Stravinsky's Firebird: a listening lesson reborn
I might be biased, speaking as a horn player, but I think the finale to Stravinsky's The Firebird is absolutely sublime. It has to be some of my favourite few minutes of art music ever. So of course I wanted to introduce it to my students!
Stravinsky wrote this music for the 1910 season of the Ballet Russes. It tells the story of the legendary phoenix dying, bursting into flames and then being reborn from the ashes.
Below are several ways your students can engage in a listening lesson with this wonderful piece!
Lesson 1: Melodic Contour
The teacher can garner interest in the piece by displaying a picture of a phoenix on the board and talking about the legend of its' rebirth.
Then the teacher can play a recording of the horn solo at the beginning of the finale (here it is played by Stefan Dohr of the Berlin Philharmonic)
Students can talk about what instrument they hear, which part of the phoenix's journey this might represent (emerging from the ashes) and some words to describe the character.
The teacher will then hum the melody while students keep a beat and determine the metre (in this case 3/2, which may be new for some, but works just like any other 3 metre, only here we are counting in minims!)
The teacher will hum the melody of the horn solo in 2 sections (first 2 bars, then second 2 bars) and have students establish in the first section:
- Where is do?
- What is the starting pitch in solfa?
- Echo the first phrase in solfa with hand signs
Then the teacher will hum the second phrase and students will establish:
- What is the starting pitch? (fa)
- What is the final pitch ? (re)
- Echo the second phrase in solfa with hand signs
You can practice writing skills by having them transcribe the melody of this excerpt.
They can then complete a further listening by following along with the first minute and a half of the top recording and hand signing whenever they hear that melody.
Over several listenings, they should focus on:
1. Hand signing the solfa of the melodic pattern and counting how many times it appears
2. Whether there are any sections which feature an incomplete version of the melody and, if so, which number repetition this occurs on?
3. Identifying the instruments playing the melody in each repetition
Lesson 2: Metric Shifts
Introduce students to 7 metre by having them complete a simple rhythmic ostinato. Discuss the different groupings in 7 (3 + 2 + 2 or 2+ 2+ 3 etc). Students may use a clap and a click for a group of 2 and something like a pat of the knees, a clap and a click for the group of 3.
Students can review the melody from the previous lesson by singing it in solfa and then try to transform it from 3 metre into 7 metre:
s f m s r d f m r f m d r
They must keep the same solfa and sing each pitch only once, but they can change the duration of the notes to make it fit a 7-metre.
Students can improvise different versions of this, before exploring how Stravinsky did it.
At this point, the teacher can display a score and point out the kind of pseudo-bar lines that suggest the groupings of 2 and 3 that Stravinsky wanted. Students can analyse this and then learn a circle dance to accompany the 7 section (if you're using the recording above, it starts at 1'48" until 2'57")
Here's my suggested choreography, but you and your students can absolutely design your own!
- On the down beat, students will sidestep clockwise to a new partner
- To complete the group of 3 they will clap their hands and then click their fingers
- For each group of 2, they will high 5 their partner then click their fingers
- For the final group of 3, they will pat their thighs, then clap their hands then click their fingers
To highlight the downbeat of the second full bar, students should also stamp a foot on the downbeat.
Lesson 3: Listening Map
Listening maps are a great visual way for students to organise what they're hearing and can make analysis of things like form, key, melodic motifs, instrumentation etc. much easier.
In this listening map, students will first take note of how many times they heard the melody, including any partial versions.
They'll take note of where the tempo changes
They'll note where the key changes - depending on the level of your students, they may be able to identify the key, or just whether it got higher or lower, or simply that there was a change.
Then they should identify what instruments they hear playing the melody.
Here's a sample listening map:
What other features would you pull out in a listening lesson?
Students could step the bass line, they could have a Kokas-inspired lesson and improvise movements to tell a story or paint what they are hearing.
There are so many things to do with this wonderful piece of music - I hope you and your students enjoy!