Stravinsky: Perséphone

Perséphone

IGOR FEDOROVICH STRAVINSKY
BORN:  June 17, 1882. Oranienbaum, Russia
DIED: April 6, 1971. New York City

COMPOSED: Begun in May 1933, with the orchestration being completed on January 24, 1934

WORLD PREMIERE: April 30 1934, Paris Opéra. Stravinsky conducted, Ida Rubinstein, who had commis­sioned the work, recited and mimed the title role, and the tenor soloist was René Maison.

US PREMIERE: Stravinsky also conducted the first American performances, which took place at the Boston Symphony concerts of March 15-16 1935, with Eva Gauthier, Colin O'More, and the Cecilia Society Chorus, whose conductor then was Arthur Fiedler.

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 1997. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted, with narrator Stephanie Cosserat, tenor Stuart Neill, Ragazzi (The Peninsula Boys Chorus), San Francisco Girls Chorus, and the SFS Chorus. MOST RECENT—February 2001, with the same forces as the 1997 performances

INSTRUMENTATION: tenor (Eumolpus, the Priest), narrator (Perséphone, the Goddess), mixed chorus, children's chorus, and an orchestra of 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling con­trabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets (including high trumpet in D), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, bass drum, snare drum, 2 harps, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 48 mins

Stravinsky wrote several notable works during his student years, but his breakthrough arrived when he embarked on a string of collaborations with the ballet impresario Sergei (a.k.a. Serge) Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes, launched in Paris in 1909, quickly became identified with the cutting edge of the European arts scene. Stravinsky’s first Diaghilev project was modest, a pair of Chopin orchestrations for the 1909 Ballets Russes production of Les Sylphides. The production was a success, but some critics complained that the troupe’s choreographic and scenic novelty was not matched by its conservative musical score. Diaghilev set about addressing this by commissioning new ballet scores, of which the very first was Stravinsky’s Firebird, premiered in 1910. Thus began a collaboration that continued through some of the most irreplaceable items in the history of Modernist stage music: Petrushka (premiered in 1911), The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du printemps, 1913), The Nightingale (Le Rossignol, 1914), Pulcinella (1920), Mavra (1922), Reynard (1922), The Wedding (Les Noces, 1923), Oedipus Rex (1927), and Apollo (Apollon musagète, 1928). Stravinsky would write for the theater throughout his long career, continually refining his craft to suit his ever-evolving compositional sensibilities.

THE BACKSTORY Le Sacre du printemps and Perséphone, separated by twenty‑one years, are Stravinsky's two paeans to spring: the one—wild, fiercely ecsta­tic, revolutionary, and a symbol of a new musical era—is the most famous composition to have come out of the twentieth century; the other—­all lyric leisure, but with every note what Elliott Carter has called “a Stravin­sky‑note!”—is still one of the least known of twentieth century masterpieces.

The choice of story was Ida Rubinstein's. She came from Russia, a tall woman of what has been described as “mysteriously androgynous beauty.” She was wealthy and she was demanding. Stravinsky recounts that she com­missioned the painter Léon Bakst to arrange the flowers in her Parisian gar­den—in boxes so that the design could be changed every few weeks. She kept a black tiger cub, and it was rumored that she drank champagne out of Madonna lilies. Her real talent was in mime, but she was ambitious to dance, act, and sing. In 1909, Diaghilev introduced her in Fokine's Cléopâtre. She was sensational in a role perfectly suited to her gifts and limitations, as she was again a year later in Scheherazade. Her last performances for the Ballets Russes were in Scheherazade in Monte Carlo in 1911.

After that, Rubinstein was off on enterprises of her own; Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, with a text by Gabriele d'Annunzio, music by Debussy, and choreography by Michel Fokine was the first of what the dance historian Lynn Garafola calls her “genre‑defying spectacles.”  In 1928 she formed her own company, the Ballets Ida Rubinstein, with Bronislava Nijinska as her principal choreographer. She died in 1960, in the Provençal town of Vence. Nicolas Slonimsky writes that she was of “an uncertain age (but old).” Music lovers are profoundly in her debt. Aside from her involvement in Perséphone and Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, she commissioned Joan of Arc at the Stake from Honegger and got Stravinsky to compose Le Baiser de la fée; it was for her that Ravel wrote Boléro.

Rubinstein had commissioned Le Baiser de la fée after learning that Stra­vinsky's Apollo, whose score belonged to Diaghilev's company, could not be made available to her for staging, and she produced Le Baiser at the Paris Opéra in November 1928. In January 1933 she asked André Gide to approach Stravinsky about a collaboration for a “symphonic ballet” based on Gide's Hymn to Demeter. Early in February, Gide and Stravinsky met in Wiesbaden to discuss the project, and in short order a libretto was delivered and the com­position begun. The entente parfaite, Gide noted both in his journal and in a letter to Ida Rubinstein, did not last long. Gide tells the story in Ainsi soit‑il (So Be It) and Stravinsky in Memories and Commentaries, a book of conver­sations with Robert Craft. What exactly happened, or when, does not emerge with ideal clarity, but it is evident that Gide was upset with a proposed staging far less realistic than he had envisioned and than his script implies. He was even more disturbed by Stravinsky's treatment of his text. He chose to leave Paris for a vacation in Sicily rather than attend the premiere, and though he later sent Stravinsky a copy of the published libretto with the dedication “In communion,” the two men did not meet again.

THE MUSIC  In brief, the issue was syllables. The day before the premiere of Perséphone, Stravinsky published an article in the Paris Excelsior, saying that for his new work he had wanted “only syllables, beautiful, strong syllables—and beyond that, a plot.” I do not know how beautiful, strong, and satisfying Stravinsky found Gide's syllables. On one occasion he referred to his collab­orator’s poetry as “vers de caramel.”  Stravinsky's love for beautiful, strong syllables as musical, sonorous objects leading a life independent of their communicative function informed Stravinsky's vocal music always, no mat­ter whether he was setting French, his native Russian, or Latin, English, He­brew, or church Slavonic. Gide preferred his words to his syllables.

Gide, following roughly the second Homeric Hymn (written in the sixth or seventh century B.C.E., and not by Homer), has divided the action into three tableaux:

The Abduction of Perséphone—Eumolpus, chief priest of the Eleusinian rites in honor both of Demeter, goddess of fertility, and of her daughter Perséphone, begins with an invocation. The nymphs in whose care Demeter has placed Perséphone praise the beauty of spring. They warn Perséphone not to pick the narcissus, for whoever breathes it will see the Underworld. As Perséphone bends over the cup of the flower, she sees the hopeless, wan­dering Shades. Eumolpus tells her that they await her coming.  Perséphone's compassion leads her to go to the Underworld, there to become Pluto's bride and to bring solace to the Shades.

Perséphone in the Underworld—Perséphone sleeps in the Elysian Fields. The Shades ask her to tell them about the earth in spring, but Pluto calls her, and Eumolpus reminds her that she is there to reign over the Underworld, not to show pity. The Shades, the Hours, Mercury himself, offer her gifts. She re­jects them, but Mercury hopes that, remembering her mother, Perséphone will be tempted by a fruit. She succumbs when he offers her a bite of a pomegranate, which brings back a longing for the earth. Gazing into the narcissus, which she has brought with her, Perséphone sees the earth held in the grip of winter, and her own mother, Demeter, desperately searching for her. Eumolpus consoles Perséphone, telling her that Demophoön, now an infant boy, will teach humankind to till the soil and that he will bring her back to earth to be his terrestrial bride and Queen of Spring.

Perséphone Reborn—Demophoön, now called Triptolemus, removes De­meter's cloak of mouming. Perséphone reappears, and roses spring up where her feet touch the earth. She rejoices at her union with Demophoön‑Triptole­mus and at being restored to her mother. Perséphone also knows that her bond with Pluto and the Underworld cannot be broken, that for a certain time of each year she must descend to her other home. And that is when and why we have winter.

Gide ends the text of Perséphone by invoking the words of Jesus as Saint John reports them: “Except a corn of wheat falls into the ground and die, it abideth alone: But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” This Christianization of the Perséphone myth—the emphasis on Perséphone's compassion and on the idea that it is by her choice that she descends to the Underworld—is Gide's peculiar and touching contribution to the tale. It represents for him a recon­ciliation of two currents, classicism and Christianity, whose collision had caused him painful conflict as a young man. For Stravinsky, Perséphone was a return to the theme of sacrifice for the sake of renewal, brutal and involuntary in Le Sacre du printemps, here a voluntary act born of compassion and love.

Let Stravinsky have the last word (from a conversation with Robert Craft, first published in Perspectives of New Music in 1962, where he proposes that Auden fit the music with new words!):

Perséphone does start tentatively, the B‑flat music in 3/8 meter near the end is long, and the melodramas tend to beget large stretches of ostinato. I am no longer able to evaluate such things, or ever again be as I was when I wrote Perséphone. But I still love the music, especially the flutes in Perséphone's final speech (this needs stage movement!), and the final chorus (when it is played and sung in tempo, and very quietly without any general crescendo). I love the chord before the C minor Russian Easter music, too [when the cho­rus sings “Nous apportons nos offrandes”], and I love, above all, the lullaby Sur ce lit elle repose. I composed this berceuse for Vera de Bosset in Paris during a heat wave, and I wrote it for her to my own, Russian, words origi­nally. [Vera de Bosset became Vera Stravinsky in March 1940.] But the whole of Perséphone was inspired by Vera de Bosset, and what­ever tenderness or beauty may be found in the music is my poor response to those qualities in her.

 —Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(September 2018)