Stravinsky: Scherzo fantastique

Scherzo fantastique, Opus 3

BORN: June 17, 1882. Oranienbaum, now Lomonosov, Russia
DIED: April 6, 1971. New York City

COMPOSED: June 1907. Ustilug, Ukraine. The piece is dedicated to Alexander Siloti

WORLD PREMIERE: February 19, 1909. The work’s dedicatee, Alexander Siloti, led its premiere at the Siloti Concerts in Saint Petersburg

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY—April 1958. Stravinsky conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Piccolo and 3 flutes (2nd doubling alto flute, 3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets in A (3rd doubling clarinet in D) plus bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets and contralto trumpet, suspended cymbal, celesta, 3 harps, and strings

DURATION: About 11 mins

THE BACKSTORY  Igor Stravinsky’s early compositions are performed so infrequently that an innocent listener might imagine that his catalogue begins in 1909-10 with The Firebird. But The Firebird did not emerge from a void. In retrospect, we hear it very much prefigured in the swirling melodic figures, vivid orchestral colors, and driving momentum of several works of the immediately preceding years, most prominently Scherzo fantastique in 1907 and, from the following year, Feu d’artifice (Fireworks) and the recently rediscovered Chant funèbre (Funeral Song).

Stravinsky was not among music’s child prodigies. He did not begin studying the piano until he was nine, and although his father was a respected professional opera singer, music does not seem to have played much more of a role at home than it did for most upper-middle-class Russian families at that time. One of his friends at school was the son of the celebrated composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. When Stravinsky’s father died, in December 1902, Rimsky-Korsakov became a mentor, both personal and musical, to the aspiring composer, and gave him some surprising counsel. “He strongly advised me not to enter the [Saint Petersburg] Conservatoire,” wrote Stravinsky in his 1936 memoir An Autobiography. “He considered that the atmosphere of that institution, at which he was himself a professor, was not suited to me …. Moreover, as I was twenty he feared that I might find myself backward in comparison with my contemporaries, and that this might discourage me. He further considered it necessary that my work should be systematically supervised, and that this could be achieved only by private lessons.”

In the 1960 book Memories and Commentaries, one of a series of volumes produced jointly by the composer and his amanuensis, Robert Craft, Stravinsky proposed that the common perception of Rimsky-Korsakov as “someone not very easy with his sympathy and not abundantly generous or kind” was not entirely on target:

My Rimsky was deeply sympathetic, however, deeply and unshowingly generous…. Rimsky was a strict man and a strict, though at the same time very patient, teacher …. His knowledge was precise, and he was able to impart whatever he knew with great clarity. … He was for me, when I first came to him, sans reproche musically, but before very long I began to wish for someone even less ‘reproachable’ and for music that would satisfy the ideals of my growing mind…

“He had seen the manuscript of my Scherzo Fantastique,” wrote the composer in Conversations with Igor Stravinsky, a 1959 collaboration with Craft, “but his death prevented him from hearing it. He never complimented me; but he was always very closemouthed and stingy in praising his pupils. But I was told by his friends after his death that he spoke with great praise of the Scherzo score.” In a footnote, Stravinsky added that, at the distance of decades, he was “surprised to find that the music did not embarrass me. The orchestra ‘sounds,’ the music is light in a way that is rare in compositions of the period, and there are one or two quite good ideas in it …. Of course the phrases are all four plus four plus four, which is monotonous, and, hearing it again, I was sorry that I did not more exploit the alto flute. It is a promising opus 3, though.” Characteristics of Rimsky-Korsakov are everywhere, certainly in the work’s harmonic behavior but also in the sheer verve of its orchestral color. One may also sense a kinship with the style of contemporaneous French composers, particularly Debussy and Dukas; Stravinsky admired both, and he occasionally conducted some of their pieces later in his career.

THE MUSIC  Alert ears may indeed be struck by a violin passage, six-and-a-half minutes in, that calls to mind Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, a famous high-velocity interlude from his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan. The apian connection was reinforced when this music was used in 1917 for a ballet titled Les abeilles (The Bees) at the Paris Opera House. After that, the composer said, “some bad literature about bees was published on the fly-leaf of my score to satisfy my publisher, who thought a ‘story’ would help to sell the music.” In Conversations, he insisted that he wrote the Scherzo fantastique “as a piece of ‘pure’ symphonic music” and that “the bees were a choreographer’s idea.” It is difficult to accord that with a letter Stravinsky had written in 1907: “I already had the idea of writing a scherzo in Peter[sburg], but I didn’t yet have a subject. At a certain point, Katya [his wife] and I read [Maurice] Maeterlinck’s Life of the Bees, a half-philosophical, half-imaginative work which charmed me, as they say, head over heels. … I decided to follow an exact program but without having a quotation from the book as part of the title, which is simply ‘The Bees (after Maeterlinck). Fantastic Scherzo.’” Elsewhere he alluded to specific correspondences between Maeterlinck’s text and his composition. The opening and closing sections apparently relate to the author’s depiction of “The Swarm.” The more relaxed central portion (Moderato assai, beginning with an alto flute solo) illustrates the “Nuptial Flight” of the queen bee, with shades of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. It leading to a violently buzzing passage that must align with “The Massacre of the Males” in Maeterlinck’s book.

It appears that Stravinsky’s later deviation from this account was quite deliberate; he had good reason to downplay any connection this piece had to Maeterlinck’s book. After the ballet was premiered, Maeterlinck sent him a letter “accusing me of intent to cheat and fraud” because he had not granted permission for the ballet to be based on his work: “Les Abeilles—anyone’s title, after all,” Stravinsky observed.

—James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Pierre Boulez conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Thierry Fischer conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Signum UK)  |  Charles Dutoit conducting the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (Decca, re-released by ArkivMusic)  |  Of obvious historical interest, Stravinsky conducting the CBC Symphony Orchestra in 1962 (CBS Masterworks)

Reading: Stravinsky: The Composer and his Works, by Eric Walter White, second edition (University of California Press)  |  Stravinsky and the Russian Tradition, by Richard Taruskin (University of California Press)  |  Igor Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: Russia and France, 1882-1934, by Stephen Walsh (Knopf) 

Online: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony explore Stravinsky, in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, an episode of Keeping Score, available from SFS Media at and on iTunes and Amazon

(June 2017)