Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Firebird (Piano transcription, 1910)
As coincidences go, The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky(1882-1971) abounds in them. Despite being considered the most outwardly'Russian' of his major works, it came out of a cultural tradition which hadlargely ignored ballet since the death of Tchaikovsky, created for anon-Russian audience in a country, France, whose ballet tradition was a potentif waning one.
The ballet's genesis goes back to 1909, when Ballets russesimpresario Sergey Dyagilev, mindful of financial disaster after his firstRussian season in Paris, decided to concentrate on ballet rather than operaproductions, thereby cutting costs in the process. That the ballets of thisfirst season, all Classical stylisations, had been less well received than the'exotic' Russian operas, compelled him, as did the prompting of his chiefadviser Alexandre Benois, to commission ballets in which Russian folk-lore wasparamount. In this he was abetted by the reforming zeal of his choreographerMikhail Fokin, who adapted The Firebird scenario from two different Russianfolk-tales, with a number of recent additions. The result was the perfect'synthetic' Russian folk-tale, but the problem remained of who was to providethe musical realisation.
Working, in his own order of preference, through thecomposers who had arranged Chopin numbers for his 1909 ballet Les Sylphides,Dyagilev first approached Nikolay Tcherepnin, whose ballet score for Lepavillon d'Armide had enjoyed a modest success in the first Ballets russesseason. Tcherepnin had actually begun composing the ballet, when a disagreementwith Fokin caused him to abandon work. Approach was then made to AnatolyLyadov, who considered but rejected the proposal, as did the now obscureNikolay Sokolov. Stravinsky was very much a 'last resort' for the impresario,having been called in at short notice to work on Les Sylphides after Dyagilevhad been impressed by the St Petersburg premi?¿re of his Scherzo fantastique inJanuary 1909 (not Fireworks, first performed a year later, as is often stated).Begun in November and first given at the Paris Opera on 25th June 1910, thesuccess of The Firebird was instantaneous and absolute, assuring Stravinsky'sfuture as a composer.
That Dyagilev and Stravinsky were, in effect, continuing thetradition of Russian opera through the medium of ballet is evident in thecombination of a folk-song-derived idiom for the human characters with aharmonically 'exotic' one for the supernatural figures. In this respect, TheFirebird takes its place in a lineage going back to Stravinsky's teacherNikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and beyond him to the 'father' of Russian musicMikhail Glinka, notably his 1842 opera Ruslan and Lyudmila. The influence ofAlexander Scriabin, however, whose piano sonatas and symphonic works The DivinePoem and The Poem of Ecstasy were then the latest thing in Russian musicalculture, is also apparent, making The Firebird a judicious amalgam of Russianmusic past and present.
The ballet is divided into an Introduction and two Tableaux,the second being essentially a coda to the whole work. The Introduction setsthe scene in mysterious and suspenseful terms, opening out into a depiction ofthe evil sorcerer Kastchei's magic garden. The aura of calm is disturbed withthe appearance of the Firebird, pursued by Prince Ivan-Tsarevich. The Firebirddisplays its fantastic plumage in a skittering and virtuosic dance, beforebeing captured by Ivan. A lengthy supplication ensues, the Firebird winning itsfreedom in exchange for a feather, which, it informs Ivan, will act as a signalshould the Prince find himself in dire need. It also tells him of thirteenprincesses held captive in Kaschei's domain, and these Ivan determines to setfree. As the Firebird departs, the princesses emerge slowly and uncertainlyinto the magic garden. In a lively Scherzo, they play a game with the goldenapples, interrupted by the sudden appearance of Ivan. He wins the trust of themost beautiful of the princesses, who proceed to dance a wistful Khorovod(round dance), employing the folk-tune In the Garden from Rimsky's 1877collection One Hundred Russian Folk Songs.
The sound of daybreak, and the princesses flee the gardeninto Kastchei's palace. Ivan follows them, only to be confronted, at the soundof a magic carillon, and captured by the sorcerer's guardian monsters. Kastcheithe Immortal now enters, questioning Ivan and, despite the intercession of theprincesses, deciding his fate. Waving the magic feather in the air, Ivansummons the Firebird, who arrives to cast a spell over Kastchei's retinue,their increasingly animated dance leading to the Infernal Dance of allKastchei's subjects. This is cut short at a peak of excitement, the Firebirdputting the subjects to sleep in a soulful Berceuse. Kastchei wakes up, only tofind that the Firebird has shown Ivan the casket which contains the egg that isthe sorcerer's heart. Ivan duly smashes it, killing Kastchei and plunging thewhole of his domain into darkness. The brief second Tableau depicts thedisappearance of the palace, dissolution of Kastchei's enchantments,
re-animation of the petrified knights and, to the sound ofbells, the reunion of Ivan and his favourite princess in an Apotheosis ofgeneral rejoicing.
Despite the rapid subsequent development of Stravinsky'smusical idiom, The Firebird was to remain his most popular work during hislifetime. He prepared three concert suites from the score, in 1911, 1919 and1945, as well as a transcription for solo piano in 1910. It became the only oneof his pre-war ballets to be so arranged as, after World War One, thepossibilities of the Pleyel player-piano, pianola and Duo-Art piano-roll ledhim to transcribe them for these systems, The Firebird appearing on all threeduring 1926 and 1927. As a reduction of his first major score, then, thepresent transcription retains a unique - and uniquely human - interest.