Stravinsky – Fireworks, Op. 4

by Max Derrickson

Igor Stravinsky     (b in Lomonosov, Russia, June 17, 1882; d inNew York, April 6, 1971)

Fireworks, Op. 4

For 1910 to roughly 1960, the great Igor Stravinsky held musical court in the Western world.  No other composer has ever brought so much consistently excellent music to the concert stage than Stravinsky, and most remarkably, so many different ways and techniques of composing it.  It’s true that at times other composers made their indelible marks, but Stravinsky was always visible, always creating something new, always breaking new ground and writing masterpieces.  But at no time was he ever so famous as in the years between 1909 and 1913. In those four years came arguably Stravinsky’s greatest works, the three ballets The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, written in collaboration with the Ballet Russe inParis under the direction of Sergei Diaghilev.  Those masterpieces made Stravinsky a household name worldwide virtually overnight.

Of little note in his storied career, however, is an early work that Stravinsky wrote in 1908 – Fireworks.  Without it, it’s hard to say how his career would have progressed.  Born into a very bourgeois family in Russia, Stravinsky began his adult life by studying law.  Out of an interest in music from his father, a bassist in the Marinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Stravinsky also studied composition privately with Rimsky-Korsakov at the age of 20.  Although talented enough, by some reckonings Stravinsky’s early compositions were the stuff of an impish rich boy; he was completely unknown outside of Russia.  As it happened, though, in 1908 he wrote Fireworks as a gift for the occasion of Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter’s wedding.
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In Stravinsky’s Fireworks, Diaghilev thought he had found someone who could at least orchestrate other short works for the Paris Opera’s ballets.  Stravinsky’s three great ballets that soon resulted, however, changed the course of Western music.

Fireworks is an entirely delightful little fantasy for orchestra.  In it, we hear the genesis of the things to come that brought Stravinsky such fame – incessant and driving rhythms, exquisite orchestral colorings, a boldness of spirit, and the dizzying effect of layers upon layers of sound.  As an example, listen to how the piece begins with the winds creating a kind of driving, mechanical ostinato.  Added to this are the harp and strings twittering on the off-beats.  On top of this comes
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In short, it’s the Firebird and The Rite of Spring without the fairy tale or bloody sacrifice.  And we have Sergei Diaghilev to thank for noticing it.