The Firebird Suite
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, piano, strings (1919 version)
notes by Chris Myers
I. Introduction – The Firebird and Its Dance – The Firebird’s Variation
II. The Princess’ Khorovod
III. Infernal dance of King Kaschchei
First performance (complete ballet): June 25, 1910. Paris Opera, conducted by Gabriel Pierné. First performance (Concert Suite No. 2): April 12, 1919. Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, conducted by Ernest Ansermet.
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Parisian public was fascinated by the foreign and exotic, eagerly demanding art, music, and theater inspired by strange and distance cultures. Sergei Diaghilev, who had made a name for himself producing theater and art shows in St. Petersburg, saw an opportunity to profit from this demand using his extensive network of artists, dancers, writers, and musicians.
Beginning with the Exhibition of Russian Art at the Pétit Palais in 1906, Diaghilev began to whet the Parisian appetite for all things Russian. He followed the exhibition with a season of Russian music at the Paris Opéra. After the wild success of a six-performance run of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in 1908, Diaghilev launched the Ballets Russes, a new company with the goal of producing theatrical works by Russian artists which would blend all the arts— theater, music, art, dance— into a unified whole.
The first “Saison Russe” in 1909 featured ballets to existing Russian music by composers such as Borodin, Tcherepnin, and Arensky. For the following season, Diaghilev sought to create a production with an original score. When agreements fell through with two other composers and with deadlines rapidly approaching, Diaghilev turned in September 1909 to a young, unknown composer whose Fireworks he had heard in a St. Petersburg concert the previous year and whom he had subsequently commissioned to orchestrate a Chopin nocturne and waltz for the June 1909 premiere of Les Sylphides.
As difficult as it may be to believe, The Firebird was Igor Stravinsky’s first large-scale work for orchestra; the 27-year-old had only published five prior compositions. The composer joined a creative team of young Russian luminaries, including choreographer Michel Fokine and artists Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, and Alexander Golovine.
Benois had suggested to Diaghilev the idea of a ballet based on Russian fairy tales. By the time Stravinsky agreed to the project, the scenario had already been hashed out in a string of parlor discussions between these artists and their friends. Stravinsky met with Fokine, who demonstrated the scenes and dances while Stravinsky took notes and improvised ideas at the piano. Stravinsky was dissatisfied with the divertissement concluding the work and suggested it be replaced with a grand transformation and coronation scene. Fokine was reluctant to discard his prior idea but acquiesced, resulting in one of the most iconic moments in the score.
The composer worked very quickly, delivering the final piano score on March 21. The music draws heavily on the work of Stravinsky’s predecessors. Russian folk melodies are sprinkled liberally throughout, and one hears unmistakable echoes of Scriabin in the Firebird’s dance and Glazunov in the Khorovod (a type of Russian circle dance). Most obvious, however, is the influence of Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, whose orchestration technique is evident throughout the entire score. Stravinsky made no attempt to conceal this, later referring to the work as “Rimsky-Korsakov with pepper.”
Everyone involved was deeply impressed with the score, and excitement about the ballet began to build throughout Parisian society. During a late rehearsal, Diaghilev commented to his dancers regarding Stravinsky, “Mark him well. He is a man on the eve of celebrity.” The work premiered in June to a wildly enthusiastic crowd which included Jean Cocteau, Maurice Ravel, Eric Satie, Manuel de Falla, Reynaldo Hahn, Marcel Proust, Sarah Bernhardt, and Claude Debussy, who invited Stravinsky to dinner following the performance.
Reviews were ecstatic about the integration of design, dance, and music, referring to the work as a “danced symphony” and emphasizing how different it was from most ballets, where the music was mere accompaniment. The buzz was so favorable that Diaghilev added two additional performances to the initial three. Although some musicians quietly commented that the piece was a bit derivative, they were so impressed by the quality of its execution that they were won over. Constant Lambert’s comment is typical of this sentiment: “In L'Oiseau de Feu Stravinsky applied the rejuvenating influence of Debussy's impressionism to the by now somewhat faded Russian fairytale tradition in much the same way that one pours a glass of port into a Stilton.”
With the destruction of World War I, Stravinsky’s financial situation became precarious. He sold the Firebird manuscript to Geneva oil baron Jean Bartholoni for 8,000 francs, but he was unable to make any more money off the full ballet due to the exclusivity agreement he had signed with Diaghilev. Stravinsky could still earn money from concert performances, and he had excerpted a suite for such use. This version (known as Concert Suite No. 1 or the “1911 Suite”) uses the same massive ensemble as the ballet and proved too large to be fiscally viable for most orchestras. In addition, the chaos following the 1917 Russian Revolution made it nearly impossible to obtain rental parts from the Moscow publisher.
However, due to the intricacies of European copyright treaties and the abolition of property rights in Russia following the Revolution, it occurred to Stravinsky that a newly-published suite would be considered an entirely new work, allowing him once again to earn revenue from the piece (similar legal reasons would later result in the 1945 Concert Suite No. 3, which he created to secure his copyright in the US). He set to work in February 1919 reorchestrating the music for a smaller orchestra which would increase the number of performance opportunities. Ernest Ansermet conducted the first performance of the Concert Suite No. 2 on April 12.
The ballet blended the stories of the Firebird and Kashchei the Immortal, two of Russia’s most well-known legends. As the piece begins, Prince Ivan stumbles into an enchanted garden. While exploring, he spots and captures the Firebird. The bird agrees to assist Ivan if the prince will release it.
Ivan subsequently falls in love with one of the thirteen princesses he encounters. She informs him that he is in the realm of Kashchei the Immortal, a powerful wizard who captures and enslaves passing travelers. Despite her warning, he approaches Kashchei to request her hand in marriage. Kashchei orders his magic creatures to attack as he attempts to turn Ivan to stone. Keeping its word, the Firebird comes to Ivan’s aid, enchanting the creatures into a dance and putting them to sleep. The bird bewitches Kashchei in the same manner.
Before the wizard can recover, the Firebird reveals to Ivan the secret of Kashchei’s power: an enormous egg which contains and protects his soul. Ivan smashes the egg, breaking the wizard’s spell and robbing him of his power and his life. Upon Kashchei’s death, the creatures— those unfortunate captives whom he had bewitched and transfigured— are transformed back into human form and freed from bondage. Ivan marries his princess amid great celebration.
Copyright © 2015 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.