Stravinsky: The Firebird

performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez

(cover image by Patrick Hendry)

Mark him well—he is a man on the eve of celebrity.

Serge Diaghilev of Igor Stravinsky

This piece may well be the most famous of Stravinsky’s, and while that’s not to say it’s the best, or the most successful, etc., it has good reason to be his most famous, or one of them, for it was with this piece that his career was launched.

You can go read the entire story on Wikipedia (and many other places, undoubtedly), but the piece’s composition was the result of a collaboration, the impetus for which we discussed earlier this week, between Stravinsky and Serge Diaghilev. It could be argued then that it was in reality that piece and not this one that was his big break, meaning that it was Stravinsky, ultimately, and not Steinberg or Lyadov or Nikolai Tcherepnin, who was chosen by Diaghilev for a Russian ballet project.

Diaghilev, to abbreviate the story, had been looking to produce “a Russian nationalist ballet” for his Ballets Russes. He had been working “to introduce Russian music and art to western audiences,” and previous endeavors to do so had included Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Wikipedia says, citing Paul Griffiths, that:

Diaghilev’s intention, however, was to produce new works in a distinctively 20th-century style, and he was looking for fresh compositional talent.

The Firebird was to be Diaghilev’s first original composition for his Ballets Russes. After having approached Anatoly Lyadov, who seems apparently never to have accepted, despite indications that he was slow to start composition, or Nikolai Tcherepnin, who actually began but for reasons unknown later withdrew from the commission, the honor eventually fell to the 28-year-old Stravinsky, and the rest was history.

The story is not simply just a setting of a Russian folk story, as Wikipedia tells us:

The inspiration of mixing the mythical Firebird with the unrelated Russian tale of Koschei 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 (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.

… but it’s certainly inspired by very Russian ideas.

Again, I won’t repeat the entire story here, but you can read Wiki’s synopsis in detail (itself only a few paragraphs). It involves Prince Ivan, who stumbles across the realm of Koschei the Immortal, an egg that keeps him immortal, the eponymous Firebird, who Price Ivan nearly kills but spares. She gives him a feather to call on her if he is ever in need of help, and he quickly is when he falls in love with a princess under Koschei’s spell. Koschei and his minions fall into a deep sleep after being forced to dance the ‘Infernal dance,’ a famous scene from the piece. You can guess from here: spell broken, escape, celebration.

The piece itself follows the story, and tracked as it is in most recordings, we can follow more or less the exact progress of the tale. Below is the “Numbers separated by Stravinsky himself,” from the portion of Wikipedia’s article about how the piece is tracked and laid out, but Boulez’s recording with the Chicago Symphony is tracked only slightly differently. You can view that here.

  1. Introduction
First Tableau

  1. Le Jardin enchanté de Kachtcheï (The Enchanted Garden of Kastchei)
  2. Apparition de l’Oiseau de feu, poursuivi par Ivan Tsarévitch (Appearance of the Firebird, Pursued by Prince Ivan)
  3. Danse de l’Oiseau de feu (Dance of the Firebird)
  4. Capture de l’Oiseau de feu par Ivan Tsarévitch (Capture of the Firebird by Prince Ivan)
  5. Supplications de l’Oiseau de feu (Supplication of the Firebird) – Apparition des treize princesses enchantées (Appearance of the Thirteen Enchanted Princesses)
  6. Jeu des princesses avec les pommes d’or (The Princesses’ Game with the Golden Apples). Scherzo
  7. Brusque apparition d’Ivan Tsarévitch (Sudden Appearance of Prince Ivan)
  8. Khorovode (Ronde) des princesses (Khorovod (Round Dance) of the Princesses)
  9. Lever du jour (Daybreak) – Ivan Tsarévitch pénètre dans le palais de Kachtcheï (Prince Ivan Penetrates Kastchei’s Palace)
  10. Carillon Féerique, apparition des monstres-gardiens de Kachtcheï et capture d’Ivan Tsarévitch (Magic Carillon, Appearance of Kastchei’s Monster Guardians, and Capture of Prince Ivan) – Arrivée de Kachtcheï l’Immortel (Arrival of Kastchei the Immortal) – Dialogue de Kachtcheï avec Ivan Tsarévitch (Dialogue of Kastchei and Prince Ivan) – Intercession des princesses (Intercession of the Princesses) – Apparition de l’Oiseau de feu (Appearance of the Firebird)
  11. Danse de la suite de Kachtcheï, enchantée par l’Oiseau de feu (Dance of Kastchei’ Retinue, Enchanted by the Firebird)
  12. Danse infernale de tous les sujets de Kachtcheï (Infernal Dance of All Kastchei’s Subjects) – Berceuse (L’Oiseau de feu) (Lullaby) – Réveil de Kachtcheï (Kastchei’s Awakening) – Mort de Kachtcheï (Kastchei’s Death) – Profondes ténèbres (Profound Darkness)
Second Tableau

  1. Disparition du palais et des sortilèges de Kachtcheï, animation des chevaliers pétrifiés, allégresse générale (Disappearance of Kastchei’s Palace and Magical Creations, Return to Life of the Petrified Knights, General Rejoicing)

 

What more need there be said about this piece? Do you hear the rich Russian-ness of it all? Can you feel the connection to Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as the strong footing toward a wildly exciting 20th century idiom, alongside Debussy, Schoenberg, and others? It’s exhilarating. We’ve discussed before, or rather I’ve asked, how you personally would express your grief, your joy, your love, in relation to various pieces of music we have discussed. Now, though, take a moment to think about the story, a fairytale, really, and before listening, how would you construct the sound world that each of the above tracks conveys? And now let’s listen.

The introduction is ominous, but so iconically famous. This isn’t the prelude to an opera, but can you hear Kashchei (or however you want to spell it) and his dominion off in the distance, with the low strings, and Prince Ivan wandering into this magical land? Throughout the first few scenes, we vacillate between this ominous foreboding, the soft lyricism of woodwinds like the flora and fauna in the magical landscape, and bursts of energy and excitement from a deftly scored orchestra.

Listen for things like the bassoon in Kashchei’s enchanted garden: does it remind you of Prokofiev’s later Peter and the Wolf? What does the appearance of the firebird sound like, besides more chromaticism? What’s the texture? What instruments would you use to represent it?

The appearance of and dance of the firebird are some of the most common passages, included in all the suites, and you can see why, no? The supplication after having been caught is the longest section by far in the work, at least as Boulez’s is laid out. Plopped right here in the middle of the work, it almost acts as a slow movement, but Ivan’s appearance and the round dance of princesses are not to be outdone. These are a few more of the most recognizable passages in this piece.

By far the most famous, exciting, intense, harrowing, is the infernal dance. If you haven’t already been convinced of the composer’s mastery of extremes of style and atmosphere, this single excerpt should do it. It’s menacing and violent, then playful, elegant… Obviously the story lends itself to such vivid imagery, but you can see how this was a mind-blowing musical moment.

I’ll leave the last sections to you, the utter triumph and celebration of the closing, but a few things do strike me about this piece. For one, Feu d’artifice was a small little burst of an idea, a proof of concept, maybe, for what the composer would accomplish here, but to take that palette, and go from the equivalent of a little A5 swatch of paper to a giant wall-sized canvas is remarkable, that what may have seemed like sound effects and textures were synthesized, processed, into a cohesive, riveting narrative that earns a great deal of reverence down to today.

And that’s my second thought. Few pieces have been so wildly successful at their premieres and stayed so throughout history. It seems that pieces either earn praise initially and slowly disappear, or else are received coolly in their time and only (re)discovered much later, but The Firebird was an enormous success in the eyes of the performers, critics, and one assumes audiences. It was the big break Stravinsky needed, and may have otherwise eventually gotten in some form, but not like this. It’s a piece that has been adored by audiences and critics alike in the more than a century since its premiere.

The only criticism I’d level against it is that it’s played more often than another of his pieces we’ll discuss another time. For now, though, we’re discussing more Stravinsky pieces in this one week than we have in the entire past five years of the blog. If you don’t know what’s up with L’Oiseau de Feu, go give it a listen tout de suite. Stay tuned for another of Stravinsky’s works, much smaller and less celebrated, this weekend, and thanks so much for reading.

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