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Notes on the programme

Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971): Renard (1916)

While the division of style into distinct periods is, as with every composer, an over-simplification of their musical development, in Stravinsky’s case the changes are readily identifiable. Yet one strand of his musical outlook remained constant through his career: his distaste for over-indulgence and personal expression. In his autobiography of 1936 he wrote: ‘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, etc… Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.’ This polemic, which was essentially a reaction to the indulgent sounds of Romanticism that preceded Stravinsky’s early works, has been widely reproduced (and criticised) over the years. So much so, that Stravinsky eventually found himself defending his own words, when he wrote in his 1962 book with Robert Craft: ‘The over-publicised bit about expression (or nonexpression) was simply a way of saying that music is supra-personal and super-real and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions… I stand by the remark, incidentally, though today I would put it the other way around: music expresses itself.’ Stravinsky abhorred the labels that were attributed to his music, and largely resisted the throes of nationalism that grew around the tumultuous political events of the early 20th-century. That his earliest works were conceived in a ‘Russian’ idiom was, for Stravinsky at least, little more than a source of musical inspiration, rather than a defiant nationalist statement. Although the works of his early Russian phase were tremendously successful, over time he would come to distance himself increasingly from these associations for fear of being typecast. With his music receiving a lukewarm – if not altogether cool – reception back at home in Russia, Stravinsky would begin to cut the ties with his homeland, something that Debussy lamented to his contemporary in a letter: ‘Cher Stravinsky, you are a great artist! Be, with all your energy, a great Russian artist! It is a good thing to be from one’s country, to be attached to the earth like the humblest peasant.’ Of the great works that grew out of Stravinsky’s relatively short Russian period, his dramatic work

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Renard remains one of the least well-known, despite its charming premise. Renard is based on the folk tales of Russian writer Alexander Afanasyev, with the text written by Stravinsky himself. Set in a farmyard, this moral tale follows a cunning young Fox as he twice outwits and captures the Cock, who in turn is rescued each time by the Cat and the Goat. After the Cock is captured for the second time, the Cat and the Goat capture and strangle the Fox, and the three rejoice at their victory. Although Stravinsky called the piece a ‘burlesque’, Renard falls somewhere between the genres of ballet and opera, in that it is a dramatic work that is sung and played, while incorporating elements of dance. The piece was written at the request of one of Paris’ most important philanthropists, Winnaretta Singer, also known as la Princesse Edmond de Polignac, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Singer asked Stravinsky to write a new work that could be performed in her salon, so it is hardly surprising that the dramatic action was not designed to be fullystaged. While there are as many characters as there are singers, the vocal parts themselves are not aligned with particular characters: when not singing, the actors/singers are asked to perform freely as clowns, dancers and acrobats, instead of being given specific choreography. However, the first performance was given not in Singer’s salon – in fact, the work was never performed there for reasons that are unclear – but was premiered by the Ballet Russes at the Théâtre de l’Opéra in Paris in 1922, complete with full costumes and elaborate choreography. As well as the source of the folk tales, the music of Renard is also distinctly Russian, and makes extensive use of the cimbalom – a stringed instrument that is played with mallets, chosen because it is similar in timbre to the Russian guzla (an instrument that was not easy to come by in Paris). This percussive instrument is perfectly suited to the work’s linear texture, which makes extensive use of repeated melodic fragments, alternating time signatures and driving rhythms – features of Russian folksong which Stravinsky had introduced in Petrushka and The Rite just a few years earlier. Jo Kirkbride

Igor Stravinsky: Renard  

The programme to our Igor Stravinsky: Renard concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London on 10 February 2013.

Igor Stravinsky: Renard  

The programme to our Igor Stravinsky: Renard concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London on 10 February 2013.

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