Venetian Visions? – Stravinsky’s Le Roi des étoiles

Venetian Visions? – Stravinsky’s Le Roi des étoiles

In “The Almonac” Henrik Almon, library manager at Ricordi Berlin, presents works from the publishers’ inexhaustible repertoire that are worth hearing straight away yet are rather seldom to be found in the programming of the major opera houses and orchestras.

« Je règne » dit-il «sans partage. »
Plus fort gronde alors le tonnerre.
« C'est l'heure: » dit-il en sa gloire.
« Les moissons attendent. Amen. »

San Michele, the isle of the dead, is not only the last resting place of many prominent personages of past centuries; it is also a pulsating hotspot of decidedly living mosquitoes. After some productive days exploring the countless installations at this year’s Biennale in Venice, I pursued a little contrasting programme and visited the cemetery island, chiefly because my travel guide indicated that Igor Stravinsky’s grave was here. But now, instead of ambling contemplatively through a morbidly enchanting idyll, I find myself flailing and rushing wildly from one cul-de-sac to another, because every time I pause to decipher an inscription I get stung again.
Where on earth is Stravinsky, I ask myself, slightly irritated? And then: Just a moment. Why is he even here in Venice? As far as I know, Stravinsky had to emigrate twice in his lifetime, first from Russia to France, then from there to the US, where he died in 1971. But Stravinsky and Venice? That doesn’t ring any bells for me. Instead there’s a buzzing noise. I haul off and whack two mosquitoes, caught in the act. In the graveyard, meanwhile, I land up at what appears to be a newly created area, a seemingly meta-sacred David Chipperfield extension that puts me in a surreally eschatological frame of mind.

Pieux et fervents, nous suivîmes.
La foudre fendait les nuages.
Sept gloires d'étoiles splendides
montraient du désert le chemin.

That’s how the Russian poet Konstantin Balmont’s ends his poem Le Roi des étoiles (in Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi’s French translation; Zvezdolikiy in the original Russian, which translates to Star-face or The Star-faced One in English), the basis of Stravinsky’s cantata of that name. Its Symbolist-Impressionist musical idiom somehow provides an apt soundtrack to my cemetery stroll.

Le Roi des étoiles can be found in our catalogue as a remnant from the Russian publisher P. Jurgenson. It is an erratic singleton which has almost nothing to do with the smash hits that helped deliver legendary performance scandals and worldwide fame to Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes.

Instead of the forward-rocking Stravinsky of the Sacre, Le Roi des étoiles exhibits parallels with the tonal language of Skryabin and Debussy. In contrast to the almost contemporaneously composed ballets, which thanks to the Ballets Russes’ extensive tours enjoyed a quick succession of repeat performances, Le Roi des étoiles, composed in 1911-12, had the misfortune of waiting nearly 30 years for a single presentation. It is, in any event, probably one of Stravinsky’s least frequently heard works because – as its publisher is grudgingly obliged to admit – of less than favourable parameters: this is a much too short piece (c. 6 min.) for much too sizeable forces (large orchestra with, among other things, eight horns, two harps and celesta plus male chorus), whose discernibility over long stretches is limited because of dynamics that mostly vary between pianissimo and piano. The work is also technically not without its challenges, as when the strings, divided in the extreme, confront the chorus in independent bitonal part-writing. All in all, a first glance suggests rather difficult performing conditions.

In spite of its brevity, Le Roi des étoiles abounds with complex points of reference. Then again, if chorus and orchestra are already on stage, the work can easily be integrated into longer concert programmes.

Le Roi des étoiles portrays an eschatological vision of resurrection in which a king of the stars, with much bluster and commotion, leads his disciples into the wilderness. A detailed view reveals the subtlety of Stravinsky’s setting. Along with analogies to Skryabin and Debussy in the orchestral apparatus, one can detect harmonies aspiring to nowhere reminiscent of Wagner. Quaver (eighth-note) horn triplets on octave F sharps, barely audible yet all the more relentless, are juxtaposed against varying chord changes from the strings and chorus.

Autour de lui brille la foudre
au ciel ravagé, lourd d'orages,
Sept gloires d'étoiles splendides
entourent son chef rayonnant.

And when it comes to wind writing, Stravinsky is simply a master. One brilliant touch is the serene, premature “Amen”: a fake ending to the piece after the penultimate strophe, in which the resurrected one calls his followers to the harvest, and the rising up of the faithful – entirely devoid of pathos – is then sublimely depicted musically by means of a brief tremolo motif on the violins. Abruptly, I land up in front of Stravinsky’s grave at last, in the back row of a smaller separate section on San Michele. In fact, I only manage to glance at it for a few seconds because suddenly I notice there’s very little time left before I need to catch the ferry.

On the vaporetto, I’m re-encountering the hustle and bustle of the Biennale and fumbling around in my backpack for my mobile to finally google why Stravinsky is buried in Venice, when a giant cruise ship suddenly appears across the water. I pause for a moment. On the hundreds of balconies of this futuristic space shuttle, I can make out the rough outlines of thousands of people staring down at me and faded Venice all around as though they’ve come from a different planet.

Ses yeux sont pareils aux étoiles,
aux feux qui sillonnent l'espace;
sa face au soleil est semblable,
quand l'astre rayonne au zénith.

Postscript: It was Stravinsky’s last wish to be buried near the grave of Sergei Diaghilev on San Michele. Although unlike Diaghilev, who died in Venice in 1929, Stravinsky never lived there, he always felt a strong connection to the city because a number of his important works had their premieres here.

Le Roi des Étoiles (1911/1912)

cantata for male chorus and orchestra text by K. Balmont, French translation by M.-D. Calvocoressi
male chorus – 3(2picc) – – timp.drum – cel.2hp– str
WP: 1939, Brussels

The author

Henrik Almon has been responsible since 2013 for the rental department of Ricordi Berlin. Since then, he has constantly been rummaging through the labyrinthine entanglements of 200 years of publishing history, music archives scattered across Europe, analog and digital data banks as well as cryptic messages concerning the delivery of shipped parcels.

Prior to his life at Ricordi, Henrik Almon virtuously completed a rock-solid business course before plunging into the academic depths of musicology, media studies and literature. His studies took him from Weimar and Jena via Paris to Brazil, where he worked for a time as a piano teacher. An enduring passion for Brazilian composers culminated in 2018 in the completion of his dissertation “Discourses on Art-Music in Brazil in the First Half of the 20th Century”. Outside of Ricordi he continues to be an ardent violinist in one of the many Berlin university orchestras.

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Illustration: Marie Louise James