Hugh WolffThis season, New England Conservatory's "Insights" concerts supplement Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts in February and March that feature "masterworks from the early 20th century, with special emphasis on composers associated with legendary Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes." More on this

For the NEC Philharmonia's February 11 concert, NEC's Calderwood Director of Orchestras Hugh Wolff has programmed music by four composers who were important members of Diaghilev's pantheon. In the following notes, Wolff elaborates on the connections between these composers and the Ballets Russes.

Collaborating with the Ballets Russes

All four composers on this evening’s program collaborated with impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, the Russian dance troupe that wowed audiences throughout Europe and on tours of North and South America from 1909 to 1929. Ironically, the company, comprising Russian artists, never performed in Russia. Political unrest there made this an expatriate company, based in Paris. Stravinsky wrote his three most famous ballets—Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring—for the Ballets Russes; Prokofiev wrote The Fool (Chout) and The Prodigal Son; Ravel, Daphnis and Chlöe; Richard Strauss, The Legend of Joseph. The company also choreographed some of these composers’ existing works, including Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Sadly, this 1916 production, choreographed by no less than Vaslav Nijinsky, was a flop, but the work remains one of Strauss’s most performed orchestral tone poems.

Igor Stravinsky’s early showpiece, Fireworks, Op. 4 (1908) illustrates the composer’s gift for propulsive rhythms and brilliant orchestral color. He wrote it as a wedding gift for the daughter of his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. It made a strong enough impression on Diaghilev that he took a chance on the then-unknown composer, commissioning him to orchestrate Chopin piano pieces for the Ballets Russes’ 1909 inaugural season. The success of that led to the triumph of Firebird one year later.

While still a student, Sergei Prokofiev made his first trip to Paris and London in 1913, where he saw the Ballets Russes. His First Piano Concerto gained him widespread recognition a year later. Diaghilev, showing again his remarkable nose for young talent, commissioned Prokofiev to write several ballets. He also began work on his Third Piano Concerto at this time, but didn’t finish it until 1920. It was premiered in Chicago to a lukewarm reception, but was a huge success when Prokofiev played it with Serge Koussevitzky back in Paris in 1922. Although it has since been used as music for ballet, it was never choreographed for the Ballets Russes. But its similarity to Prokofiev’s ballet music is striking, particularly the elegant and colorful second movement theme and variations.

The phenomenal success of the Ballets Russes in Paris prompted the French impresario Jacques Rouché to create a rival ballet company for French dancers, choreographers, designers, and composers. Maurice Ravel was one of the first composers Rouché approached. Ravel responded by orchestrating and expanding an existing work: Ma mère l’oye (Mother Goose), a suite of five charming miniatures for two pianos, based on well-known nursery tales. In the 1911 orchestration, Ravel made the piece richer, more complex, and more organic, crafting interludes to join the five short pieces into a single movement, and adding a Prelude and Spinning Wheel Dance to the front of the work. The nursery tales follow: Pavane of Sleeping Beauty (the quiet melancholy of a flute), Conversations of Beauty and the Beast (a waltz with the characters played by clarinet and contrabassoon—the latter transformed into a solo violin/prince at the end), Tom Thumb (whose bread crumbs are eaten by realistic-sounding birds in the solo violins and upper woodwinds), Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas (faux-Asian pentatonic music—black keys in the original piano version—that was all the rage in France at the time) and Apotheosis: The Enchanted Garden, some of the most sumptuous and touching music Ravel ever wrote.

Till Eulenspiegel was an historical character—a rogue, troublemaker, and ne’er-do-well from 14th-century Germany. He was the subject of various literary works including an 1886 novel by Belgian writer Charles de Coster, that Richard Strauss was surely familiar with. Strauss first thought of Till as an opera, but abandoned that in favor of an orchestral tone poem, finished in 1894. Strauss claimed there was no program to the work, but its episodic nature and witty subtitle, “in the Old Roguish Style—in Rondo Form,” hint at a story with chapters. Till himself is depicted with two leitmotifs: the famous horn call and a squirrely E-flat clarinet phrase. The second of these is actually the opening six notes of the piece (played gently by violins), speeded up into an impudent, nose-thumbing gesture. Along the way, we follow Till charging into a crowded marketplace (cymbal crash, ratchets, and general mayhem), disguising himself among penitents (genial violas, Till played by the tuba, then a solo violin chromatic scale as Till scampers away), wooing a young girl (clearly not pleased with his advances), mocking scholars who discourse in Latin (close harmony in the bassoons and complex counterpoint and syncopations) and being captured by the authorities and brought to trial (dramatic drum roll and ominous brass chords). Till is unrepentant, his mocking E-flat clarinet motif ever ruder in the face of an increasingly irate judge. It’s off to the gallows for Till, sprung by a fortissimo descending major seventh in the brass. The grotesque spasms of the body are the shuddering high woodwinds that descend slowly, followed by six lifeless pizzicato notes in the strings. But it’s just a fairy tale. The “once upon a time” opening phrase returns, the music seems designed to lull the impressionable (and perhaps frightened) young listener to sleep, until Till gets the last laugh: one final outburst, complete with a syncopated F-major stinger.