2 harps, celesta, strings, and men’s chorus.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 27, 1966, with the
composer conducting.