The Kennedy Center

Suite from The Firebird

About the Work

Igor Stravinsky Composer: Igor Stravinsky
© Peter Laki

Sergei Diaghilev's Paris-based "Ballets Russes" was one of the greatest ballet companies in history, and one that united many of the best dancers of its time. Diaghilev, the director, combined the soul of a brilliant artist with the mind and skills of a shrewd businessman. He was committed to exciting and innovative productions, and he sought out the best modern artists and composers available. Among musicians alone, he worked over the years with Debussy, Ravel, Falla, Prokofiev, and others. However, he never made a more sensational, nor a more fruitful musical discovery, than when he engaged the 27-year-old Igor Stravinsky to write the music for Michel Fokine's new ballet, The Firebird. It was the start of a long collaboration that was to give the world Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Les Noces, Mavra, and Apollon Musagète, and which ended only shortly before Diaghilev's death in 1929.

      Since the end of the 19th century, there had been a great affinity between Russia and France. The political alliance between the two countries had brought Russia closer to France (France had always been close to Russia where French had long been the language of the educated classes). At the same time, the geographical distance and the difference in culture endowed things Russian with an exotic flavor in the eyes of the French. Both Debussy and Ravel admired and were influenced by the music of the 19th-century Russian masters Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.

      To create a story of an appropriately exotic flavor, Fokine and his collaborators used several Russian fairy-tales in the scenario of The Firebird. The stories of the beneficent Firebird and the evil ogre Kashchei the Immortal are combined in an ingenious plot, which Eric Walter White summarized in his standard book on Stravinsky as follows:

A young Prince, Ivan Tsarevich, wanders into Kashchei's magic garden at night in pursuit of the Firebird, whom he finds fluttering round a tree bearing golden apples. He captures it and extracts a feather as forfeit before agreeing to let it go. He then meets a group of thirteen maidens and falls in love with one of them, only to find that she and the other twelve maidens are princesses under the spell of Kashchei. When dawn comes and the princesses have to return to Kashchei's palace, he breaks open the gates to follow them inside; but he is captured by Kashchei's guardian monsters and is about to suffer the usual penalty of petrifaction, when he remembers the magic feather. He waves it; and at his summons the Firebird reappears and reveals to him the secret of Kashchei's immortality [his soul, in the form of an egg, is preserved in a casket]. Opening the casket, Ivan smashes the vital egg, and the ogre immediately expires. His enchantments dissolve, all the captives are freed, and Ivan and his Tsarevna are betrothed with due solemnity.

      According to the original plans, the music for The Firebird was to have been written by Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945), and, after Tcherepnin's withdrawal, by Anatoli Liadov (1855-1914) or Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936). For various reasons, none of these more experienced composers worked out, so the score would not be ready on time. So Diaghilev approached the young Stravinsky, who had already worked for the Ballets Russes as an orchestrator. The young composer, honored by the commission, put aside the opera The Nightingale, whose first act he had just completed, and began work on the ballet.

      To describe the magical world of fairy-birds and evil sorcerers, Stravinsky had a whole tradition to build on, a tradition he had inherited from his teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In the last years before his death in 1908, Rimsky-Korsakov had written three operas on fantastic subjects, one of which was titled Kashchei the Immortal (the other two were The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and The Golden Cockerel). In his fantastic operas as elsewhere, Rimsky-Korsakov made ample use of a special scale known to Russian musicians as the "Rimsky scale," which was subsequently adopted by the master's most famous pupil. The "Rimsky scale," nowadays called "octatonic," consists of a regular alternation of half-steps and whole steps: C-C-sharp-D-sharp-E-F-sharp-G-A-B flat. This particular grouping of tones, lying outside the major-minor system, is always associated with the evil Kashchei. The music of the magical Firebird is also chromatic in nature, related in part to the Kashchei music. The motifs of the Tsarevich, on the other hand, are purely diatonic (using a traditional seven-note scale) and are derived from a central type of Russian folksong known as the "long-drawn-out" song (protyazhnaya pesnya). Both the story and the musical style of the ballet seemed highly original in the West, although in fact, both grew out of an indigenous Russian tradition.

      Yet for all the Rimsky influence, Stravinsky's first ballet shows a remarkable individuality. The handling of rhythm in particular (with already a few typical Stravinskyan ostinatos, or "stubbornly" repeated figures) is quite innovative, and the orchestration reveals the hand of a true master. Stravinsky knew how to draw the most spectacular effects from his enormous orchestra. One may cite special items that have made history, like the harmonic arpeggios for strings in the introduction or the solos for the small D-clarinet at several points. But even more important are the multifarious new combinations of instrumental colors appearing on virtually every page of the score.

      The 1919 suite is in five movements. The mysterious Introduction leads into the glittering Dance of the Firebird, followed by the slow and solemn Khorovod (round dance) of the captive princesses, based on a melancholy Russian folksong first played by the oboe. "Kashchei's Infernal Dance" is next, started by a fast timpani roll and dominated by a syncopated motif that arises from the lower registers (bassoons, horn, tuba) and is gradually taken over by the entire orchestra. This is the longest movement in the suite, including a lyrical countersubject symbolizing the plight of Kashchei's prisoners. The "infernal dance" returns, concluding with a wild climax. As a total contrast, the Firebird's Berceuse ("Lullaby") is a delicate song for solo bassoon. It leads directly into the Finale (the wedding of Ivan Tsarevich and the Princess), where the first horn introduces what is probably the most famous Russian folksong in the ballet. As this beautiful melody grows in volume and orchestration, it undergoes a significant metric change: the symmetrical triple meter (3/2) is transformed into an asymmetrical 7/4, bringing the music to its final culmination point.

      The Firebird, a resounding success at the Paris premiere, remained Stravinsky's most popular work for half a century. Stravinsky himself conducted hundreds of performances of The Firebird, mainly in the form of the suites, of which the 1919 version became the best known. And though his style and artistic outlook had changed considerably (and repeatedly) during the intervening decades, even the 80-year-old Stravinsky had every reason to like the work that had catapulted him to fame at 28.