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Composed: 1928; 1934
Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, harp, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 13, 1937, Igor Stravinsky conducting
By the 1920s, Stravinsky’s name on a ballet automatically made it an important purely musical event. His collaborators at that time, such as Balanchine and Diaghilev, certainly enjoyed their own fame, but Stravinsky was still the bigger artistic phenomenon, shocking audiences with his dissonance and complex, compound rhythms. If the dust of controversy has now settled a bit, perhaps consideration of the input of choreographers on Stravinsky’s ballet music might be worthwhile — especially if myopia has relegated the choreographers to nothing more than an invisible force over the years. One of these choreographers, Ida Rubinstein (1885-1960), certainly had her own provocative reputation during the 1920s, but also acted as influential benefactor, commissioning Stravinsky to write Le baiser de le fée or The Fairy's Kiss, based on The Ice Maiden by Hans Christian Andersen.
Rubinstein grew up in the Ukraine as one of four children in a wealthy Jewish family. When orphaned and left a considerable inheritance, she moved to St. Petersburg to nurture a career as a ballerina, although this also included stints as an actress and mime. Eventually creating scandal with a nude scene during a stage production of Salome, her reputation as a statuesque, fin-de-siècle sex symbol spread to Paris, where she became a rising star in Diaghilev's Ballet Russe.
In 1928, Rubinstein used her inherited wealth to form her own troupe, Les Ballets de Madame Rubinstein, taking the lead roles in most of the productions herself. For this maiden year, she commissioned several new works, including The Fairy’s Kiss and Ravel’s Bolero. All of these works were to follow her vision of dance music that would flatter her talents and salacious reputation, at age 45, a vision that was ipso facto one of the important driving forces behind The Fairy’s Kiss as well.
As he did in Pulcinella with pre-existing music attributed to Pergolesi, Stravinsky took several early piano pieces and songs by Tchaikovsky and parodied them into new, orchestrated compositions. Actually, his technique consisted of taking only a few bars of the Tchaikovsky work and continuing the piece in his own modern style. Critics have not always been kind to The Fairy’s Kiss, thinking it not up to par with Stravinsky’s other ballets, but others have distinguished it as an intimate homage to Tchaikovsky, deeply exploring the close relationship between the two Russian composers. It can’t be said enough that Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky did have a lot in common as Russian maverick composers who found a compelling voice writing for ballet.
Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin.