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Composed: 1917

Length: c. 22 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo),
2 oboes (2nd = English horn), clarinet, E-flat clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbal, snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, piano, and strings

About this Piece

Igor Stravinsky's first opera, The Nightingale, to a libretto — based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale — by himself in collaboration with Stepan Mitusov, was commissioned by the Moscow Free Theater in 1908. In his autobiography, Stravinsky (1882-1971) recorded, “This work was greatly encouraged by my master [Rimsky-Korsakov], and to this day I recall with pleasure his approval of the preliminary sketches… It grieves me that he was never able to hear them in their finished form, for I think he would have liked them.” The death of Rimsky-Korsakov occasioned the first of numerous interruptions that would delay completion of The Nightingale.

The second came as a consequence of a commission from Sergei Diaghilev for Stravinsky to orchestrate two Chopin piano pieces for inclusion in the ballet Les Sylphides . Then, once the composer thought he was home free to complete the first act of the opera in the summer of 1909, Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to compose the Firebird ballet score, which made the composer’s name. And then came Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1912).

The opera languished and, under any circumstances, the composer’s style was now radically different from that with which it was begun. “I feared that in view of my new manner the subsequent scenes would clash with Act I. I informed the directors of the Free Theater of my misgivings and suggested that they be content with Act I alone, presenting it as an independent lyrical scene. But they insisted upon an entire opera in three acts, and ended by persuading me.”
The tale of woe, however, continues. As the third act was nearing completion, news reached Stravinsky that the Moscow Free Theater had gone bankrupt. So, finally, Diaghilev presented the completed work at the Paris Opéra in May of 1914, with Pierre Monteux conducting.

Three years later, Stravinsky suggested that he write an orchestral piece drawn from the second and third acts of The Nightingale — a “symphonic poem” — which Diaghilev could then use as a ballet score if he so desired, to which the impresario agreed. The symphonic poem was completed at Morges, Switzerland, at the end of 1917. But due to wartime difficulties, the first performance was delayed until the end of 1919, and then as a concert piece, with Ernest Ansermet conducting his newly-formed Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva. The ballet version, with choreography by Leonide Massine, scenery and costumes by Henri Matisse, and Ansermet again conducting, was presented a year later in Paris.

Herewith, a slenderized version of the symphonic poem’s lengthy scenario, with much of the text taken from the Andersen fairy tale:

The Fête in the Palace of the Emperor of China
The palace of the Emperor of China was festively adorned. The walls and the floor, which were of porcelain, gleamed in the rays of a thousand golden lamps. The most glorious flowers, which could ring like little bells, had been placed in the passages. There was a running to and fro and a constant draft that made the flower-bells ring. (Here and in the following scene the composer employs the old Chinese five-note scale for exotic effect.) To the "Chinese March," the Emperor and his courtiers enter. The Nightingale (solo flute, then solo violin), seated on its golden perch, sings a richly ornamented cadenza.

The Nightingale sang so gloriously that tears came to the Emperor's eyes. Envoys arrived from the Emperor of Japan with the gift of a mechanical nightingale. The artificial bird, of silver and gold, was wound up and began to sing (piccolo, flute, oboe). Its tail moved up and down. Its song found as much favor with the Chinese Emperor as that of the real Nightingale, and it was handsomer, to boot. But where was the real Nightingale now? No one had noticed that it flown through an open window. It has returned to its friend, the Fisherman, who sings for joy at its arrival (a gentle trumpet solo).

The Illness and Recovery of the Emperor of China
The poor Emperor could scarcely breathe. He opened his eyes and saw Death sitting on his chest. All around, from the folds of the splendid curtains, strange heads peered forth. They were the Emperor’s deeds, both good and bad. The mechanical bird refused to sing. Then the live Nightingale was heard singing outside the window, and even Death was entranced by its song. Death departed, floating through the window as a white mist. The Emperor fell into a deep slumber from which he awoke fresh and restored. The courtiers, expecting to find their Emperor dead, were astounded when he bid them good morning. The Nightingale had flown back to the Fisherman, who is heard singing his song once more.

    — Herb Glass is the English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to music periodicals in the United States and Europe.