The Kennedy Center

Le Baiser de la fée (The Fairy's Kiss)

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Thomas May

One of the most interesting masks Stravinsky chose during his French years between the wars as he toyed with musical idioms from the past was that of Tchaikovsky. Late into his life, he treasured his memory, as a boy, of catching a glimpse of the great man at a performance in St. Petersburg, just weeks before his death. For all his mockery of romantic sentiment, Stravinsky maintained a deeply abiding affection for Tchaikovsky from those earliest years in Russia. (Anxious to dissolve the paradox, some critics have, however, insisted on decoding his attitude as just another instance of Stravinskian irony.)

That affection is the basis for the ballet Stravinsky composed immediately following the premiere of his landmark 1928 ballet Apollo (commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge for the Library of Congress). Ida Rubinstein, the legendary fellow Russian who had long been a sensation in the Paris artistic scene as a dancer, muse, and patroness, was branching out from Diaghilev's Ballets Russes with her own ballet company and wanted a new composition by Stravinsky. Among her commissions for its inaugural 1928 season—which also included Ravel's Boléro—was the idea of an homage marking the 35th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's death in November of that year.

Stravinsky approached the project as a chance to channel Tchaikovsky, producing a fascinating new amalgam from material written by the latter. Years before, he had orchestrated a couple of sections Tchaikovsky cut before the premiere of Sleeping Beauty to use in Diaghilev's revival of the work. In this case, however, Stravinsky decided to draw from a wide variety of miniatures outside the domain of ballet—chiefly piano pieces and songs—and recombined them into a shimmering, brand-new orchestral fabric. He even chose a suitably Tchaikovskian scenario by adapting Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Ice Maiden—thus creating a synthetic "Tchaikovsky ballet" that Tchaikovsky never wrote.

The result, titled Le Baiser de la Fée ("The Fairy's Kiss"), mixes fragments from Tchaikovsky with Stravinskian feints so persuasively that the composer later observed he lost track of what belonged to whom. The story revolves around an ill-fated mortal whom the fairy's minions steal from his mother as a baby. The fairy bestows her kiss on him and returns in disguise when he is celebrating his engagement to his fiancée at a village fête. There she tricks the young man into declaring his love for her and then spirits him away to her realm "beyond time and place," kissing him once again "to the sound of her lullaby." Stravinsky dedicated his score to "the memory of Pyotr Tchaikovsky" and suggested an allegorical correlation "between his muse and this fairy." Like the fairy, "his muse similarly marked him with a fatal kiss, whose mysterious imprint manifests itself in every work of this great artist."

Several years after the ballet's premiere (it was later revised in 1950 for a new Balanchine production), Stravinsky reclaimed some of the music in an arrangement for piano and violin intended for Dushkin, which he called Divertimento. Similarly, in 1934 he prepared this concert suite of the same name, comprising about half of the music from the original four-scene ballet. Sinfonia is taken from the opening scene and depicts the mother lost with her child in the storm. The sprites steal him away in music meshing dramatic melodies with Stravinsky's rhythmic acuity.

The echoing horns, rambunctious trombones, and rustic touches of Danses Suisses fast forward us to the young man's engagement party in the second scene, where touches of Petroushka liven the festivity. In the Scherzo, the fairy (disguised as a gypsy) has guided the young man to the mill where his beloved is with her friends playing cards. Tchaikovsky's shadow stimulates an especially intriguing ventriloquism in the Pas de deux sequence from scene three as the lovers dance—perhaps the ballet's most transparently beautiful passage. Stravinsky scores at first for a warm combination of clarinet, harp, and solo cello, which then swells with emotion before leading into a delectable duet for flutes. The music speeds up for a coda, heralded by the timpani, that brings the dance to a peremptory close with knife-edged chords.