The Firebird

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This article is about the ballet to Stravinsky's 1910 music. For other uses of the word, see Firebird.

The Firebird (French: L'oiseau de feu; Russian: «Жар-птица», Zhar-ptitsa) is a ballet and orchestral concert work by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. It was written for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company, with choreography by Michel Fokine. The ballet is based on Russian folk tales of the magical glowing bird that can be both a blessing and a curse to its owner. When the ballet was first performed on 25 June 1910, it was an instant success with both audience and critics.

Stravinsky was a young, virtually unknown composer when Diaghilev recruited him to create works for the Ballets Russes. The Firebird was his first project. Originally, Diaghilev approached the Russian composer Anatoly Lyadov, but later hired Stravinsky to compose the music.

The ballet has historic significance not only as Stravinsky's breakthrough piece — "Mark him well", said Sergei Diaghilev to Tamara Karsavina, who was dancing the title role: "He is a man on the eve of celebrity..." — but also as the beginning of the collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky that would also produce Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.

Background[edit]

Stravinsky, sketched by Picasso

Igor Stravinsky was the son of Fyodor Stravinsky, the principal bass at the Imperial Opera, St Petersburg, and Anna, née Kholodovskaya, a competent amateur singer and pianist from an old-established Russian family. Fyodor's association with many of the leading figures in Russian music, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky, meant that Igor grew up in an intensely musical home.[1] In 1901 Stravinsky began to study law at St Petersburg University, while taking private lessons in harmony and counterpoint. Having impressed Rimsky-Korsakov with some of his early compositional efforts, Stravinsky worked under the guidance of the older composer. By the time of his mentor's death in 1908 Stravinsky had produced several works, among them a Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor (1903–04), a Symphony in E-flat major (1907), which he catalogued as "Opus 1", and in 1908 a short orchestral piece, Feu d'artifice ("Fireworks").[2][3]

In 1909 Feu d'artifice was performed at a concert in St Petersburg. Among those in the audience was the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who at that time was planning to introduce Russian music and art to western audiences.[4] Like Stravinsky, Diaghilev had initially studied law, but had gravitated via journalism into the theatrical world.[5] In 1907 he began his theatrical career by presenting five concerts in Paris; in the following year he introduced Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov. In 1909, still in Paris, he launched the Ballets Russes, initially with Borodin's Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. To present these works Diaghilev recruited the choreographer Michel Fokine, the designer Léon Bakst and the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev's intention, however, was to produce new works in a distinctively 20th century style, and he was looking for fresh compositional talent.[6]

Genesis and premiere[edit]

The ballet was the first of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes productions to have an all-original score composed for it. Alexandre Benois wrote in 1910 that he had two years earlier suggested to Diaghilev the production of a Russian nationalist ballet,[7] an idea all the more attractive given both the newly awakened French passion for Russian dance and also the ruinously expensive costs of staging opera. The inspiration of mixing the mythical Firebird with the unrelated Russian tale of Kaschei the deathless possibly came from a popular child's verse by Yakov Polonsky, "A Winter's Journey" (Zimniy put, 1844), which includes the lines:

And in my dreams I see myself on a wolf's back
Riding along a forest path
To do battle with a sorcerer-tsar [i.e., Kaschei]]
In that land where a princess sits under lock and key,
Pining behind massive walls.
There gardens surround a palace all of glass;
There Firebirds sing by night
And peck at golden fruit.[8]

Benois collaborated with the choreographer Michel Fokine, drawing from several books of Russian fairy tales including the collection of Alexander Afanasyev, to concoct a story involving the Firebird and the evil magician Kashchei.

Diaghilev approached the Russian composer Anatoly Lyadov (1855–1914) to write the music.[9] There is no evidence, however, despite the much-repeated story that Lyadov was slow to start composing the work, that he ever accepted the commission to begin with.[10] There is evidence to suggest that Nikolai Tcherepnin had previously started composing music for the ballet—music which became The Enchanted Kingdom—but that Tcherepnin, for reasons unexplained, withdrew from the project.[11] Diaghilev eventually transferred the commission to the 28-year-old Stravinsky.

The ballet was premiered by the Ballets Russes in Paris on 25 June 1910 conducted by Gabriel Pierné.[12] Even before the first performance, the company sensed a huge success in the making; and every performance of the ballet in that first production, as Karsavina recalled, met a "crescendo" of success.[13] The critics were ecstatic, praising the ballet for what they perceived as an ideal symbiosis between decor, choreography and music: "The old-gold vermiculatino of the fantastic back-cloth seems to have been invented to a formula identical with that of the shimmering web of the orchestra" enthused Henri Ghéon in Nouvelle revue française (1910).[14] The scenery was designed by Alexander Golovine and the costumes by Léon Bakst.

For Stravinsky, it was a major breakthrough both with the public and with the critics, Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi in particular hailing Stravinsky as the legitimate heir to The Mighty Handful.[15] The Firebird's success also secured Stravinsky's position as Diaghilev's star composer, and there were immediate talks of a sequel,[16] leading to the composition of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.

Stravinsky used several ideas from works by Rimsky-Korsakov in his score. Kashchei's "Infernal Dance" borrows the highly chromatic scale Rimsky-Korsakov created for the character Chernobog in his opera Mlada. The Khorovod dance, meanwhile, uses the same folk tune Rimsky-Korsakov presented in his "Sinfonietta" Opus. 31.

Subsequent ballet performances[edit]

The ballet was revived in 1934 by Colonel Wassily de Basil's company, the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, in a production staged in London, using the original decor and costumes from Diaghilev's company.[17] The company subsequently performed the ballet in Australia, during the 1936–37 tour.[18]

The ballet was staged by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet in 1949 with Maria Tallchief as the Firebird with scenery and costumes by Marc Chagall, and was performed in repertory until 1965. The ballet was restaged by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins in 1970 for the New York City Ballet with elaborated scenery by Chagall, and with new costumes by Karinska based on Chagall's for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival that introduced Gelsey Kirkland as the Firebird.[19]

The Mariinsky Ballet performed the original choreography at Covent Garden in August 2011 as part of their Fokine retrospective.

The National Ballet of Canada created a version of the Firebird Ballet for television, occasionally rebroadcast, in which special effects were used to make it appear that the Firebird is in flight.

On 29 March 2012, American Ballet Theatre premiered the Firebird, starring Misty Copeland, with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.

Story[edit]

Léon Bakst: Firebird, Ballerina, 1910

The ballet centers on the journey of its hero, Prince Ivan. Ivan enters the magical realm of Kashchei the Immortal; all of the magical objects and creatures of Kashchei are herein represented by a chromatic descending motif, usually in the strings. While wandering in the gardens, he sees and chases the Firebird. The Firebird, once caught by Ivan, begs for its life and ultimately agrees to assist Ivan in exchange for eventual freedom.

Next, Prince Ivan sees thirteen princesses, with one of whom he falls in love. The next day, Ivan chooses to confront Kashchei to ask to marry one of the princesses; the two talk and eventually begin quarreling. When Kashchei sends his magical creatures after Ivan, the Firebird, true to its pledge, intervenes, bewitching the creatures and making them dance an elaborate, energetic dance (the "Infernal Dance"). The creatures and Kashchei then fall asleep; however, Kashchei awakens and is then sent into another dance by the Firebird. While Kashchei is bewitched, the Firebird tells Ivan the secret to Kashchei's immortality – his soul is contained inside an enormous, magical egg. Ivan destroys the egg, killing Kashchei. With Kashchei gone and his spell broken, the magical creatures and the palace all disappear. All of the "real" beings, including the princesses, awaken and with one final hint of the Firebird's music (though in Fokine's choreography she makes no appearance in that final scene on-stage), celebrate their victory.

Versions[edit]

Besides the complete 50-minute ballet score of 1909–10 (written for a very large orchestra including quadruple woodwind and three harps, as well as a piano), there are three shorter 'suites', arranged by the composer himself for concert performance by a smaller orchestra. These date from 1911, 1919 and 1945. While the 1919 suite remains the most well known and often played, the 1945 version contains the most music from the original ballet score (partly motivated by the need to secure copyright in a USA that did not recognize European agreements).

There is no consensus for the precise naming of either the different versions, or of the movements, or the numbering of the movements. Different recordings tend to follow different naming conventions. While this partly might be due to the English translation from the original French names, some recordings of the orchestral suites even avoid referring to the tale by just calling the movements by their tempo markings (i.e., Adagio, Allegro, etc.) or the name of the musical form (i.e., Scherzo, Rondo, etc.).

Many adaptations of The Firebird Suite for concert band, marching band and drum corps have been made throughout the years. There are also multiple versions of the choreography for The Firebird—for example, Graeme Murphy's 2009 version.

1910 Ballet Score (aka "Fairy-tale ballet in two tableaux for orchestra")[edit]

Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd & 4th also Piccolo); 3 oboes; cor anglais; 3 clarinets (3rd also D Clarinet); bass clarinet; 3 bassoons (2nd also 2nd contrabassoon); contrabassoon; 4 horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones; tuba; 3 trumpets (onstage); 4 Wagner tubas (two tenor and two bass, onstage); timpani; bass drum; cymbals; triangle; tambourine; tamtam; tubular bells; glockenspiel; xylophone; celesta; 3 harps; pianoforte; strings.

1911 Suite (aka "Concert suite for orchestra No. 1")[edit]

Ivan Bilibin. A warrior

(1) Introduction – Kashchei's Enchanted Garden – Dance of the Firebird; (2) Supplication of the Firebird; (3) The Princesses’ Game with Apples; (4) The Princesses’ Khorovod (Rondo, round dance); (5) Infernal dance of all Kashchei's Subjects.

Orchestration: essentially as per the original ballet—the score was printed from the same plates, with only the new endings for the movements being newly engraved.

Some recordings will list movement no. 1) as three movements.

In 1928, Stravinsky conducted a group of Parisian musicians in a recording of this suite for Columbia Records, which was released on a set of 12-inch 78-rpm discs.

The Kalmus orchestral score for this suite is dated "1910", while Luck's Music publishes this version as "1912"

The 2005 remastered edition on Sony with conductor Pierre Boulez calls it "Ballet suite for orchestra", while in 1991 Sony called it "Suite, 1910".

1919 Suite (aka "Concert suite for orchestra No. 2")[edit]

The "Infernal Dance of Kastchei" performed in 1994 by the United States Marine Corps Band

Problems playing this file? See media help.

(1) Introduction—The Firebird and its dance—The Firebird's variation; (2) The Princesses’ Khorovod (Rondo, round dance); (3) Infernal dance of King Kashchei; (4) Berceuse (Lullaby); (5) Finale.

Orchestration: 2 Flutes (2nd also Piccolo); 2 Oboes (2nd also English Horn for one measure); 2 Clarinets; 2 Bassoons; 4 Horns; 2 Trumpets; 3 Trombones; Tuba; Timpani; Bass Drum; Tambourine; Cymbals; Triangle; Xylophone; Chimes (Tubular Bells); Harp; Pianoforte (also opt. Celesta); Strings.

Some recordings will list movement no. 1) as two or three movements. It is sometimes also referred to as a "Symphonic Suite".

1945 Suite (aka "Ballet suite for orchestra")[edit]

(1) Introduction—The Firebird and its dance—The Firebird's variation; (2) Pantomime I; (3) Pas de deux: Firebird and Ivan Tsarevich; (4) Pantomime II; (5) Scherzo: Dance of the Princesses; (6) Pantomime III; (7) The Princesses' Khorovod (Rondo, round dance); (8) Infernal dance of King Kashchei; (9) Berceuse (Lullaby); (10) Finale.

Orchestration: 2 Flutes (2nd also Piccolo); 2 Oboes; 2 Clarinets; 2 Bassoons; 4 Horns; 2 Trumpets; 3 Trombones; Tuba; Timpani; Bass Drum; Snare Drum; Tambourine; Cymbals; Triangle; Xylophone; Harp; Pianoforte; Strings.

Once again, some recordings will list movement no. 1) as three movements or may refer to this as a "Symphonic Suite". Stravinsky recorded this suite in 1967, his last commercial recording for Columbia Records.

In popular culture[edit]

The chapter "The Princesses' Khorovod and The Infernal Dance of King Katscheï" was used in Bruno Bozzetto's animated film Allegro Non Troppo. The segment visualizes a variant of the Adam and Eve story.[20] However, in this version, both Adam and Eve refuse to eat the apple offered by the Serpent, who then swallows it himself. Falling asleep, he is immediately plunged into a nightmare where he is first tormented by fiery demons and then plagued by things that are supposed to corrupt mankind (sex, alcohol, money, material objects, drugs, violence); he also somehow grows arms and legs and is magicked into a suit and fedora. When he wakes up, he is still wearing the suit and hat; after telling Adam and Eve his dream in a fast-motion and incomprehensible fashion, he sheds the suit (losing his arms and legs but keeping the hat) and spits up the still-whole apple.

The chapter in the animated film Fantasia 2000 based on Stravinsky's piece uses an abridged version (this can be evidenced by a shortened Infernal Dance) of the 1919 suite to tell the story of the Spring Sprite and her companion, an elk. After a long winter, the Sprite is brought forth by the Elk and attempts to restore life to a forest but accidentally wakes the "Firebird" spirit of a nearby volcano. Angered, the Firebird proceeds to destroy the forest and seemingly the Sprite. She survives, but is initially despondent. With the Elk to comfort her, she quickly regains her confidence and restores the forest to its prior glory. The Fantasia 2000 Firebird chapter is considered an exercise in the theme of life-death-rebirth deities; the depiction of the Firebird in it as a violent, flaming volcanic spirit is not related to Stravinsky's original theme.

Saviour Pirotta and Catherine Hyde's picture book, Firebird, was based on the original story that inspired the ballet. It was published by Templar in the UK and Candlewick Press in 2010 to celebrate the ballet's centenary. It won an Aesop Accolade in the US and was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal in the UK. The paperback was published in 2014.

The ending section of the ballet was used in the opening ceremony of Sochi 2014 during the Cauldron Lighting segment.[21]

Selected recorded versions[edit]

Complete ballet[edit]

Notable recordings of the complete ballet include:

Orchestra Conductor Record Company Year of Recording Format Notes
London Symphony Orchestra Antal Doráti Mercury Records 1959 CD
Columbia Symphony Orchestra Igor Stravinsky Columbia Masterworks 1961 CD / LP
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Colin Davis Philips 1978 CD [22]
Royal Danish Orchestra Paul Jorgensen Kultur 1982 DVD [23]
Detroit Symphony Orchestra Antal Doráti Decca Records 1982 CD
Montreal Symphony Orchestra Charles Dutoit Decca Records 1984 CD
Seattle Symphony Orchestra Gerard Schwarz Delos Records 1992 CD [24]
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Pierre Boulez Deutsche Grammophon 1993 CD [25]
Kirov Orchestra Valeri Gergiev Philips Classics Records 1998 CD
Philharmonia Orchestra Robert Craft Koch Records / Naxos Records 1996 CD [26]
Orchestre de Paris Seiji Ozawa EMI 1997 CD
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Michael Tilson Thomas RCA 1998 CD [27][28]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Simon Rattle EMI 2008 CD
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra Esa-Pekka Salonen Deutsche Grammophon 2008 Digital download [29][30]

Firebird Suite[edit]

Excerpts from The Firebird Suite[edit]

  • Berceuse: Lori Singer, solo cello performance (included on the Short Cuts soundtrack)
  • Danse Infernale: Igor Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (released on Columbia Records as MS 7094; disc includes five other Stravinsky compositions)
  • Firebird Suite (1919 version—excerpt): James Levine and the Chicago Symphony. Included on the "Fantasia 2000" soundtrack album.

Notes[edit]

Citation notes
  1. ^ Walsh, Stephen (2012). "Stravinsky, Igor, §1: Background and early years, 1882–1905". Grove Music Online. Retrieved 9 August 2012.  (subscription required)
  2. ^ Walsh, Stephen (2012). "Stravinsky, Igor, §2: Towards The Firebird, 1902–09". Grove Music Online. Retrieved 9 August 2012.  (subscription required)
  3. ^ "Stravinsky, Igor, §11: Posthumous reputation and legacy: Works". Grove Music Online. 2012. Retrieved 9 August 2012.  (subscription required)
  4. ^ White 1961, pp. 52–53
  5. ^ "Diaghilev, Serge". The Oxford Dictionary of Music Online edition. 2012. Retrieved 9 August 2012.  (subscription required)
  6. ^ Griffiths, Paul (2012). "Diaghilev [Dyagilev], Sergey Pavlovich". Grove Music Online. Retrieved 9 August 2012.  (subscription required)
  7. ^ Benois' 1910 article: "Two years ago I gave voice … to the dream that a true 'Russian (or perhaps Slavonic) mythology' would make its appearance in ballet"; quoted in Taruskin (1996), p.555
  8. ^ Quoted Taruskin (1996), pp. 556–57.
  9. ^ Taruskin, pp. 576–77
  10. ^ See Taruskin (1996), pp. 577–78.
  11. ^ Taruskin (1996), pp. 574–75.
  12. ^ Stephen Walsh: 'Stravinsky, Igor', Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Retrieved 1 April 2008)
  13. ^ Taruskin, p.638
  14. ^ Taruskin, p. 638.
  15. ^ Taruskin, p. 639
  16. ^ Taruskin, p. 662
  17. ^ Sorley Walker (1982), p. 41
  18. ^ "Ballets Russes | What's On". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 2011-04-05. 
  19. ^ The 1970 restaging uses only the 1945 suite as accompaniment, as indicated by a program note whenever the work is performed.
  20. ^ Chris Hicks (1991-03-12). "Allegro Non Troppo". Deseret News. Retrieved 2011-12-05. 
  21. ^ http://www.sochi2014.com/en/news-the-xxii-olympic-winter-games-in-sochi-in-2014-has-opened-with-a-grand-show-thrilling-spectators
  22. ^ "L'oiseau de feu (The Firebird), ballet in 2 scenes for orchestra – Stravinsky: Ballets". Rovi Corporation. 1993-08-02. Retrieved 2011-04-05. 
  23. ^ Features the Royal Danish Ballet choreographed by Glen Tetley.
  24. ^ Russian prima ballerina Natalia Makarova narrates the story. This recording won the 1991/1992 American Library Association Award.
  25. ^ "STRAVINSKY Der Feuervogel Boulez – Catalogue". Deutsche Grammophon. 1993-08-02. Retrieved 2011-04-05. 
  26. ^ "STRAVINSKY, I.: Firebird (The) / Petrushka (Craft) (Stravinsky, Vol. 2)". Naxos Digital Services Ltd. 1993-08-02. Retrieved 2011-04-05. 
  27. ^ This set won the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance and the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Classical Album
  28. ^ "L'oiseau de feu (The Firebird), ballet in 2 scenes for orchestra – Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps; L'Oiseau de feu; Perséphone". Rovi Corporation. 1993-08-02. Retrieved 2011-04-05. 
  29. ^ This live recording is only available in CD. Itwas recorded in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
  30. ^ "L'oiseau de feu (The Firebird), ballet in 2 scenes for orchestra". Deutsche Grammophon. 1993-08-02. Retrieved 2011-04-05. ]

References[edit]

External links[edit]