Stravinsky: The Firebird

Igor Stravinsky  (1882-1971)
The Firebird (complete ballet)

Duration: 45'
Publisher: Schott Music
KSO performed: 2013, 2002

Introduction - Kashchey's enchanted garden - The Firebirdvappears, pursued by Ivan Tsarevich - Dance of the Firebird - Ivan Tsarevich captures the Firebird - The Firebird's entreaty - The appearance of the thirteen enchanted princesses - The princesses' game with the golden apples - The sudden appearance of Ivan Tsarevich - Round Dance of the princesses - Dawn; Ivan Tsarevich enters Kashchey's palace - The sound of enchanted bells; monsters appear, Kashchey's guar, and take Ivan Tsarevich prisoner - The arrival of Kashchy the Immortal - Kashchey's dialogue with Ivan Tsarevich - the princesses intercede - the appearance of the Firebird - Kashchey's followers dance under the Firebird's spell - Infernal Dance of Kashchey's subjects - Lullaby (the Firebird) - Kashchey awakes - Death of Kashchey - Kashchey's spells are broken; his palace disappears; the stone knights return to life; joy reigns

The origins of the Ballets Russes lie in a late nineteenth century Russian artistic movement known as Mir iskusstva [The World of Art].  This was a group of students that  congregated around the artist Alexandre Benois in 1898. A year later they set up a magazine, also called Mir iskusstva, the editorship of which was  taken up by Sergei Diaghilev.  Like the Pre-Raphaelites in England, Mir iskusstva dedicated itself to the opposition of what its members saw as the decadence of industrial society, and sought to preserve and restore Russian folk-culture.  Few Westerners would ever see a copy of this magazine; nevertheless it would prove a pivotal influence on European art in the early 20th century.  In 1907 and 1908 Benois  and his cohorts presented programmes of Russian nationalist opera and ballet in Paris.  These proved highly successful, and in 1909 the group returned, now formally established as the Ballets Russes.  By this time Diaghilev had taken charge of the project.  The next few years would see the growth of a phenomenally successful company whose influence is still felt today.

With an artist such as Benois designing, and the choreographer Mikhail Fokine directing the dancers, the Ballets Russes offered productions that combined the exoticism of Russian folk traditions with a revolutionary approach to design and choreography.  However, where the productions lacked a certain fizz was in the music.  Although Diaghilev managed to commission such eminent French composers as Debussy and Ravel, most of the Russian music represented was in the form of what the company secretary Walter Nouvel archly described as "salades russes."  These compilations of old orchestral and ballet repertoire paled in comparison to what was being achieved in the other elements of the shows.  The lack of vital new Russian music did not pass unnoticed in the press, and so Diaghilev, Benois and Fokine determined to find a composer who could produce something special.  They concocted the most Russian scenario they could think of. This combined elements of several Russian folk tales: the Firebird, the demon king Kashchey the Immortal and the archetypal hero Prince Ivan Tsarevich.  This sort of conflation will be recognised by anyone familar with the 1940s horror films churned out by Universal Studios featuring the likes of Dracula versus Frankenstein versus the Wolf Man. 

The tale begins as Prince Ivan Tsarevich  enters the magical kingdom of Kashchey the Immortal.  In its gardens he sees the Firebird, whom he chases and catches. The Firebird agrees to help Ivan Tsarevich in exchange for its freedom.  Thirteen Princesses appear, and play a game of catch with Golden apples.  Ivan Tsarevich falls in love with one of them.  As dawn breaks, Ivan Tsarevich enters Kashchey's castle, determined to marry the princess.  He talks with Kashchey but the two soon argue.  The princesses try to intervene, but Kashchey sends his demonic entourage after the prince.  The Firebird appears and bewitches Kashchey and his creatures, making them dance a wild, infernal dance.  They then fall asleep.  The Firebird tells Ivan Tsarevich that Kashchey's soul is contained within a giant egg; if this is destroyed he will die.  Kashchey awakes, but Ivan Tsarevich breaks the egg and the demon king is killed.  With Kashchey dead, all the magical creatures and the palace disappear.  All Kashchey's prisoners, including the princesses, awake and celebrate his defeat.

Diaghilev initially hoped that his house composer Nikolai Tcherepnin would compose the ballet.  Why this never happened is something of a mystery.  Tcherepnin was prone to mood swings, and Benois later claimed that he was simply becoming less keen on writing for the ballet.  However, it is also quite possible that he declined after he had a falling out with Fokine.  In any event, Tcherepnin resigned from the company, and so Diaghilev's thoughts turned to other composers.  He approached Anatoly Lyadov about the commission, but although Lyadov apparently initially expressed interest, nothing came of this. By now things were becoming urgent, and so Diaghilev decided to take a chance.   For the 1909 production "Les Sylphides", Diaghilev had commissioned a number of young composers to arrange piano pieces of Chopin.  one of these had made a particular impression, not only for the distinctiveness of his work, but also his rapid work rate: Igor Stravinsky.

The break came at just the right time for Stravinsky. As a student he had actually studied Law, but was promising enough as a composer that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed to take him as a pupil anyway. As his studies progressed however, he found that his teacher became less enamoured of him as his style became more influenced by Skryabin and Glazunov, both of whom Rimsky-Korsakov considered unacceptably modern.

Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird is nowadays usually heard in one of the suites that he later concocted for concert performance.  His complete original score is however an astonishing tour de force of orchestral writing.  His influences are here not yet fully absorbed, but such dramatic music as the buildup to the climactic Infernal Dance of Kashchey are as exciting as anything he retained for the later suites; it is often in these little-heard passages that can be heard the first stirrings of the musical revolution that would erupt in The Rite of Spring.

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