The Kennedy Center

The Firebird (complete ballet)

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Richard Freed

A unifying factor among the three composers represented in this week's concerts is the legendary Russian-born, Paris-based impresario of music and dance, Serge Diaghilev. Ravel, Prokofiev and Stravinsky all worked with Diaghilev, and it was that connection, in fact, that launched Stravinsky's international career. In 1908, when Diaghilev was planning his first season of Russian ballet in Paris, he decided to create a new work based on the old Russian fairy tale of the Firebird, and he approached several renowned Russian composers for suitably colorful music. Nikolai Tcherepnin and Alexander Glazunov both turned him down; his former teacher, the notoriously dilatory Anatoly Liadov, more or less accepted the assignment, but never got started on it. At Tcherepnin's suggestion, the commission finally went to Stravinsky, in 1909, and an unimaginably important new figure was thus introduced into the musical life of the still young twentieth century.

The young Stravinsky had done some orchestrations for Diaghilev a bit earlier, but he was still known only in Russia, and even there only as one of the gifted pupils of the late Rimsky-Korsakov. He had some misgivings about taking on such a big assignment for such an important venue, but he delivered a stunning score early in 1910. On June 25 of that year, just eight days after his 28th birthday, the ballet was given its premiere at the Paris Opéra, with choreography by Michel Fokine and décor by Léon Bakst and Alexandre Golovine; the leading roles were danced by Tamara Karsavina and Fokine, and Gabriel Pierné conducted. One of the first to rush backstage and congratulate Stravinsky was Claude Debussy. Literally overnight, Stravinsky achieved recognition as one of the significant composers of his time. His Petrushka was introduced by Diaghilev less than a year later, and The Rite of Spring followed in 1913, both conducted by Pierre Monteux, who subsequently presided over the concert premieres of those scores.

The score for The Firebird, which is considerably longer than either of those two subsequent ballets, did not become a concert work, but within a few months of the premiere Stravinsky prepared a concert suite, which utilized the large orchestra of the original score and ended with the shattering Infernal Dance. In 1919 he created a different suite, for a somewhat reduced orchestra, eliminating some of the material from the earlier portions and concluding with the ballet's glowing final scene. Still later, in 1945, he prepared a third suite, combining the contents of both of the earlier ones and scored for a still smaller orchestra. In reducing the orchestra from one of these suites to the next, Stravinsky's purpose was to make the music available for more frequent performances; the 1945 suite, in fact, became the music for some productions of the ballet itself in a more concise form, and, conversely, about 40 years ago the original uncut score began to make its way into the concert repertoire. Here it has proved to be as welcome as the complete score for Ravel's masterpiece for Diaghilev, Daphnis and Chloe, usually represented by the two suites its composer extracted from it. Even though Stravinsky in his last years spoke of his 1910 Firebird as being too long and "over-orchestrated," it exudes a power and cohesiveness that draw the listener deep into its world of fantasy and enchantment, a world of which the suites, for all their attractiveness, give us at best only a picture-postcard impression.

Fokine not only created the choreography and danced the principal male role in the premiere of The Firebird, but was responsible for the scenario as well, which he fashioned from tales of Zhar-ptitsa ("Firebird," a dazzling avian creature gifted with magical powers on the right side of the good/evil scale) in the collection compiled by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasiev. Mily Balakirev, the mentor of the group of nationalist composers known as the "Mighty Handful" (or simply "the Five"), began an opera on this subject in 1864, but never carried it to completion; Stravinsky's ballet score was the first substantial musical treatment of this tale. The ballet, using the full original score or the 1945 suite, has been produced with latter-day choreography by George Balanchine, among others, with certain variations in the story line but adhering to the same general outline. The action, as conceived for the original production, may be summarized as follows:

In the time-honored tradition for princes in ballets, Prince Ivan—the Tsarevich, son of King Vyaslav—is lost at nightfall while hunting. He finds himself in an enchanted garden wherein he witnesses the dance of the stunning Firebird and captures her as she plucks golden apples from a tree in the garden's center. In exchange for releasing her, he is given a magic feather with which he may summon her when needed for aid or protection.

At dawn the following day, Ivan finds himself facing a huge castle, from which 13 beautiful princesses come out to play with the golden apples. From them he learns that the castle and its garden are the domain of King Kashchei the Deathless, who has put the princesses under an enchantment. Less welcome guests—the knights who have dared or chanced to enter his realm in hopes of rescuing the captive princesses—have been turned to stone. Kashchei has locked his own soul away in a secret place; until it can be found his power is secure, his prisoners without hope.

Naturally, it has been ordained that the most beautiful of the captive princesses, Vasilisa, shall be Ivan's bride, though neither of them has been so advised; they simply fall in love as all the princesses perform their khorovod (a traditional circle dance). When the dance ends the princesses disappear, leaving Ivan to turn his attention to the castle. Opening its gates, he sets off its ninth-century alarm system, a magic carillon, whose pealing unleashes a fantastic horde of Kashchei's retainers, and at last he is confronted by the ogre himself. Prince Ivan then waves the feather given him by the Firebird, and she arrives to protect him from Kashchei's attempt to bewitch or petrify him. The Firebird casts a spell over Kashchei and his minions, causing them to dance till they drop. She then leads the Tsarevich to a gnarled tree-stump in which he discovers the huge egg which contains Kashchei's soul. The ogre had been put to sleep by a lullaby, but he wakens and falls dead when Ivan smashes the egg; his retainers vanish, and darkness falls.

The brief second scene is the radiant coda to the work. The princesses now are free from their enchantment; the knights whom Kashchei had petrified are restored to life; the castle vanishes, and the enchanted garden, now simply a clearing in the forest, fills with sunlight. The Firebird flies once over the happy couple and then ascends beyond view.

While traces of Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy and Scriabin may be discernible in The Firebird, the score nonetheless represents one of the most thoroughly original works to appear since the 1894 premiere of Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun (Diaghilev would present Nijinsky's choreographic treatment of that work in 1912). A significant element in the music's effectiveness in terms of story-telling and character delineation is Stravinsky's representation of the two different kinds of magic—the evil of Kashchei and the good of the Firebird—in a more or less direct parallel with Tchaikovsky's similar treatment of the wicked Carabosse and the protective Lilac Fairy in own ballet The Sleeping Beauty.

Of equal importance in evoking the specifically Russian fairy-tale atmosphere is the incorporation of actual folk tunes and other existing themes in such a way that they seem part of an endless fabric, part old and part new. Stravinsky is often criticized for his "weakness" in failing to create strong original melodies, but he certainly knew a good tune when he found one, and in all three of his pathbreaking early ballets for Diaghiev, with their specifically Russian settings, he made use of folk tunes from the collection of his beloved teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. (The score of the The Firebird bears a dedication to the memory of Rimsky-Korsakov, who died in 1908, shortly before Stravinsky took on the commission.)

The theme of the princesses' khorovod is that of the song "In the garden," which Rimsky-Korsakov had used in his own Sinfonietta on Russian Themes. That of the Infernal Dance had been used by Rimsky to represent Kashchei in his opera Mlada. (Stravinsky's father, the renowned basso Fyodor Stravinsky, sang in the premiere of Mlada in 1892; ten years later Rimsky composed the one-act opera Kashchei the Deathless, in which the ogre is a somewhat more sympathetic character whose death takes a different form, a different prince rescues his abducted fiancée, and the Firebird doesn't figure at all.) The majestic yet warm-hearted finale makes use of another khorovod song, "By the gate a pine tree swayed"; as late as 1965, Stravinsky, who by then had been through several stylistic periods and had begun to use Schoenberg's tone rows, made use of this tune again in his final orchestral work, the brief Canon on a Russian Popular Tune, which bears the subtitle "A Concert Introduction or Encore."