The Kennedy Center

Le Chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale)

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Peter Laki


In less than five years, Igor Stravinsky turned from a faithful disciple of Rimsky-Korsakov into one of the world's leading modernist composers, a revolutionary who sent some listeners into high raptures and infuriated others with his completely novel approach to rhythm and harmony. To appreciate the extent of these changes, one need look no further than the opera The Nightingale, whose first act was written in 1909 and the second and third in 1914. The interruption was due to the beginning of Stravinsky's collaboration with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, resulting in the three great ballets The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. By the time Stravinsky returned to the opera after a five-year hiatus, he was a different composer than he had been when he first started it.

Stravinsky's choice of the Hans Christian Andersen story, in 1908, was inspired by Rimsky's then-recent The Golden Cockerel (1906-07), another opera about a magic bird brought to an Emperor's court. Although divided into three acts, The Nightingale lasts only 45 minutes and is, for all intents and purposes, a one-act opera in three scenes.

Its brevity and the stylistic break in midstream have prevented The Nightingale from entering the standard operatic repertoire.Conscious of this fact, Stravinsky welcomed the opportunity, offered by Diaghilev, to write a shorter ballet version of the opera. The symphonic poem Le Chant du rossignol, which derives most of its material from the opera's more advanced second and third acts, has proven highly effective both as a concert piece and as a ballet score.

Stravinsky himself likened the clangorous opening of the symphonic poem to the ring of the early telephones in St. Petersburg around 1904. The cheerful and rhythmically active music that follows represents the festivities at the Emperor's court, which the Nightingale is called upon to grace with its song (flute solo in a slower tempo). The Emperor makes his entrance to the sound of the "Chinese March," introduced by the strokes of the tam-tam, an austere ostinato (stubbornly repeated figure) in the violins, and short flourishes in the bass. The march melody features the Chinese pentatonic scale, while the rhythmic development and the orchestration are strongly reminiscent of The Rite of Spring.

The nightingale's unaccompanied flute cadenza is followed by a slow passage in which a solo violin plays the mournful melody the bird sings to Death in Act III. Then the festivities resume.Soon the artificial nightingale —a present from the Emperor of Japan — is brought in, with the oboe as its orchestral representative.The repetitious music of the mechanical contraption is interrupted by an angry passage:the Emperor has just realized that while everyone was listening to the fake nightingale, the real bird has escaped.Pianissimo, the solo trumpet intones the peaceful song of the Fisherman that opens and closes the opera.

In the next passage, the Emperor lies ill in bed. The specters of his past deeds are evoked by a somber march theme played by the bassoons, the bass trombone and the tuba. The frightful atmosphere is dispelled by the return of the nightingale (solo violin, solo flute), which then proceeds to heal the Emperor with its magic song. The entrance of the tam-tam suggests a funeral march:the courtiers mistakenly believe that the Emperor is dead. Then, having demonstrated the superiority of nature to artifice, the nightingale returns home and rejoins the Fisherman whose song, played again by the solo trumpet, concludes the symphonic poem.