L'Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird)

Igor Stravinsky

The legend of a large glowing firebird with magical feathers and crystal eyes had appeared in many Russian fairy tales, and several of these involve Prince Ivan, son of the Tsar. In the early twentieth century, the great Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the famous Ballet Russes, had introduced Russian culture and stories to life via ballet to Europe, and in 1909 he decided that a setting of The Firebird would be a fine choice after his success with the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor in May of that year. For his new topic, he mixed a Russian story “Koschei the Deathless” and a child’s poem from A Winter’s Journey:

And in my dreams I see myself on a wolf’s back

Riding along a forest path

To do battle with a sorcerer-tsar (Koschei

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.

In this version, the fairy tale narrates that Prince Ivan becomes lost while hunting and finds himself in a magic garden filled with golden apples and the exquisite firebird which he captures. For her freedom, she offers him a golden feather to give him aid should he ever need it. He does not know that he has actually trespassed into a garden owned by the evil Koschei, who can, at will, turn people into stone.  Continuing on, he finds himself in front of a large castle, Koschei’s residence.  On the front lawn, he meets 13 princesses (falling in love with number 13: Tsarevna) who are prisoners of Koschei: though allowed to play outside, they are turned into stone every day. Although he is captured by castle guards, he is saved from being turned to stone by the magic feather. The firebird then leads Koschei and his supporters in a wild dance, so exhausting that they fall asleep. The firebird tells him that Kostchei’s soul is housed in a large egg hidden in a casket. He destroys the egg, and therefore, the spell. The princesses are saved and he is betrothed to Tsarevna.

Diaghilev first asked Nikolai Tcherepnin for a score, but the composer fought with the choreographer, Michael Fokine, and quit. Diaghilev then asked Anatoly Lyadov to write the music but Lyadov for one reason or another (Procrastination? Confusion about whether he ever signed a commission to do so?) never seemed to get around to it and was basically fired. Thirdly, he gambled on the young, unknown Igor Stravinsky. The composer recalled: “The Firebird did not attract me as a subject. Like all story ballets it demanded descriptive music of a kind I did not want to write. I had not yet proved myself as a composer…in truth my reservations about the subject were a defense for my not being sure I could… I was flattered, of course, by the promise of a performance of my music in Paris…”  He turned away from his work on his opera, The Nightingale, to address this opportunity.  As it turned out, in one night, Firebird launched Stravinsky into enormous prominence and was transformative in his career. “Mark him well…he is a man on the eve of celebrity,” Diaghilev had prophesized to the ballerina Tamara Karsavina who was dancing the starring role, and he was right.  Three very popular orchestral suites were later derived from the original score in 1911, 1919, and 1945.

The lavish Firebird premiere on June 25, 1910, was a huge success in every respect. The dancers, costumes, choreography, stage sets, and music dazzled Parisian audiences and critics alike. Stravinsky remembered, “The first night audience at the Paris opera glittered indeed… I sat in Diaghilev’s box where at intermissions a stream of celebrities, artists, dowagers, writers, balletomanes appeared…I was called to the stage to bow at the conclusion and was recalled several times…”

Stravinsky’s music followed the narrative closely per Diaghilev’s instructions, but it was his orchestral coloration, sound effects, intoxicating themes, and novel rhythms that electrified the audience and illumed the fairy tale. In the final scene, the firebird does not appear. Apparently, she has flown away.

“I am more proud of the orchestration than the music itself.” Stravinsky stated.

Some listening points:

In the beginning, the strings are asked to play sul ponticello (near the bridge), giving a special effect with shuddering repetitions (tremolos) lots of harp glissandi throughout (there are three harps) which add a swirling de-stabilized atmosphere. At the end of the introduction (the Magic Garden), notice the fairy-like effect of the string sliding notes (glissandi) at the close.

Notice herein, the Firebird’s depiction, in the introduction, Stravinsky’s use of chromatic lines which add a shimmering sound, reflecting glittering bird feathers.

In the Firebird’s solo dance, syncopations add birdlike behavior in rendering a musical bird portrait.

In the big Infernal Dance, listen for the brutal rhythms, the simultaneous combinations of different rhythms to create an unsettling and disorienting effect.  The scoring is heavy with loud dynamics marked fff…Trombone glissandi add to the frenzy, and the harps sometimes play on top of the strings to generate strange harmonic overtones.

At the conclusion, revel in the huge orchestration, and the extended seven-measure closing.

© Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2017.

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