Chicago Symphony Orchestra
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When Stravinsky began Le sacre du printemps in 1911, he was already famous, just as Diaghilev had predicted - during rehearsals for The Firebird he pointed at Stravinsky and said, "Mark him well; he is a man on the eve of celebrity." But Le sacre du printemps put him at the very forefront of the avant-garde and spread his name to corners of the world where news of the latest styles in French ballet rarely traveled. May 29, 1913, the night of the Paris premiere, is sometimes cited as the start of the modern age, and the date is engraved in all the music histories because of the notorious riot that greeted the ballet.
From the beginning, Stravinsky envisioned the score as "a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death." The most audacious of the musical innovations are rhythmic, starting with The Augers of Spring, the famous section near the opening, where a single repeated chord is jolted by irregularly spaced accents. Throughout the score, Stravinsky layers ostinato patterns to create a tension previously unknown in music. But it's the cumulative sweep of rhythmic energy that gives the score a life all of its own. Despite the dancers' difficulties with the music's uncountable rhythms, rehearsals went smoothly and the dress rehearsal, before an invited audience which included Debussy, passed without incident. When Stravinsky walked into the theater on May 29, he was unprepared for the riot that would soon follow. La mer was controversial even during rehearsals, when, as Debussy told Stravinsky, the violinists tied handkerchiefs to the tips of their bows in protest. The response at the premiere in 1 905 was largely unfriendly, although it did not provoke the sheer mayhem of Stravinsky's score in the same city eight years later.
La mer is Debussy's homage to his childhood summers at Cannes, which left him with vivid memories of the sea - "worth more than reality," as he said at the time he was composing the score some thirty years later. The first panel of Debussy's symphonic triptych depicts the sun rising over the sea, an image the composer knew well from the William Turner paintings he so loved. The second panel is all suggestion and shimmering surface; a clear sense of melodic line or rhythmic regularity is gently but decisively shattered by the fluid play of the waves. The final panel captures the violence of the wind and sea as they collide, with the sun breaking through the clouds at the end.
In 1945, when the twenty-year-old Pierre Boulez was still a student of Olivier Messiaen, he composed twelve Notations for piano, each a brief essay on a single musical idea. Boulez quickly put them aside. But, during the summer of 1976, while conducting Wagner's monumental Ring cycle in Bayreuth, he decided to begin transcribing these tiny pieces for full orchestra. In the process, they have grown and blossomed beyond recognition, from compact one-page pieces to elaborate orchestral scores. Notations VII, commissioned and premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1999, is marked "Hieratique" - formal, stylized. It is to be played slowly, steadily, and without rigidity.
- Phillip Huscher
(Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra)