Composed: 1909-1910; rev. 1919
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, tambourine, triangle, xylophone), 2 harps, piano, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 10, 1926, Eugene Goossens conducting
Stravinsky’s Firebird is now 100 years old, but doesn’t sound a day over 90. Its birth was nearly a miscarriage in the annals of commissions: Diaghilev, ever clairvoyant with regards to talent, tapped the young Stravinsky (albeit as a fourth choice after having been turned down by three prominent Russian composers), to compose a work for the climax of the 1910 season. If he had any trepidation over the offer, Stravinsky soon realized that there was not enough time to luxuriate in uncertainty. The first performance took place on June 25, 1910 under the auspices of the Ballets Russes, thus launching a career that, in company with Picasso, Eliot, et al., defined 20th-century modernity.
The scenario was fashioned from Russian folklore by Michel Fokine, who both choreographed and danced the principal male role. Stravinsky “stole” folk tunes from a collection of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov and, like his teacher, used these tunes to depict in diatonic garb mere mortal beings. And also like his teacher, he portrayed the world of less than human beings in chromatic and orchestral fabrics emblematic of their supernatural status. Upon hearing this magical soundscape, one must take cum grano sale Stravinsky’s stated dislike of the subject because “it demanded descriptive music of a kind I did not want to write.”
Here, in a nutshell, is the scenario Stravinsky found to his disliking: The ogre Kastchei the Deathless has in captivity beautiful princesses who dance a Khorovod, or round dance, in his magic garden. One day Prince Ivan stumbles across them at play and follows them to Kastchei’s palace. Ivan is captured and is about to be turned to stone when he remembers the feather he received from the Firebird and summons her to his aid. (Ivan had previously freed the Firebird after having captured her; she gave him the feather to call to her in time of need.) The Firebird then dances, lulling Kastchei and his retinue to sleep. Ivan then finds Kastchei’s soul in a casket, takes it out, and dashes it to pieces. Kastchei is no more, Ivan weds one of the princesses, and together they reign over the Kingdom free of evil, their happiness vibrating in the majestic folksong sounded by a solo horn.
Steve Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.