In 1909, Serge Diaghilev, director of the Ballet Russe, had a ballet based on two Russian legends in mind. Neither his resident composer Nikolai Tcherepnin nor Anatoly Lyadov accepted his request to compose the music. Therefore he turned to the virtually unknown Igor Stravinsky. The resulting ballet, Firebird, turned out to be a turning point in the careers of both men and one of the most successful pieces of twentieth-century music.
Diaghilev had encountered Stravinsky’s music before, having asked him to orchestrate some Chopin pieces for an earlier ballet. But Stravinsky’s teacher and mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had only recently died, detested ballet. Nothing in Stravinsky’s lessons prepared him to compose one, but he shared a love of ballet with another of his idols, Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Stravinsky cheerfully accepted the commission and went to Paris for the premiere, which took place on June 25, 1910.
Composition and reception of Firebird
Rimsky-Korsakov’s influence on Firebird can be seen in the luminous orchestration, the use of Russian folk tunes, and especially the way the music portrays human characters with diatonic music [derived from ordinary major and minor scales] and legendary creatures with an exotic chromaticism [derived from the so-called octatonic scale, with its alternation of whole and half steps.]
Some original touches, explored much more fully in his next two ballets Petrushka and Rite of Spring, include primitivism, metric irregularity, ostinatos, and dissonant harmonies.
Stravinsky used an orchestration of Wagnerian proportions, including the use of a pair of Wagner tubas, three of each standard woodwind (with E-flat and bass clarinets and two contrabassoons), 3 harps, and a piano.
Like most Russian composers of his and earlier generations, Stravinsky turned to Russian folk music for some of his melodies. The oboe theme in the “Ronde des princesses” and the horn solo that open the finale are both Russian folk tunes taken from Rimsky-Korsakov’s 100 Russian Folk Songs (1876). Diaghilev was shocked to learn that the former was not Stravinsky’s own melody.
The song associated with Prince Ivan also sounds like a folksong, but it is not part of Rimsky-Korsakov’s anthology or any other identified source. Stravinsky must have written it himself.
The first performance was a spectacular success and gave the young composer his first taste of international acclaim. He quickly became one of the most influential composers in the world. As it turns out, he never returned to Russia until he was an old man. He was living in Switzerland at the time of the Russian Revolution.
Firebird: the ballet and the suites
The story of Firebird combines two Russian legends, one of the prince and the firebird and the other of an immortal ogre.
Prince Ivan, lost at night while hunting, finds himself in an enchanted garden. There, he sees the beautiful Firebird taking golden apples from a tree in its center. Ivan captures Firebird, but she pleads for her release and gives him one of her feathers. She promises that she will give him magic assistance if he ever needs it.
In the morning, Ivan notices that the garden is the courtyard of a huge castle. Thirteen princesses come out of the castle to play with the apples, and Ivan falls in love with one of them. He learns that the lord of the castle, Kashchei the Immortal, has enchanted them. The evil Kashchei has turned to stone every other prince who has come to rescue him. He has hidden his soul in an egg, and until someone finds and destroys it, the princesses have no hope.
After the princesses complete their dance and return to the castle, Kashchei emerges with a horde of fantastic creatures to add Ivan to their collection of statuary. Ivan waves the feather and Firebird appears. Firebird forces Kashchei and his monsters to dance until they drop. She puts Kaschei to sleep with a lullaby and leads Ivan to the tree stump where the egg is hidden.
Kashchei awakens, but not in time to prevent Ivan from destroying the egg. As soon as the egg is smashed, Kashchei dies. His retainers and the evil castle disappear. All the petrified knights come back to life and the princess’ enchantments also come to an end. Firebird flies over Ivan and his chosen bride, and of course, they all live happily ever after.
Like Tchaikovsky before him, Stravinsky extracted concert suites from the ballet. In the case of Firebird, there are three.
- Concert Suite no. 1 (1911). Selected movements, ending with Kashchei’s Infernal Dance, that differ from the ballet only by having new endings written for them.
- Concert Suite no. 2 (1919). A different selection of movements, including the “Lullaby” and the “Finale,” with the orchestra reduced to a more normal size.
- Ballet Suite for Orchestra (1945). Adds six movements to the 1919 suite between the “Firebird’s Variation” and “Kashchei’s Infernal Dance” and further simplifies the orchestration.
The Firebird, 100 years on/ Sarah Kirkup, Barry Wordsworth
The Firebird / Orriin Howard
Strawinski, The Firebird – the borrowings / Daan Admiraal
The Firebird (complete ballet) / Richard Freed
Igor Stravinsky, The Firebird Ballet, 1910 / Classical Cat
Photo credit: Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons