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Suite from The Firebird

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Oliver Knussen, conductor / Peter Serkin, piano, plays Messiaen & Benjamin Nov. 3 - 5, 2011
© Thomas May

The course of modern music owes much to ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev's decision to gamble on an emerging but obscure composer named Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Diaghilev wanted a splendid new production to serve as the climax of the first full Paris season of his émigré company, the Ballets Russes. His initial plans for more-established composers fell through, so, on a hunch, Diaghilev, gave the commission to Stravinsky, then in his late twenties. It was a risk for everyone concerned, since The Firebird-slated for June 1910-would be the company's first production to feature an entirely new score.

Stravinsky set aside work on his own fairy-tale opera Le Rossignol (The Nightingale) to take up the new scenario devised in part by Michel Fokine, the show's choreographer, and based on Russian folklore-both scores representing birds of an altogether different feather from Messiaen's keenly observed musical aviaries. The Firebird recounts the downfall of a powerful, ogre-like figure of evil, Kashchei the Deathless, through the intervention of a beautiful rare bird-the enchanting character of the title. The miraculous Firebird is so called on account of her beautiful feathers, which glitter and flicker like flames. Crown Prince Ivan, the protagonist, enlists the Firebird's help to destroy Kashchei and free his victims.

Stravinsky's own imagination clearly caught fire. The Firebird's score blends the orchestral wizardry he had learned as a student of Rimsky-Korsakov with the vitality of Russian folk music to evoke a flamboyantly magical atmosphere. Stravinsky remained particularly fond of the work, crafting three separate concert suites from the original ballet score comprising 14 scenes. He prepared the third-the most comprehensive of the three and the one which we hear- in 1945, decades after the premiere, which also appears on the commercial recording he conducted for Columbia in 1967. The Third Suite includes ten numbers from the "fairy-tale ballet," though the originally lavish orchestration (later deemed "wasteful" by the composer) is significantly pared down.

The Firebird's musical language employs a basic dichotomy: chromatically tinged gestures depict the supernatural dimension (also characterized by an arrestingly "exotic" non-Western scale that would later feature in the Rite of Spring's harmonic vocabulary), while the sing-song simplicity of folk song pertains to the mortal realm. The Suite opens with a spooky conjuring, low in the strings, of Kashchei's magical garden. There the hero Prince Ivan chances upon the Firebird, which is depicted with opulent colors and radiant trills (neatly matched by the gorgeous costumes Léon Bakst designed for the prima ballerina dancing the role.)

The sequence of numbers immediately ensuing-which are not found in the more-familiar Suite No. 2-accompany the Prince's capture and taming of the Firebird, who pledges to aid him whenever he should call, as well as the entrance and graceful dancing of the princesses held captive by Kashchei's spell. The Prince returns to watch them and at once falls in love with the one destined to be his bride. A calmly pastoral section follows, featuring woodwind scoring that already highlights Stravinsky's distinctive use of timbre. Prince Ivan observes the princesses as they perform their ritual Khorovod, or round dance. Kashchei is in the habit of turning interlopers into stone, so to protect Ivan, the Firebird casts a spell of her own over the ogre and his monstrous aides. Whipped into motion by Stravinsky's frenetic rhythms, they are compelled to dance themselves to exhaustion in a savage "Infernal Dance."

Their paroxysms subside, while a serene lullaby ("Berceuse") lulls the hypnotized Kashchei to sleep, its lazy tune first given by the bassoon. Ivan is instructed to destroy the giant egg containing the ogre's soul, and Kashchei's power vanishes. In the finale, a solo horn intones the score's most-famous folk tune (anticipated in the Khorovod), announcing the joyful arrival of sunlight. Together with Ivan and his betrothed, the rescued captives celebrate love and the new day with music that swells and rings out in glorious triumph. The Firebird clearly shows Stravinsky on the cusp of a new world, mixing the orchestral mastery of his Russian mentors with the rhythmic vitality of the revolutionary about to burst out of his shell.