Stravinsky: Le Chant du Rossignol, performed by the 'Orchestre National de France conducted by Pascal Rophé

Duration : 22 minutes

Conducted by Pascal Rophé, the Orchestre National de France performs Le Chant du Rossignol, symphonic poem composed in 1917 by Igor Stravinsky. Extract from the live concert recording on 24 May 2018 at the Radio France Auditorium (Paris).

It was in the form of a short opera, or rather a "lyrical tale in three parts" that Stravinsky first decided to put the text by Andersen to music, from 1908 to 1914, as a way to renew a link with the fairytales of his childhood. In 1916, Diaghilev suggested composing a symphonic version; Stravinsky therefore proposed to create a symphonic poem for reduced orchestra, one which could be adapted to ballet. Using certain passages from the previous concert, notably the second and third acts, Stravinsky drew from the "Courants d'air" motif, the breeze making the corridor bells ring, and the "Marche chinoise" signaling the arrival of the emperor. The bird, naturally, is portrayed by the arabesques and the trills by the flute and solo violin. The programme is perfectly portrayed through the music: Le Chant du Rossignol moved the Emperor and his court. When the Japonese delegation arrived bringing with them a mechanical nightingale, the real bird had disappeared, having flown off to find its fisher friend. As the Emperor senses Death approaching, he sees his life flashing before his very eyes. Haunted by ghosts, he cannot even depend on the fake nightingale, who refuses to sing. However, the appearance at the window of the beloved nightingaleand a new melody suddenly force Death to yield, and once the Emperor back to life, the nightingaleflies away.

One could be surprised by finding a symphonic poem, quintessential element of programmatic music, in the corpus of works of the composer who once famously claimed: "I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature". (An Autobiography, 1971). Inspired by Michel de Chabanon (On Music Considered in Itself, and in its Relationship to Speech, Languages, Poetry, and  the Theatre) and Eduard Hanslick (The Beautiful in Music, 1854), Stravinsky advocated a formalist conception of music. However, this in no way implied that music could not be associated to a visual or literary aspect. The rest of the quote, often forgotten, highlights the principle of expression through the prism of convention, necessary in any multidisciplinary endeavour: "Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being". The characters come to life through simple timbres, such as a bassoon surprised to hear the bird. The characters come to life in the form of simple timbres, like a bassoon surprised to hear the bird. The imperial court gathers around the Emperor reclined in his palanquin, all the while a grandiose fanfare with almost ridiculous brass glissandi. In the publication Comoedia from 4 February 1920, Louis Laloy remembered the opera upon discovering the ballet: "It was a marvelous spectacle in which the intensity of the emotions reached indescribable levels. Today, the spectacle is more succinct, condensed, concentrated, and translated, the vocal passages erased, in their place the movements of the groups and individual gestures. The two nightingalesare no longer birds of song but rather birds of dance. The passages follow one another without transition or explanation. The music has solidified into a symphony". And without a doubt there is no need, as Stravinsky initially thought when adapting the work, of a dancer to reveal the beauty of the oriental set design, the magnificence of the processions, the imposing masses and the worrying solitude, and above all the song  and the anxieties. more solitary, and especially the song of a nightingale, just as melodic but even more enchanting.

The charm of the nightingale

Fascinated by bird songs, musicians have often stopped to listen to the song of the nightingale, notably François Couperin (Le Rossignol en amour), Claude Lejeune (Rossignol mon mignon), without going into the countless madrigals and descriptive works that depict the songbird, from Monteverdi's Zefiro torna to Janequin's Chant du rossignol. Audiences will remember the romantic Wanderer overcome with worry as the songbird faces him with his own solitude, or the popular melodies such as Rossignolet du bois, glorified by Luciano Berio in his Folksongs: "Nightingale of the woods, Wild nightingale, teach me your language, teach me to speak, teach me the way to love, how to love..."

L'Orchestre National de France performs Webern, Dusapin, Stravinsky and Varèse
Full concert
The Orchestre National de France performs Webern, Dusapin, Stravinsky and Varèse
Auditorium de la Maison de la Radio
Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky
All artists
  • Pascal RophéConductor
  • Orchestre National de FranceOrchestra