It’s never easy to appreciate something unconventional. Just ask the people who attended the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a performance infamous for sparking a riot, reducing the proud composer to tears. Even as a passionate musician, I had trouble finding value in any of Stravinsky’s avant-garde work; that is, until I had to play it.
The Firebird is Stravinsky’s other famous ballet, and the concert suite arranged from it is standard repertoire for any professional orchestra. I would often hear from other musicians how breathtaking and awe-inspiring the piece was, but whenever I took the time to listen to a recording myself, I could never get past the first movement. The theme’s variations were the worst: how could anyone be moved by random strings of notes being played in seemingly random places?
This year, the conductor of my local youth symphony selected Firebird as the main piece in our repertoire. Flipping through the pages of my part, I saw exactly what I expected: it was difficult, but completely lacking in musical sense, at least to me.
“Let’s start with Berceuse and Finale,” announced the conductor.
Expecting the outlandish atonality I had come to associate with Stravinsky’s music, I was stunned when the room melted into a calm string accompaniment and eerie bassoon and oboe solos. Suddenly, the string section burst into a chilling melody that would contrast with the dark, resonant, beautiful French horn solo it led into. The orchestra then joined together in an ascending crescendo that exploded into a majestic trumpet fanfare and finale, booming bass drum and all.
So this was the glorious Firebird I had been told about, this thrilling contrast of heartwarming lullaby and infernal frenzy and every other sensation of passion in between. I couldn’t help but smile: I had uncovered a gem of a piece from the deep trenches of my first impression.
Learning to appreciate Firebird led me to The Rite of Spring (no riots were started), and then to Stravinsky’s trio of virtuosic solo pieces standard for the clarinet. Becoming more familiar with his unconventional work has not only expanded my understanding of music, but has also led me to experiment with some of my own artistic interpretation. It’s not advisable to perform an atonal cadenza, of course, assuming my goal is to please the audience, but I do try to add some individual flavor to the sometimes stagnant pieces in classical music.
Even outside of music, Stravinsky has transformed me into a more open-minded and innovative person. I have come to enjoy other forms of expression: dance, fine art, literature, even dabbling in them a bit myself. I have learned to consider an unconventional approach to problems in math and science, often developing my own methods to achieve a desired result in a shorter amount of time. Most of all, Stravinsky has taught me to keep an ear out for the cacophonous and dissonant ideas I may encounter; who knows, one might just be another Firebird.