Program Notes

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.

US PREMIERE: January 17, 1916 at the Century Theatre in New York. Diaghilev's company performed, with Ernest Ansermet conducting.

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—While the SFS performed music from The Firebird Suite in 1921, the first performances of the complete ballet music were in April 1973, led by Seiji Ozawa. MOST RECENT—May 2015. Esa-Pekka Salonen 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

The Firebird would be the first of Stravinsky’s truly original Diaghilev scores, but the opportunity came to him rather by accident. From eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin we learn that Diaghilev’s original choice of composer for The Firebird had been Nikolai Tcherepnin, who withdrew from the project for reasons not entirely clear (though not before completing the music sketches of The Enchanted Kingdom). Anatoli Liadov, a man with a charming gift and a rather casual attitude about deadlines, was next in line. Liadov, for whatever reason, declined the Firebird project, as did the composer Diaghilev turned to next, Alexander Glazunov. Diaghilev may even have courted another composer, Nikolai Sokolov, before contacting Stravinsky. “After four refusals,” Taruskin writes, “Diaghilev would indeed have been frantic. He would have been ready for any plausible candidate who would accept the commission.” Stravinsky was eager to try his hand at a ballet score for Diaghilev—indeed, as Taruskin says, he began writing the Firebird music more than a month before Diaghilev turned to him.

The Ballets Russes made a specialty of dancing pieces that were inspired by Russian folklore—primeval Russian history being a cultural obsession of the moment—and The Firebird was perfectly suited to the company’s designs. The tale involves the dashing Prince Ivan Tsarevich, who finds himself one night wandering through the garden of King Kashchei, an evil monarch whose power resides in a magic egg, which he guards in an elegant box. In Kashchei’s garden, the Prince captures a Firebird, which pleads for its life; the Prince agrees to spare it if it gives him one of its magic tail-feathers, which it consents to do. Thus armed, the Prince continues through his evening and happens upon thirteen enchanted princesses. The most beautiful of them catches his eye, and (acting under Kashchei’s spell) lures him to a spot where Kashchei’s demonic guards can ensnare him. But before he can be put under a spell himself, the Prince uses the magic tail-feather to summon the Firebird, which reveals to him the secret of Kashchei’s magic egg. The Prince locates and smashes the egg, breaking the web of evil enchantment, and goes off to marry the newly liberated Princess, with whom, of course, he will live happily ever after.

A French critic reported his experience of hearing Stravinsky play through his work-in-progress that winter in Saint Petersburg: “The composer, young, slim, and uncommunicative, with vague meditative eyes, and lips set firm in an energetic looking face, was at the piano. But the moment he began to play, the modest and dimly lit dwelling glowed with a dazzling radiance. By the end of the first scene, I was conquered: by the last, I was lost in admiration. The manuscript on the music-rest, scored over with fine pencilings, revealed a masterpiece.”     

Stravinsky’s score is one of music’s great showpieces of orchestration, a remarkable tour-de-force for a twenty-eight-year-old composer, even one who had issued from the studio of Rimsky-Korsakov, himself acknowledged as a wizard of instrumentation. Although Stravinsky would “slim down” his orchestra for the concert suites he would later assemble from his Firebird score, the orchestration for the original ballet production was truly opulent. Within a couple of years Stravinsky would call for an even larger orchestra in The Rite of Spring, and on occasion he was known to program excerpts from the original Firebird score along with The Rite of Spring, taking advantage of the impressive symphonic resources that would need to be brought together for the latter in any case.

The orchestral effects in The Firebird are often astonishing and everywhere beautiful. The Stravinsky biographer Stephen Walsh has observed: “Much of Stravinsky’s Rimsky-Korsakov training had been in the field of orchestration. All the same, it is hard to explain the sheer precision of sonority in most of The Firebird except in terms of an instinctive grasp of the properties of instrumental sound, an almost infallible inner ear.”

—James M. Keller and Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

(September 2018)

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