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Inside the Music

Program Notes: Søndergård Conducts The Rite of Spring

Thomas Søndergård conducting the Minnesota Orchestra
Thomas Søndergård conducting the Minnesota Orchestra

On October 20 to 22, 2022, the Minnesota Orchestra presents Søndergård Conducts The Rite of Spring, with Music Director Designate Thomas Søndergård conducting two ballet scores—Igor Stravinskys The Rite of Spring and Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose—and opening with Of a Spring Morning by Lili Boulanger.

The performances take place at Orchestra Hall from October 20 to 22, and the concert on Friday, October 21, will be broadcast live on Twin Cities PBS (TPT MN Channel), with Ariana Kim serving as broadcast host, and will be available for online streaming and on the Orchestra’s social media channels. It will also be broadcast live on stations of YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio, including KSJN 99.5 FM in the Twin Cities.

Program Notes

Lili Boulanger
Born: August 21, 1893, Paris, France
Died: March 15, 1918, Mézy-sur-Seine, France

D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning)

Lili Boulanger’s Of a Spring Morning invites us into a vivid scene, one buzzing with energy and excitement. Over the span of just a few minutes, her music paints shimmering colors and showcases delicate, beautiful growth, not unlike the first few moments of a fresh spring day.

Upon hearing the phrase “Of a spring morning,” one might envision dew on blades of grass, a gentle sunrise, colors budding in a garden bed and birds chirping in the trees. The essence of spring—the start of something new—is what Lili Boulanger captured in her orchestral work titled with that phrase in French, D’un matin de printemps. The tragic twist is that this was one of her final compositions, marking the end of a career, and of her too-short life. Boulanger’s battles with illness aren’t apparent in her music. Instead, she composed with a freshness that embraced the joy of life, even if she only experienced it for a brief time.

The sibling connection

Lili Boulanger was born the youngest daughter in a musical family; her father was a professor of music at the Paris Conservatory and her mother and grandparents were also musicians. It was her sister Nadia, however, who made the family name famous by becoming one of the pre-eminent composition teachers of the 20th century, a pedagogue to pupils such as Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter and Philip Glass, among many others.

Lili’s star burned bright in its own way. She was the first woman ever to win the top composing prize at the Prix de Rome in France, doing so at just 20 years of age. In the years immediately following her Prix de Rome win, her health was in rapid decline, and she knew that her time was limited. She worked rapidly to finish a few of her incomplete projects, with the help of her sister, and then dove into a pair of new orchestral works: D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning) and D’un soir triste (Of a Sad Evening)—the second of which the Minnesota Orchestra will perform next April. These two pieces would be her final compositions before succumbing to Crohn’s disease at age 24.

Of a Spring Morning invites us into a vivid scene, one buzzing with energy and excitement. Over the span of five minutes, the music paints shimmering colors and showcases delicate, beautiful growth, not unlike the first few moments of a fresh spring day.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, small snare drum, suspended cymbal, triangle, harp, celesta and strings

Program note by Emma Plehal.

Maurice Ravel
Born: March 7, 1875, Ciboure, France
Died: December 28, 1937, Paris, France

Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose)
Premiered: January 29, 1912

Ravel’s simple and beautiful ballet score, based on five well-known French fairy tales, sounds like nothing so much as the innocent, easily entranced mind of a child. It is often played as a short orchestral suite, but these performances feature the complete work as Ravel originally wrote it.

Maurice Ravel loved children and had a gift for storytelling. His friendship with the Polish emigré couple Xavier and Ida Godebski, which began in 1904, flourished in part because he doted on their two children, Jean and Mimi. By 1908 Ravel had become a frequent visitor at their country house in Valvins, near Fontainebleau. There he spent long hours with Jean and Mimi, reading to them from classic 17th- and 18th-century French fairy tales.

Doubly attracted by the elegant illustrations in the fairy tale books and the rapt attention of the two Godebski children, Ravel focused his energy on a musical outlet for his storytelling. Between 1908 and 1910, he composed a suite for one piano, four hands, with the intent that Jean and Mimi would enjoy it and perhaps play the first public performance. In 1911 Ravel’s publisher Jacques Durand suggested that he orchestrate the suite. Shortly afterward, the new director of the Théâtre des Arts, Jacques Roché, approached Ravel about adapting Ma Mère l’Oye as a ballet divertissement for his theater. Ravel devised his own scenario for the ballet, adding a prelude, a Dance of the Spinning Wheel and several interludes. In that expanded form, Ma Mère l’Oye had its premiere in January 1912. The ballet has enjoyed great success.

A musical storybook

Following the Prelude, Ravel’s first scene introduces an old woman at the spinning wheel. Princess Florene enters, skipping rope. She stumbles and falls against the wheel, pricking her finger on its spindle. That incident sets the stage for her to fall into the deep slumber of the familiar Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty. Saddened courtiers dance sedately, recalling the curse that has prophesied Princess Florine’s fate.

Meanwhile, the old woman removes her cape and reveals herself to be the Good Fairy. She ensures that the Princess will dream sweetly while trapped in her enchanted sleep. Her dreams constitute the three scenes that follow, reordered from the original suite. First is Conversations of Beauty and the Beast, a tale that needs no introduction thanks to Disney’s animated movie on the mid-1990s and the more recent live-action version. Ravel’s movement contrasts the grace of Beauty’s waltz with the low growling of the enchanted prince imprisoned within the Beast.

Petit poucet is Tom Thumb. Ravel’s music imitates the lost child wandering aimlessly, as he tries to locate the trail of breadcrumbs that will lead him home. He is cruelly mocked in the chirping of the birds who have eaten the crumbs.

In the following scene, Laideronnette, the eastern empress (whose name means “Little Ugly”) appears in a Chinese garden tent. Pagoda attendants wait on her. She dances with an enchanted green serpent, and all the attendants join their dance. The air fills with the tinkle of bells—pentatonic bells, of course—along with suggestions of Renaissance lutes and theorbos.

The ballet concludes with the arrival of Prince Charming, escorted by a cupid. Their entry into the fairy garden coincides with the dawn, a musical breaking of the spell. Princess Florine awakens and Cupid unites the happy couple as the courtiers all gather in celebration. The Good Fairy blesses their union and the ballet concludes with a musical apotheosis.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tamtam, triangle, xylophone, celesta, keyboard glockenspiel, harp and strings 

Program note by Laurie Shulman.

Igor Stravinsky
Born: June 17, 1882, St. Petersburg, Russia
Died: April 6, 1971, New York City

The Rite of Spring
Premiered: May 29, 1913

Of this work—which drew jeers at its 1913 premiere—Stravinsky wrote: it “represents pagan Russia and is unified by a single idea: the mystery and great surge of the creative power of Spring.” Vibrant sounds of nature set the scene for the story, an imagined pagan ritual in which a sacrificial virgin dances herself to death.

In the spring of 1910, while completing the orchestration of The Firebird, Igor Stravinsky had a dream that changed the course of music history: “I saw in imagination a solemn pagan rite: wise elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dancing herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.” 

This idea became The Rite of Spring, which Stravinsky began composing in the summer of 1911, immediately after the premiere of Petrushka. This story of violence and nature-worship in pagan Russia—inspired in part by Stravinsky’s boyhood memories of the thunderous break-up of the ice on the Neva River in St. Petersburg each spring—became a ballet in two parts, The Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice.

Ancient and modern

In the music, Stravinsky drew on the distant past and fused it with the modern. His themes, many adapted from ancient Lithuanian wedding tunes, are brief, of narrow compass, and based on the constantly changing meters of Russian folk music, yet his harmonic language can be fiercely dissonant and “modern,” particularly in the famous repeating chord in Dance of the Adolescents, where he superimposes an E-flat major chord (with added seventh) on top of an F-flat major chord. Even more striking is the rhythmic imagination that animates this score: Stravinsky himself confessed that parts were so complicated that while he could play them, he could not write them down.

And beyond all these, The Rite of Spring is founded on an incredible orchestral sense: from the eerie sound of the high solo bassoon at the beginning through its use of a massive percussion section and such unusual instruments as alto flute and piccolo trumpet (not to mention the eight horns, two tubas and quadruple woodwinds), this score rings with sounds never heard before. The premiere may have provoked a noisy riot, but at a more civilized level it had an even greater impact: no music written after the riotous premiere on May 29, 1913, would ever be the same.

Instrumentation: 3 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), alto flute, piccolo, 4 oboes (1 doubling English horn), English horn, 3 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 4 bassoons (1 doubling contrabassoon), contrabassoon, 8 horns (2 doubling tenor Wagner tuben), 4 trumpets (1 doubling bass trumpet), piccolo trumpet, 3 trombones, 2 tubas, 2 sets of timpani, antique cymbals in B-flat/A-flat, cymbals, bass drum, guiro, tamtam, tambourine, triangle and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.