Firebird Suite

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          It would be difficult, indeed, to posit a composer whose artistic achievement and influence on the direction of music during the twentieth century exceeded that of Igor Stravinsky.  Moving through a series of explorations of different styles of composition, his works consistently exhibited a remarkable seriousness of purpose, solid musical integrity, and benchmark imagination.  What is more, his genius made its mark early—there are almost no compositions that we can label “journeyman” or “youthful apprentice works.”  Born into a musical, middleclass family, he studied law and music theory and composition (on the side) simultaneously.  By his mid-twenties he had begun to concentrate on music, rather than law, and had composed only a few works that were heard publicly.  But, that led to his historic encounter with Sergei Diaghilev.

          The cutting edge of the ballet world for most of the early twentieth century was clearly the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev in Paris and Monte Carlo.  Under the artistic leadership of Diaghilev, this company was responsible for the creation of artistic works whose influence continues unabated today.  Diaghilev was peerless in his ability to select and recruit the crème de la crème of the European artistic community in his productions.  Just a of few of the veritable who’s who of artists include dancers, Pavlova, Nijinsky, Fokine, and Balanchine; the choreographer, Petipa; conductors, Pierre Monteux and Ernest Ansermet, designers, Picasso, Bakst, Braque, Coco Chanel, Matisse, Miró, Dalí—well, you get the idea.  Which makes it all the more remarkable that, for the first season of ballet (he had started out a few years earlier with art exhibitions and opera) Diaghilev chose the relatively unknown Igor Stravinsky.  In 1909 Diaghilev had attended a concert in St. Petersburg, where two of the young composer’s few works were performed.  Thoroughly impressed, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to provide music for the 1910 ballet season in Paris.

            The young Stravinsky had been a protégé of the famous Rimsky-Korsakov, master teacher, composer of operas, and one of the most adroit orchestrators in musical history.   The latter is key to understanding much of the musical style of Stravinsky’s three ballets, for Rimsky-Korsakov’s sparkling evocation of Russian picturesque images through challenging and imaginative scoring for the orchestra leads directly from the older composer to his student.  The dazzling orchestral color of both master and student was quintessential Russian and perfect for the exotic Russian story that Diaghilev had in mind for his inaugural season. 

            The story, assembled by the designer, Alexandre Benois and the choreographer, Michel Fokine, was an amalgam of several different Russian folktales and themes, but the most prominent elements were the mythical Firebird and the evil magician Kashchei. The myth of the Firebird, whose feathers flow with iridescent luminosity, varies considerably in details in the various cultures in which the story occurs.  It has magical powers; sometimes it serves good, other times not.  The magician Kashchei, on the other hand, is irredeemably evil, can only be killed by possessing his soul, which improbably, is hidden inside a needle in an egg, which is in a duck, which is in a rabbit in an iron chest buried under a green oak tree on an island.  Whew!   All of these exotic elements are woven into a more or less new story for the ballet, and Stravinsky was more than prepared to provide the impressively evocative music.  The première was in Paris in June of 1910 and was an instant success.  The music, the choreography, the dancing, the sets, and the costumes were uniformly praised, and our hero, Igor, was on his way.   Few great composers have started out with such acclaim.  It did not take long for Stravinsky to extract from the score to the ballet a suite for concert performance. Later, others emerged, and they have gone on to become evergreen concert favorites.

            Our story is archetypical; a beautiful princess is kidnapped by an evil villain, and is rescued by a brave prince with help of the magical Firebird.   The ballet opens in Kashchei the Immortal’s magical realm; Prince Ivan enters and soon spots the luminous Firebird.  He observes thirteen captured princesses, who are dancing a round dance, and, of course, immediately falls in love with one of them.   The evil Kashchei rebuffs the Prince’s request for his chosen one’s release, and a fracas ensues, with Kashchei’s grotesque minions in the attack on the Prince.  The Firebird intervenes, casts a spell over Kashchei’s followers, and they are compelled to dance frenetically.   They ultimately collapse into sleep to a lullaby, but soon Kashchei awakens and another dance ensues.  The Firebird tells the Prince how to slay Kashchei by destroying the giant egg in which his soul resides.  He does so; the whole evil kingdom, Kashchei, and his magic all disappear.  The sun breaks forth, and a general celebratory apotheosis triumphs.

            Stravinsky, in 1911, 1919, and 1945, extracted three somewhat different suites, respectively, from the score of the whole ballet.  That of 1919 is most commonly performed.  There are five major excerpts, beginning with the eerie low strings that depict Kashchei’s evil, magical realm.  The Firebird soon appears, after a flashy paroxysm in the strings.  Virtuoso figurations in the woodwinds and harp glissandi paint the dancing Firebird and his glowing feathers, ending the first section.  A solo flute leads to the round dance of the Princesses, with elegant solos in the woodwinds and strings.  It’s all appropriately composed of simple melodies and harmonies, far from the chromatic complexities of Kashchei and his magic.  The third section is the famous “Infernal Dance,” wherein snarling brass, with angular, jagged motifs, punctuate the whole orchestra’s pounding, insistent rhythms—which constantly confuse with their metric displacements.  It all accelerates to a total, dramatic collapse.  The ensorcelled evil ones then sleep to the lullaby of the “Berceuse,” opening with the famous languid bassoon solo.  A lush, romantic texture gradually ends with sinking string tremolos that lead to the inevitable Finale.  The solo horn dramatically intones an evocation of the arrival of the sun and the triumph of good over evil. The whole orchestra takes up its tune, accompanied by slow, rising scales, and finally pounding brass chords lead to the grand peroration.   The ending is immortal, of course, and the world now was put on notice of the spectacular début and genius of the young Russian.  As Debussy is reputed to have wryly remarked, “Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.”

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2016 William E. Runyan