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Composed: 1908
Length: c. 5 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, glockenspiel, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 21, 1925, Fritz Reiner conducting

Stravinsky’s Fireworks – in spite of its brevity – occupies an important place in his output for two reasons. First, most commentators consider it his first fully characteristic piece, the work in which the young composer’s own voice emerged for the first time, unencumbered by echoes of his forebears. Second, Fireworks got the attention of a figure who would play a key role in Stravinsky’s career, the impresario Serge Diaghilev.

Stravinsky wrote Fireworks as a wedding present for Nadezhda Rimsky-Korsakov, daughter of composer and pedagogue Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s most important teacher, and another Rimsky pupil, Maximilian Steinberg. Steinberg received the finished composition by the end of June 1908 and expressed his initial enthusiasm in a July 1 letter to his friend Mikhail Gnesin, who would later become a famous teacher in his own right: “I like it very much; the music is typical of Igor…. It’s brilliantly scored, if it only proves playable, for it’s incredibly hard.” Over the years, Stravinsky’s once friendly relationship with Steinberg hardened into mutual animosity; Stravinsky’s own biography records a different reaction from Steinberg, the memory certainly polluted by those feelings: “The best he could do even for my Fireworks was to shrug his shoulders.”

The audience at the work’s first public performance wasn’t much warmer, but, by that time, the little “fantasy” had already made its impression on Diaghilev. He heard Stravinsky play it at the piano at a private performance at the Conservatory sometime in 1909, before the public premiere in January 1910. The work gave Diaghilev the encouragement he needed to commission a full-length ballet from Stravinsky – the result was The Firebird, a score foreshadowed by Fireworks in many ways. By the time of Fireworks’ public premiere, Diaghilev was already laying the groundwork for Stravinsky’s success – a review essentially “planted” by the impresario praised Fireworks for its “witty hints at the reproduction in sound of a sensational explosion of skyrockets” in music distinguished by its “richness of substance.”

Fireworks begins with a running accompaniment in the flutes and a swinging three-note motto tossed between horns, first violins (with piccolo and pizzicato seconds and violas), and solo trumpet. Horns and trumpets develop this motto into fanfares; a final explosion from the percussion leads to a languid central section. The work’s ternary form (A-B-A) means that Stravinsky brings back the opening material to round things off, a time-honored structural device. It’s Fireworks’ musical substance – above all, its quirky harmonic twists and transparent orchestration – that points the way forward, with pre-echoes of several passages from The Firebird and the later Diaghilev ballets.

— John Mangum