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Length: c. 45 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo 2), 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (3rd = clarinet in E-flat), bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon 2), contrabassoon, 4 horns (3rd and 4th = Wagner tubas), 3 trumpets (+ offstage trumpet), 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, bells, cymbals, glockenspiel, tam-tam, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, piano, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 8, 1972, Lawrence Foster conducting
“The Firebird belongs to the styles of its times,” said Stravinsky (in Expositions and Developments) about his first ballet score, adding, “It is more vigorous than most of the composed folk music of the period, but it is also not very original.” Was the composer being painfully honest by disparaging the work that laid the foundation of his fabled career or was he being disingenuous? Further he repeats the oft-quoted statement that the “orchestral body of The Firebird was wastefully large,” but he admits to being “more proud of the orchestration than of the music itself.” He does go on to concede that it paved the way for his work of the next four years (which included Petrushka and The Rite of Spring), and acknowledges that the finale “might be cited as the first appearance in my music of metrical irregularity. But” he avers, “that is all.”
Should a music lover who delights in being enveloped in the gorgeous luxuriousness of The Firebird care one whit if the composer himself thinks it is not original, among other reservations? Certainly not, I advise. Fifty years after the fact he says that he was criticizing the music even while writing it, giving as an example the Mendelssohnian-Tchaikovskyan Scherzo, which “failed to satisfy me.” Other than some psychological need to disavow his famous firstborn ballet, one guesses that Stravinsky was simply trying to justify the very reasonable fact that at that time in his life he was the product of his background and that his music revealed the assimilation that was taking place.
One of the assimilations that he didn’t disown but rather cultivated was the music of Tchaikovsky, not all of his music but certainly the three ballets as well as some piano pieces and songs. There was also a sentimental association (imagine mister cool being sentimental) concerning Tchaikovsky, who had given an inscribed photograph to his father in admiration of his performance of a key role in his opera The Enchantress. Stravinsky wasn’t reluctant to recall the impression the famous composer made on him when he was only 11: “A glimpse of Tchaikovsky was to become one of my most treasured memories,” he said of an event that occurred very shortly before Tchaikovsky’s death of cholera. Throughout his life, the supremely intellectual 20th-century master had an abiding affection for the surpassingly emotional 19th-century composer, and he found occasions in his own music to pay “heartfelt homage to Tchaikovsky’s wonderful talent.”
Stravinsky recognized two links between himself and Tchaikovsky; one was their Russian heritage, the other their natural affection for ballet music. Considering the latter, Stravinsky must have felt the hand of destiny upon him when asked by Ballets Russes director Serge Diaghilev to write the score for the ballet The Firebird, a plum originally intended for Russian composer Anatol Liadov. The latter, unable to produce the music on Diaghilev’s time schedule, forfeited the splendid opportunity. Poor Liadov. Lucky Stravinsky – and lucky us. The ballet, with choreography by Fokine, was premiered in Paris on June 25, 1910 with spectacular results. The world of ballet and the world of music, quickened by the vibrancy of the score, were never to be quite the same again.
Stravinsky dedicated The Firebird to his teacher and dear friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose musical presence hovers lovingly over the score in (1) the luminous brilliance of the orchestration; (2) a treatment similar to the one Rimsky used in his opera, The Golden Cockerel, in which the human characters have simple, straightforward themes, the supernatural ones exotic, chromatic motifs; (3) the use of folk material. To name only two folk sources Stravinsky used: “In the Garden” is the basis for the Princesses’ Round Dance, the theme of the finale is taken from another folk song, “By the Gate.”
But even with its Old Russian heritage showing, the score surges with newness and with the stunning and, the composer’s denial notwithstanding, original elements which in his next two ballets, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, were to be exploited more fully. One can single out in Firebird the primitivism (Infernal Dance of Kastchei); ostinatos – insistently repeated patterns of rhythm or melody, or both (the introductory figure of the Lullaby, which continues as the repeated accompaniment to the melody); rhythmic dynamism (the shifting accents of the 7/4 finale, the lunging syncopation of Kastchei); and pungent harmonies (at every fascinating turn).
The story of the ballet is based on Russian folk legend. Prince Ivan becomes lost in the magical forest of the ogre Kastchei, who can turn intruders into stone. Seeing the Firebird plucking golden apples from a tree, Ivan captures her, but frees her when she gives him a feather that has magic powers. Later, 13 enchanted princesses appear. Ivan watches them dancing and playing with the golden apples. They warn him of Kastchei, who attempts to work his spell on Ivan, but the Prince is protected by the Firebird’s feather. The Firebird causes Kastchei and his followers to dance wildly until they drop exhausted. The Prince destroys an egg that holds in it the ogre’s immortality. Kastchei dies. His stoned (as in rock-like) captives come to life; and Ivan takes the loveliest of the Princesses in marriage.
— Orrin Howard