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If Stravinsky was known at all in Paris in 1908, it was as a promising student and disciple of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In that year, two of the 26-year-old composer's works were conducted by Alexander Siloti in St. Petersburg: Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks. Hardly earth-shakers by the lights of what was to come, but sufficiently original and imaginative to make an impression on at least one connoisseur in the audience, Sergei Diaghilev, who was about to launch a new company to perform a mixed season of ballet and opera in Paris. The French capital was at the time particularly taken with the kind of exotic orientalia Russian artists were likely to offer.
With dancer-choreographer Mikhail Fokine and scenic artists Leon Bakst and Alexandre Benois on board, Diaghilev lacked only a resident composer to round out his creative staff. That Stravinsky was his man was proven by his successful handling of some test assignments for the opening season of what would be called the Ballets Russes, including the orchestration of Chopin's piano Nocturne in A-flat and Valse brillante in E-flat, for the opening and closing numbers of Fokine's Les Sylphides.
During the company's second season, in 1909, Diaghilev gave his potential resident composer something more demanding. When Anatol Liadov was unable to make much progress on a score commissioned from him for a ballet on the Russian legend of the magical Firebird and the Tsarevich Ivan, Diaghilev transferred the project to Stravinsky, who was at the time living in the country home, near St. Petersburg, of the Rimsky-Korsakov family at the invitation of the late composer's son, Andrei.
The lavish production of L'oiseau de feu, as it was called, was first seen in the Paris Opera on June 25, 1910. Choreography was by Fokine, who also danced the role of the Tsarevich. The Firebird was Tamara Karsavina and the conductor Gabriel Pierné, himself a well-known composer at the time.
The colorfully melodic score made an overnight star of the composer who would scandalize even the most progressive Paris audience three years later with his Rite of Spring.
The first-night audience was a glittering assemblage, with one dignitary after another coming to Diaghilev's box to greet the impresario and his brilliant protégé. According to Stravinsky's much later memoirs - and he does confess to not recalling whether all these people were there on opening night or at subsequent performances - in attendance were Marcel Proust, Jean Giraudoux, St.-John Perse, and, definitely at a later performance, Sarah Bernhardt. During the initial run Stravinsky also met Debussy and the two instantly became friends.
"The orchestral body of The Firebird was wastefully large," Stravinsky was later to write in one of his periodic - inevitably negative - reviews of his early career, "but I was more proud of some of the orchestration than of the music itself." (Stravinsky subsequently reorchestrated the music less lavishly in the second and third suites he devised.) He confesses, too, that he sold the Firebird manuscript in 1919 to "a wealthy and generous ex-croupier from Monte Carlo" who would donate it to the Geneva Conservatory of Music, and that the score "has been a mainstay in my life as a conductor." Stravinsky in fact made his debut as a conductor with the complete score, at a 1915 Red Cross benefit in Paris. "And, don't forget," he further informs us, "I was once addressed by a man in an American railway dining car as 'Mr. Fireberg'."
Through all his cranky comments, however, shines the composer's affection for his youthful triumph, and it has remained his most frequently performed score.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.