“That music reminded me of when my grandmother died last summer,” a second grade girl confided in me.

Today was the day for a listening and drawing experience with Stravinsky’s The Firebird.  My young students enjoy listening when there is an implied story line in the music, and this music is full of drama.  I briefly introduced Stravinsky to my 2nd graders, telling them a few facts about his life that would pique their interest.  He came from a musical family with a father who sang opera and a mother who played piano.  He was born in Russia and grew up with Russian fairy tales and folk tales.

The six short sections of The Firebird Suite (1919 version) make it a perfect listening piece because each section has a distinct and contrasting character.  For example, the first section is moody and ominous, and sets the scene for an adventure.  The second is dramatically different, with frenetic energy.  As the children listen to each section they are instructed to notice the images in their minds.  On a paper divided into six boxes they draw those images, and create their own story for the music.  The result is like an over-sized comic strip, but without any words.

The Firebird of course was a well-loved Russian folk tale before it was a ballet accompanied by Stravinsky’s music.  (The ballet actually is a composite of several stories.) A prince catches an intriguing, flame-colored bird.  The bird begs for his freedom and promises a gift.  A bright feather is left as he flies away.  This feather is later used when all hope is lost in a battle with demons.

Stravinsky composed the music to illustrate the folk tale and the action of the ballet.  The classroom listening exercise invites the children to do the reverse.  They use the music to inspire the creation of a new story.  Later on they will hear the actual Firebird tale, but I am most interested in first forging a personal connection to the music.  Unfortunately there isn’t time or patience to have each child tell the details of their story to the whole class, but 2 by 2 they can share their stories with each other.  The stories have caves, monsters and volcanoes.  There are princesses and weddings.  There are battles, weapons and coffins.

Section 5 of The Firebird, “Berceuse,” is the slow lament that especially touched my second grade student mentioned above.  She brought her paper up to me at the end of class, and I noticed that section 6 was empty.  She apparently had been caught up in the emotion of the 5th section and had stopped drawing.  “Berceuse” had carried her away to a place of loss and grief.

What is it about that section of music that calls up such memories?  I have found that many students draw pictures of dead warriors or coffins for that section.  What is it in the shape of Stravinsky’s melody or his choice of instruments that stirred my student’s heart and communicated the profound grief of death?  For that matter, what is it in section 4 that brings images of battle to my students over and over?  Musical notes written on the page almost 100 years ago are brought to life by French horns and oboes and strings.  Rhythmic patterns and melodic lines bypass words and story line, and communicate directly with the heart.

~ Liz


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