Stravinsky conducts The Firebird
A friend forwarded this video to me and I found it incredibly interesting.
First of all, I can’t believe I’ve never seen a video of Stravinsky conducting! Stravinsky has been one of the most influential composers on my life. It all started when my High School Choir teacher handed me the CD of “Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky” and told me to listen to it. He said I would probably like it.
I can still remember sitting on my bed, listening to that entire CD straight through the fist time. I was so drawn into the music nothing else mattered anymore. I sat for the entire 2 hour CD as a high schooler completely mesmerized. I can also remember the emotions it evoked in me: anger, fear, sadness, joy. By the end of the CD I had a tear-stained face and felt like I had experienced every possible human emotion all at once. When I took that CD back to my teacher a few weeks later I handed it to him and told him I would some day play in an orchestra just so I could play this music. I did exactly that about a year later when I went away to college and won my very first orchestra audition. We even played Petroushka in that first season!
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I watched this video the first time. I had heard rumors that Stravinsky wasn’t the easiest conductors to follow and that he sometimes conducted tempos very different from what he put in his scores.
That was the first thing that I noticed, the opening piece was much slower than I have heard it preformed. However, I felt that it did not feel like it was dragging or boring; on the contrary I was holding my breath in anticipation for the next beat in each measure. I also noticed that the fast section was a much bigger contrast than I’ve heard performed or have performed before. It’s not that it was actually faster than other orchestras have taken this part; it was just the contrast between the slow and fast sections was much greater. I have to say I really liked the effect!
I was surprised to see how stoic Stravinsky was at first. To me, this piece can be very emotional. I could barely contain myself just watching this performance the first time today. But then I realized that he wasn’t really being stoic, he was just very efficient on his movements. His body stays very still except for his arms and hands to direct the orchestra. He doesn’t excessively lean into the orchestra or sway with the music at all. All his emotion is read on his face. What I saw in the emotions he expressed as the orchestra played his piece are very difficult to put into words–however I had the uncanny feeling that I understood exactly how he felt when hearing and watching him conduct. I felt a surging amount of energy, excitement, beauty and elation.
One of my favorite sections is the French horn solo at 4:22. I think this melody; later echoed by strings and then played in various forms through the rest of the piece, has to be one of the most beautiful and passionate melodies ever written. Another favorite part is the ending where the timpani kicks off the brass fanfare at about 6:04; I have a hard time sitting still and staying quiet during the climax of this section at about 6:38. I may be a bit partial in my opinion but it looks like he gave a little extra cue to the timpanist at about 6:50 in his up beat. It was also the section that produced a great big smile….what was he thinking at that moment? That timpani part is tough and is rather syncopated and completely leads the orchestra in this section. Was Stravinsky smiling at the fact that he wrote such a difficult part or was he happy that the orchestra actually played that section perfectly? Did they have trouble with it in the past? Was the timpanist having a difficult time with it in rehearsal? I would love to have been at the rehearsals to this concert just to know what was going on in his mind at this moment!
It is fascinating to watch Stravinsky conduct the mixed meter in the last section. It seems so incredibly natural…not that it shouldn’t be, he did create it. Stravinsky’s conducting is just so much more natural than many conductors I have worked under during this piece. Of course, I am puzzled by the realization that during much of this difficult section, he is conducting with his fists! I’m not sure that would be so easy to follow as a musician on the stage. He also has an interesting 4/4 pattern. The downbeat doesn’t always stay in the same place. I think it would be a bit difficult to follow his conducting in person….not to mention quite a bit intimidating! I wonder how he was during rehearsals….nurturing, educational or tyrant?
I was very happy to hear the reaction of the audience in the end. They stood immediately cheering very loudly! This is quite the contrast to the reception he received when he premiered The Rite of Spring. The history books say that concert caused riots and Stravinsky even had death threats afterwards! Talk about perseverance. Most people would never have composed again with that type of response…and here 64 years (?) later he is greeted with loud cheers and a standing ovation that lasts at least 4 minutes!
I am so grateful to YouTube for being able to provide easy access to these historic videos! It is amazing how inspiring and energizing this video is to me! I never would have seen it if it wasn’t for YouTube!