IGOR STRAVINSKY: The Firebird Suite

Stravinsky began composition of The Firebird in early November 1909. The final score bears the date May 18, 1910. The work was first performed by the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opéra on June 25, 1910; Gabriel Pierné conducted. The original orchestra for the ballet was enormous. A few years later, Stravinsky prepared a practical version for smaller orchestra, consisting of two flutes (second doubling piccolo), two oboes (second doubling English horn), two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, xylophone, tambourine, triangle, cymbals, bass drum, harp, piano, and strings.

The notorious inability of composer Anatoly Liadov to finish his scores in time gave Stravinsky his first big break. In 1909, Sergei Diaghilev needed to find a composer who could write a new ballet based on the old Russian legend of the Firebird. Diaghilev went to the twenty-eight-year-old Stravinsky to discuss a possible commission. A ballet for Diaghilev with a production in Paris was an opportunity that Stravinsky could not turn down. The premiere of the lavishly colorful score marked a signal triumph for the Ballets Russes and put the name of Stravinsky on the map. Diaghilev quickly signed him up for more ballets, and the composer turned out Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, with which he brought on a musical revolution.

The scenario of The Firebird involves the interaction of human characters with two supernatural figures, the magic Firebird (a sort of good fairy), and the evil sorcerer Kashchei, a green-taloned ogre who cannot be killed except by destroying his soul, which is preserved in a casket in the form of an egg.

The Suite contains the ballet's Introduction, with its mood of wondrous awe, depicting Kashchei’s magical garden, in which he keeps thirteen captured princesses who are only allowed out at night. Following a shower of brilliant violin harmonics (played using a new technique discovered by Stravinsky specifically for this passage), a muted horn call signals the rise of the curtain on a nocturnal scene in the Enchanted Garden of Kashchei, which continues the mysterious music of the opening. The young prince Ivan Tsarevich accidentally discovers the garden while in pursuit of the fabulous firebird. He captures the bird near a tree of magical golden apples. In the Dance of the Firebird, the firebird begs to be set free, and the prince agrees, but takes a magic feather from the bird as a token. The princesses appear tentatively, shake the apple tree, and then use the fallen apples in a game of catch. Ivan Tsarevich interrupts their game, for he has fallen in love with one of them. They dance a stately slow Round Dance called a khorovod to a melody first introduced by the oboe—an actual folk song. In pursuit of the princesses, Ivan Tsarevitch enters the palace, where he is captured by the monsters that serve as Kashchei’s guards.

Kashchei arrives and threatens to turn the prince into stone, but Ivan Tsarevich waves the feather, summoning the Firebird to his aid. The magic bird sets Kashchei’s followers to treading an Infernal Dance of energetic syncopation. The prince finds the concealed egg that represents the ogre’s soul and destroys it. Instantly, many knights who had been turned to stone come back to life (Berceuse, built on a sweetly descending phrase of folk-like character) and all take part in a dance of general happiness in the Finale, a more energetic version of the previous phrase.

There are aspects of the The Firebird that already foreshadow the revolutionary composer to come: the inventive ear for new and striking sounds, the love of rhythmic irregularities (though there is much less of it here than in The Rite of Spring!), and the predilection for using ostinatos to build up passages of great excitement. In listening to this familiar score, we may be able to sense afresh the excitement of being on the verge of a revolution. —© Steven Ledbetter