Stravinsky: The Firebird

The Firebird

BORN:  June 17, 1882. Oranienbaum, Russia
DIED: April 6, 1971. New York City

COMPOSED: Between November 1909 and May 1910  

WORLD PREMIERE: June 25, 1910, by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at the Opéra in Paris. The scenario was the work of Léon Bakst, Michel Fokine, Alexandre Benois, Diaghilev, and Stravinsky; the choreography was by Fokine, who also danced the role of Ivan Tsarevich. The other principal dancers were Tamara Karsavina (Firebird), Vera Fokina (Thirteenth Princess), and Alexis Bulgakov (King Kashchei). Bakst designed the costumes for the Firebird and the Thirteenth Princess, the others being the work of Alexander Golovine; Gabriel Pierné conducted 

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 piccolos (2nd doubling 3rd flute) and 2 flutes; 3 oboes and English horn; 3 clarinets (3rd doubling high clarinet in D) and bass clarinet; 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon) and contrabassoon; 4 horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones; tuba; timpani; triangle; tambourine; cymbals; bass drum; tam-tam; bells; xylophone; celesta; piano; three harps; and strings, together with a stage band consisting of 3 trumpets, 2 tenor tubas in B-flat, and 2 bass tubas in F

DURATION: About 46 mins

Le tout Paris eagerly awaited the June opening of the 1910 season of the Ballets Russes, for word had filtered out that the impresario-genius Diaghilev was importing at great cost a new repertoire of lavish Russian ballets. The previous season, Diaghilev had dazzled the Parisian public by introducing a new crop of the Russian Imperial Ballet’s finest dancers. Diaghilev’s campaign to conquer the European cultural capital was proceeding with the sure swiftness of a master general. The 1909 season, crowned by a command performance before the President of the French Republic and the diplomatic corps, had been an artistic and financial triumph. The 1910 season, which was to include two entirely new ballets by Fokine—Shéhérazade and a work based on the Russian legend of the Firebird—promised to outshine even that.

Diaghilev had introduced Stravinsky to Parisian audiences during the 1909 season. That Stravinsky received the important Firebird  commission—Diaghilev’s first commission of an original ballet score—was largely a matter of happenstance, due primarily to the dilatory work habits of Anatole Liadov, the senior Russian composer to whom Diaghilev had initially entrusted composition of the ballet score. As the story goes, Diaghilev was expecting the first installments of the score in November 1909, but learned that Liadov had not yet begun writing and had only just begun to restock his supply of manuscript paper. The offer was rescinded.

Stravinsky arrived in Paris in late May 1910 for the final rehearsals of Firebird. It was during one of these dress rehearsals that Diaghilev, pointing to Stravinsky, delivered his famous remark to the famed dancer Karsavina, “Mark him well; he is a man on the eve of celebrity.” The new ballet was premiered on June 25. “The first-night audience at the Paris Opera,” Stravinsky relates, “glittered indeed . . . . I sat in Diaghilev’s box, where, at intermissions, a stream of celebrities, artists, dowagers, aged Egerias of the Ballet, writers, balletomanes, appeared. I met Proust, Girardoux, Paul Morand, St. John Perse, Paul Claudel, Sarah Bernhardt . . . . I was called to the stage to bow at the conclusion, and was recalled several times. I was still on stage when the final curtain had come down, and I saw coming toward me Diaghilev and a dark man with a double forehead whom he introduced as Claude Debussy. The composer spoke kindly about the music, ending his words with an invitation to dine with him . . . . The Parisian audience wanted a taste of the avant-garde, and The Firebird was just that—according to Ravel.” On June 26, the twenty-eight-year-old Stravinsky was famous.

The scenario of The Firebird is based on the many fables of Russian folklore in which Ivan Tsarevich is cast as hero. The green-talon ogre Kashchei, a sorcerer, represents the embodiment of evil, and the Firebird is a benevolent fairy. In Stravinsky’s Firebird, the young Ivan Tsarevich is wandering through a forest at night. It is the magic garden of King Kashchei, and in it, Ivan spies the Firebird, a magnificent creature bedecked in fiery scarlet plumage, picking golden apples from a silver tree. He pursues and captures the Firebird, but she pleads to be released and gives him one of her brilliantly colored feathers, whose magic she says will protect him from harm. As dawn approaches, Ivan discovers that he is in the park of an ancient castle, and presently, twelve beautiful damsels enter the park from the castle and begin to play with the golden apples. Ivan guesses that the beautiful maidens must be princesses, and he is particularly entranced by the beauty of the Thirteenth Princess, with whom he falls in love. He approaches the princesses, and they dance for him, but they hasten back to the castle at daybreak. Ivan realizes that he is in the domain of the evil Kashchei, who captures any sojourners in his realm, turning men to stone and holding maidens in captivity. Nevertheless, he resolves to follow the princesses, and as he forces the castle gate, great bells of a giant carillon peal an alarm. Kashchei’s retinue, an assemblage of grotesque monsters, issues forth, followed by the sorcerer himself. Ivan is captured. Kashchei is about to turn Ivan to stone, but the young prince remembers the magic plume, waves it, and the Firebird appears. Her magic counteracts that of Kashchei. She causes the monsters to dance about madly until they are exhausted, and her lullaby puts the maleficent sorcerer and his courtiers into a deep sleep. The Firebird reveals to Ivan the secret of Kashchei’s immortality—his soul is kept in a giant egg, buried in a casket. She leads him to the casket, and Ivan smashes the egg, killing Kashchei and causing the castle and retinue to vanish in darkness. The captive princesses are released, and those turned to stone are restored to human form. Ivan and the Thirteenth Princess are betrothed amid general rejoicing.

Stravinsky’s score is as lush and colorful in harmony and orchestration as the story is fantastic. The music follows the scenario in minute detail. The sections are listed below, with brief commentary.

Introduction—We are immediately plunged into the supernatural world of the fairy tale. Muted cellos and basses play a strange sinuous theme associated with Kashchei, and we hear an orchestral device invented by Stravinsky, natural-harmonic string glissandos, produced by the player sliding a finger lightly up and down the string without pressing it to the fingerboard.

Kashchei’s Enchanted Garden—Ivan Tsarevich is announced by a horn call, and a treading figure in the bassoon denotes his wanderings about the mysterious foliage. Eerie string tremolos mount in intensity and subside.

Appearance of the Firebird Pursued by Ivan Tsarevich—Stravinsky gives the Firebird highly decorative music, light in texture and resplendently colored. Her pursuit by Ivan is unmistakable “chase” music, almost comic in spirit.

Dance of the Firebird.

Ivan Tsarevich Captures the Firebird—A plaintive violin solo.

Supplication of the Firebird—This music is richly scored, with a lovely importuning melody that begins in the oboe, English horn, and violas. The Firebird presents Ivan with a feather (flute solo, oboe solo, celesta), and, with a sudden pizzicato, she is released and flies off.

Appearance of the Thirteen Enchanted Princesses; Game of the Princesses with the Golden Apples—Gentle music scored predominantly for strings gives way to a lovely flute cadenza. The princesses’ game is set as a delicate scherzo.

Sudden Appearance of Ivan Tsarevich—Solo horn.

Khorovod of the Princesses—A “Khorovod” is a Russian folk dance in which the participants are arranged in a circle. The princesses dance to simple, diatonic music.

Daybreak—Announced by trumpet calls depicting crowing roosters, and by string harmonics. The texture becomes increasingly active as Ivan forces the castle gate.

Magic Carillon; Appearance of Kashchei’s Guardian Monsters and Capture of Ivan Tsarevich—The diabolical tintinnabulations of the carillon are sounded by the full orchestra.

Arrival of Kashchei—A roll on timpani and bass drum announces the appearance of the sorcerer.

Dialogue between Ivan Tsarevich and Kashchei—Kashchei’s denouncements are ferocious fortissimos played by the entire orchestra.

Intercession of the Princesses—The music softens. The princesses’ entreaties are scored as ascending melodic fragments in the solo violin and solo winds. Eerie rushes of sound depict Kashchei’s evil incantations to turn Ivan to stone.

Appearance of the Firebird—The Firebird appears and weaves a counterspell to a sonority that is characteristically hers—virtuosic, quicksilver runs in a highly ornamental yet delicate orchestral texture.

Dance of Kashchei’s Retinue under the Firebird’s Spell, and the Infernal Dance of All Kashchei’s Subjects.

Lullaby (Firebird)—A lovely bassoon solo accompanied by ethereal harmonies in the strings, flute, and harp.

Kashchei’s Death; Darkness—A tremendous orchestral crash signifies the breaking of the giant egg that contains Kashchei’s soul.

Disappearance of the Palace and Dissolution of Kashchei’s Enchantments; General Thanksgiving—A solo horn presents a melody that is the embodiment of childlike wonder and humanity, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. The theme builds to a crowning apotheosis as the curtain falls.

—Ronald Gallman

Ronald Gallman is the San Francisco Symphony’s Director of Education Programs & Youth Orchestra.