Le chant du rossignol
Le chant du rossignol, commonly referred to as The Song of the Nightingale, is a symphonic poem written by Igor Stravinsky in 1917. The score is adapted from his earlier work, Le rossignol (The Nightingale), an opera from 1914. The opera, based on Hans Christian Andersen's tale The Nightingale, is set in three acts, told from the point of view of a Chinese fisherman. In the orchestral version, Stravinsky mostly uses music from acts two and three.
Stravinsky's first opera
The opera, the first act written in 1908 and the later two in 1913-14, was the first ever to be written by Stravinsky. The delay between writing the first and the latter acts was caused by his commissions to write The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring for impresario Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. After this lapse of time, during which Stravinsky established himself as a ballet composer, he was unsure of returning to Le rossignol, and although he did finish it, he chose to also create a purely symphonic version, Le chant du rossignol.
Says Stravinsky in his autobiography, “I reached the conclusion—very regretfully, since I was the author of many works for the theatre—that a perfect rendering can be achieved only in the concert hall, because the stage presents a combination of several elements upon which the music has often to depend, so that it cannot rely upon the exclusive consideration which it receives at a concert. I was confirmed in this view when two months later, under the direction of ... Ansermet, Le Chant du Rossignol was given as a ballet by Diaghilev at the Paris Opera.” 
Le chant du rossignol's symphonic debut, conducted by Ernest Ansermet at the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, was met with criticism, much like that of The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s nontraditional use of dissonance and instruments was unwelcome in later performances of the piece as well. It is possibly due to this public reaction that he then let Diaghilev turn it into a ballet.
The piece’s ballet debut occurred on February 2, 1920 at the Theatre National de l'Opera in Paris. The choreography was Leonid Massine by and designs by Henri Matisse. This also was met with some skepticism. Stravinsky himself was not entirely pleased. "I had destined Le Chant du Rossignol for the concert platform, and a choreographic rendering seemed to me to be quite unnecessary," he says later in his autobiography.
Stravinsky agreed to do a revival of the ballet in 1925. Originally, the choreography was to be Massine's, but when that fell through, Diaghilev chose one of his newest students, George Balanchine, to choreograph the ballet. This is when Stravinsky first met Balanchine, who later became his most important creative partner.
The ballet follows the main plot line of Stravinsky's Le rossignol, based on Andersen's The Nightingale. The first scene shows the Nightingale singing (or in this case, dancing) for the Emperor of China, who is pleased. In the music, the song of the nightingale is chromatic and swooping, it sounds free and natural, like the song of a bird. The second scene introduces the gift of the mechanical nightingale from the Emperor of Japan. All are mesmerized by its song and ignore the real Nightingale, who flies away. The music here is short and clear, without the smooth runs of the “real” Nightingale and more sounds of a mechanical automaton. In the third scene, the Emperor meets Death, due to illness and suffering from having lost the nightingale. Then the Nightingale appears outside the Emperor’s window and convinces Death to let the Emperor go. The final scene shows the courtiers discovering that the Emperor is now well, although his Nightingale leaves once again, returning to nature.
Motifs of the story include the natural versus the artificial, with the real Nightingale juxtaposed with its mechanical replacement. It is interesting to note that this was not the first (or last) piece by Stravinsky centered on the character of a bird, nor was it his first fascination with a seemingly perfect machine, as records tell us Stravinsky often preferred the sound of a mechanical pianola, to the human (and inevitably imperfect) performance on a real piano.
Movement with music
Stravinsky was always specific about the use of movement with music. He once said, "I do not see how one can be a choreographer unless, like Balanchine, one is a musician first," in praise of the famous choreographer who began working with Stravinsky for the revival of Le Chant du rossignol. Balanchine was in fact a musician himself, and already a fan of Stravinsky’s work. He was immediately willing to take the challenge. "I learned the music well, and so ... when Diaghilev asked me to stage Stravinsky's ballet Le Chant du rossignol, I was able to do it quickly," Balanchine is quoted as saying.
Stravinsky and Balanchine
Le chant du rossignol marked the beginning of an important relationship between Stravinsky and Balanchine, composer and choreographer. The Diaghilev and Stravinsky relationship weakened during Le chant du rossignol, as each liked to be the director in charge. As Balanchine was allowed more of a role, however, it was clear that the Balanchine-Stravinsky relationship was a lasting one. They had similar taste in art, music, and movement and lived to create. Stravinsky and Balanchine continued as a team for several years, creating a number of famous ballets.
Stravinsky did not record the music during his extensive recording sessions for Columbia Records, other than a 1932 reduction for violin and piano of Airs du rossignol and Marche chinoise only, recorded in 1933 with Samuel Dushkin on violin. However, Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra recorded the ballet for RCA Victor in "Living Stereo," a pioneering process using triple track tape recorders and three microphones, in Chicago's Orchestra Hall. It was among RCA's first recordings to be released in stereo, in 1958.
- Joseph, Charles M. (2002) "Stravinsky and Balanchine, A Journey of Invention," New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN ML 410 S932 J6 652002
- EMI "Composers in Person" 2-CD set Igor Stravinsky plays and conducts, 1993.
- Albright, Daniel (1989). Stravinsky, The Music Box and the Nightingale. New York: Gordon and Breach. ISBN ML 410 S932 A6 1989
- Joseph, Charles M. (2002). Stravinsky and Balanchine, A Journey of Invention. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN ML 410 S932 J6 652002
- Vlad, Roman (1978). Stravinsky. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN ML 410 S932 V52 1978
- Balanchine Foundation website
- Balanchine Trust website
- Le chant du rossignol: Scores at the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP)