Stravinsky's Le Rossignol (The Nightingale) is a "musical fairy tale" based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen. It is an opera in three acts, scored for full orchestra with optional guitar and mandolin parts. According to Stravinsky, he chose a Hans Christian Andersen tale out of nostalgia for his boyhood. It is considered a short work for an opera--about forty-five minutes--and its three acts, as Eric White notes, are more like three scenes in a single-act opera.
In the opening act, the Emperor's officials seek out the Nightingale, and entreat him to come and sing in the palace. The Nightingale is elusive, but eventually accepts the offer to come to the palace. The second act takes place in the Emperor's palace, where the Nightingale sings for the Emperor. The Emperor is moved by the bird's beautiful song, but the scene is interrupted by the arrival of envoys from the Japanese Emperor, who has sent a mechanical nightingale as a gift. The real Nightingale leaves, and when the Emperor discovers this, he angrily banishes the Nightingale from the kingdom. In the final act, Death has come to take the Emperor. The Nightingale returns and defeats Death with its song, saving the Emperor. The work ends as it began, with the sounds of fishermen singing.
When Stravinsky began composing The Nightingale late in 1907, he was still closely connected with his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. Rimsky, according to White, saw and approved the preliminary sketches for the work. Stravinsky completed the first act within a year, but the completion of the opera was interrupted by, among other things, the ballet The Firebird. When Stravinsky returned to The Nightingale in 1913, he was reluctant to continue as his musical language had changed significantly from the Rimsky-inspired chromaticism of the four-year-old first act. However, he was offered a large sum as a commission from the Free Theatre of Moscow, and therefore finished the work. Debussy-inspired parallel harmonic movement makes up much of the earlier parts of the opera, along with some of the then-popular "orientalism"-in the form of altered pentatonic scales-to represent the drama at the Emperor's court. Bitonal harmony, a stalwart of Rimsky-Korsakov's music, is also present. Unlike its contemporary The Rite of Spring, The Nightingale is rhythmically straight forward, and relatively free of the Rite's rhythmic/metric complexities.. As White notes, The Nightingale is closer in musical language and character to the early ballets The Firebird and Petrushka than to the neo-classical works that would emerge in the 1920s.
With Pierre Monteux conducing, The Nightingale was premiered in 1914 in Paris under the auspices of Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballet Russe and Stravinsky's longtime ballet collaborator. After the failure of The Free Theatre of Moscow in 1914, Diaghilev took over the production of the work in preparation for the Paris opera season, employing Alexandre Benois, another collaborator of Stravinsky's, as designer.