Song of the Nightingale
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, 2 harps, celesta, piano, strings
Composed 1917. First performance: 6 December 1919, Théâtre national de l’Opéra, Paris. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Ernest Ansermet, conductor.
The song of the nightingale is often heard as melancholy and in his story “The Nightingale” (1843), Hans Christian Andersen offers, in the way of many folk tales, an explanation for this natural phenomenon and the emotion we hear in it. Brought to court to sing for the Emperor, the nightingale is beloved by all until her improvised songs are thrown over in favor of a more predictable mechanical nightingale. Angry, the nightingale flees the palace and so is banished by imperial edict. Years later, however, the Emperor falls ill and wishes only to hear the real nightingale one more time. Moved to pity, the nightingale faces down Death and sings sweetly through the night, until by dawn the Emperor is well. Le Chant du rossingol began its life as a three act opera based on Andersen’s story, but also exists now as a much shorter musical parable, in which solo instruments take up the important roles.
A brisk introduction sets the stage with fluttering tremolos from the strings and bursts of activity from the flute. The prominent “Oriental” pentatonic melodies in this introduction and the following Marche chinoise are a nod from Stravinsky to the setting of Andersen’s story in China. The exotic sounds of this procession, including the piccolo, triangle, chirping woodwinds, glockenspiel, harp, cymbals, and tam tam, are also a musical version of the chinoiserie that had been re-popularized around the turn of the twentieth century in painting, architecture, and decorative arts. An extended cadenza for solo flute gives voice to the nightingale, a song so powerful it brings tears to the Emperor’s eyes (and ours). The solo oboe represents the mechanical nightingale, more predictable in its material than the wild bird. When the nightingale returns to sing in the face of Death, the flute is joined by the solo violin, which casts a mystical halo around the nightingale’s song. The courtier’s have assumed the Emperor’s death, however, so the finale is a marche funebre, a darkly dissonant version of the marche chinoise. This orchestral poem ends in a vastly different sound world from where it began, in part because the first act of the opera was written in 1909, but the second two were written in 1914, after Stravinsky’s three famous ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. The exoticist Chinese caricature of the opening has faded into Stravinsky’s own modernist style, with his unconventional use of instrumental timbres and the avant-garde harmonies he sourced from several non-Western cultures, including his own Russian heritage.
- Katherine Baber