The Kennedy Center

Feu d'Artifice

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Thomas May

Feu d'artifice

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) had his first great breakthrough with the Paris premiere of his ballet music for The Firebird in June 1910. At a St. Petersburg concert earlier that year, when his short "orchestral fantasy" Feu d'artifice was given in public for the first (documented) time, a critic and friend of the impresario Sergei Diaghilev wrote that "without going beyond witty hints at the reproduction in sound of a sensational explosion of sky-rockets, it captures in its musical essence, in a truly startling way, that peculiar psychic elation aroused by the spectacle of fiery entertainments."

Feu d'artifice follows close on another brief orchestral piece, the Scherzo fantastique, which Stravinsky composed while still under the sway of his mentor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, a wizard of orchestration. Stravinsky intended this sparkling score as a wedding gift for Rimsky-Korsakov's daughter, who married a fellow conservatory student in 1908; that happy event, though, was overshadowed by the master's sudden death shortly afterward. Stravinsky incorporates many of Rimsky-Korsakov's techniques (along with an obvious helping from Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice) in his phosphorescent orchestration. The metrical complexities of John Adams's scores often invite comparison with the Stravinsky of the famously revolutionary Parisian ballets, but Adams has also been drawn to the early works that exhibit a fin-de-siècle Russian interest in archaic-sounding, modal scales and exotic harmonies, expressed in rich orchestrations. The impulse of this music, he believes, suggests "a direction that unfortunately was overwhelmed by more prestigious practices such as Neoclassicism and Serialism."For example, Adams particularly admires how Stravinsky manipulates the orchestra in his early Le Chant du rossignol so that it "bursts out in a brilliant eruption of colors, shapes, and sounds." The highly condensed orchestral fantasy of Feu d'artifice already finds Stravinsky wielding that sense of color and exploring unconventional harmonic alignments.