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The Faun and Shepherdess

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

The Faun and Shepherdess

One of Stravinsky’s very earliest compositions, The Faun and Shepherdess is a setting for mezzo-soprano and orchestra of three poems by Alexander Pushkin. The work was written in 1906 as his Opus 2 when the composer was 24 years old. He was living in St Petersburg, in the sophisticated cosmopolitan environment of pre Revolutionary Russia, where he was a pupil of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and he was very much under the influence of his teacher’s strongly traditional Russian outlook and compositional techniques. So far there was no sign at all of the extraordinary new artistic sentiments and revolutionary musical language that was to explode just five years later with his ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. In fact the first song of The Faun and Shepherdess recalls the lyricism and even musical shape of passages in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. There are, however, in the second song just a few striking premonitions of chords representing the supernatural character of the Firebird in Stravinsky’s ballet of four years later.

The first song is about the flowering of a beautiful shepherdess in her 15th year, ‘like a lily at dawn;….with her heart filled by soft yearnings, she tastes delight in her dreams and whispers "Oh Philon"’.

Then comes a picture of the Faun, ‘the gloomy dweller of forests and mountains, timeless pursuer of young sheperdesses’, who is the unsuccessful rival of Cupid’s favorite ‘the handsome Philon’.

The final song is called the Torrent: the Faun pursues the Shepherdess through a forest: ‘all the secrets of her young beauty – from tender bosom to slender foot – are unintentionally uncovered by the kissing of the wind’. She rushes towards a stream to escape her pursuer, but he catches up with her: ‘useless are your efforts, you are promised to the Faun’. She jumps into the torrents of the stream, her future grave – but no, she is safe!

© Jon Tolansky

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