Stravinsky: The Firebird / Gergiev · Vienna Philarmonic · Salzburg Festival 2000
Have you ever listened to a story told through music? Well, that’s what The Firebird does.
The Firebird, a ballet based on Russian folklore, premiered in 1910. Its music was written by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), then a young unknown Russian composer. In the early 1900s, Europeans were fascinated by all things Russian, including art and music. To take advantage of this, Sergei Diaghilev, the famous Russian ballet promoter, established his Ballet Russes in Paris in 1909. The following year, to highlight his second season, Diaghilev wanted a new ballet based on Russian folklore, and he needed someone to write the music. He asked several composers, but they turned him down. So he turned to Stravinsky. It was a gamble that paid off spectacularly.
Plot & Title Character
The Firebird is based on Russian folklore and myth. The title character is a powerful female spirit bird with magical feathers that provide beauty and protection and glitter like the tongues of flames.
The story begins with Prince Ivan Tsarevich wandering in a garden at night. He sees the Firebird eating golden apples and captures her. However, he releases her when she offers him a magical feather. The Firebird warns Prince Ivan that he’s near the castle of Koschei the Deathless, a fearsome sorcerer. The next morning while hiding in the garden, Prince Ivan watches thirteen captured princesses enter the garden and dance (remember, it’s a ballet). He falls in love with one of them and decides to rescue them.
There’s a problem, however; the garden’s full of statues, because Koschei turns anyone to stone who tries to rescue the princesses. Clearly he doesn’t want to share. Regardless, Prince Ivan confronts Koschei and uses the Firebird’s feather to prevent becoming another immobile statue. The Firebird then casts a spell over the sorcerer and his followers, causing them to dance uncontrollably until they drop. The prince then destroys a magical egg that holds the key to the sorcerer’s immortality. The spell is broken, the princesses are free, the statues return to life, and Prince Ivan marries his bride. All in 45 minutes!
The Firebird was Stravinsky’s first large orchestral work, full of exciting music that captivated audiences of the time. Although we can’t analyze the complete musical score, let’s cover some important points that make the music memorable.
Stravinsky uses different kinds of music to tell the story. First, he identifies each character with a musical theme that conveys his or her personality. Remember, it’s a ballet, so there’s no singing or speaking. Human characters like Prince Ivan and his princess are represented by folk tune-like melodies using a familiar scale. You know, the one that starts ”Do, Re, Me.” We refer to this scale as the diatonic scale. This seven-note scale creates melodies and harmonies that sound pleasing and familiar to the ear.
On the other hand, mythical characters like the Firebird and Koschei are represented by chromatic musical passages. Chromaticism uses notes outside the diatonic scale, which makes the music more mysterious, exotic, and unexpected and identifies these characters as otherworldly. For Koschei, Stravinsky moves into dissonant chords. Dissonance has notes that clash. Composers use it purposely to create harsh and jarring sounds.
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (5 June 1882 – 6 April 1971) was a Russian-born composer, pianist, and conductor. He is widely considered one of the most important and influential composers of the 20th century.
Stravinsky’s compositional career was notable for its stylistic diversity. He first achieved international fame with three ballets commissioned by the impresario Serge Diaghilev and first performed in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). The latter transformed the way in which subsequent composers thought about rhythmic structure and was largely responsible for Stravinsky’s enduring reputation as a musical revolutionary who pushed the boundaries of musical design.
His “Russian phase”, which continued with works such as Renard, L’Histoire du soldat, and Les Noces, was followed in the 1920s by a period in which he turned to neoclassicism. The works from this period tended to make use of traditional musical forms (concerto grosso, fugue, and symphony) and drew from earlier styles, especially those of the 18th century. In the 1950s, Stravinsky adopted serial procedures. His compositions of this period shared traits with examples of his earlier output: rhythmic energy, the construction of extended melodic ideas out of a few two- or three-note cells, and clarity of form and instrumentation.
The arrangement for piano solo can be downloaded from our Sheet Music Library.
The Music of The Firebird
Numbers designated by Stravinsky in the score
- Le Jardin enchanté de Kachtcheï (The Enchanted Garden of Koschei)
- Apparition de l’Oiseau de feu, poursuivi par Ivan Tsarévitch (Appearance of the Firebird, Pursued by Prince Ivan)
- Danse de l’Oiseau de feu (Dance of the Firebird)
- Capture de l’Oiseau de feu par Ivan Tsarévitch (Capture of the Firebird by Prince Ivan)
- Supplications de l’Oiseau de feu (Supplication of the Firebird) – Apparition des treize princesses enchantées (Appearance of the Thirteen Enchanted Princesses)
- Jeu des princesses avec les pommes d’or (The Princesses’ Game with the Golden Apples). Scherzo
- Brusque apparition d’Ivan Tsarévitch (Sudden Appearance of Prince Ivan)
- Khorovode (Ronde) des princesses (Khorovod (Round Dance) of the Princesses)
- Lever du jour (Daybreak) – Ivan Tsarévitch pénètre dans le palais de Kachtcheï (Prince Ivan Penetrates Koschei’s Palace)
- Carillon Féerique, apparition des monstres-gardiens de Kachtcheï et capture d’Ivan Tsarévitch (Magic Carillon, Appearance of Koschei’s Monster Guardians, and Capture of Prince Ivan) – Arrivée de Kachtcheï l’Immortel (Arrival of Koschei the Immortal) – Dialogue de Kachtcheï avec Ivan Tsarévitch (Dialogue of Koschei and Prince Ivan) – Intercession des princesses (Intercession of the Princesses) – Apparition de l’Oiseau de feu (Appearance of the Firebird)
- Danse de la suite de Kachtcheï, enchantée par l’Oiseau de feu (Dance of Koschei’ Retinue, Enchanted by the Firebird)
- Danse infernale de tous les sujets de Kachtcheï (Infernal Dance of All Koschei’s Subjects) – Berceuse (L’Oiseau de feu) (Lullaby) – Réveil de Kachtcheï (Koschei’s Awakening) – Mort de Kachtcheï (Koschei’s Death) – Profondes ténèbres (Profound Darkness)
- Disparition du palais et des sortilèges de Kachtcheï, animation des chevaliers pétrifiés, allégresse générale (Disappearance of Koschei’s Palace and Magical Creations, Return to Life of the Petrified Knights, General Rejoicing)
Most recent music influence
Saviour Pirotta and Catherine Hyde’s picture book, Firebird, is based on the original stories that inspired the ballet, and was published in 2010 to celebrate the ballet’s centenary.
The influence of The Firebird has been felt beyond classical music. Stravinsky was an important influence on Frank Zappa, who used the melody from the Berceuse in his 1967 album Absolutely Free, in the Amnesia Vivace section of the “Duke of Prunes” suite (along with a melody from The Rite of Spring). Prog rock band Yes has regularly used the ballet’s Finale as their “walk-on” music for concerts since 1971. During the 1980s and 1990s, the chord which opens the Infernal Dance became a widely used orchestra hit sample in music, specifically within new jack swing.
It was used in the opening ceremony of Sochi 2014 during the Cauldron Lighting segment.
In a tradition stretching back to Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), Russian composers used strange, chromatic scales and harmonies to depict supernatural forces and simpler, more “natural” folk melodies to represent human characters. Stravinsky continues this tradition throughout The Firebird, starting with the sepulchral opening for cellos, basses and bass drums.
After an introduction, the curtain rises on the magic garden of Kashchey the Deathless. Shrouded in darkness, knights and princes who have turned to stone lie on one side, a golden gate that leads to Kashchey’s castle on the other. In the center is a tree that bears golden apples.
All at once, a brilliant, fluttering crescendo and descrescendo passes through the orchestra as the Firebird flies through the garden,briefly illuminating it with a blinding light. In pursuit is Ivan Tsarevich, represented by a solo horn playing fragments of a Russian folk song just as Fokine described above. Throughout the ballet, Ivan is associated with the noble sound of this instrument.
The Firebird soon reappears for her dance,well-known from the suite Stravinsky extracted from the ballet in 1919. A brief pause in the music marks the end of the dance. Ivan then catches the Firebird by surprise. After a brief struggle, the Firebird recognizes that she has been captured, and she and the Prince dance together as she pleads with him to let her go. This dance of the Firebird’s supplication begins with a sensuous, exotic melody for solo oboe, English horn, and viola; a contrasting middle section features a brittle accompaniment from cellos and basses played col legno (with the wood of the bow). After a reprise of the sensuous supplication melody, the dance ends and Ivan allows the Firebird to go free.
In gratitude, she gives him one of her feathers, telling him that she will soon return his kindness.
Ivan contemplates this giftaccompanied by a characteristic horn solo, until the grotesque music of Kashchey’s garden resumes. Ivan is about to leave this place when high violins and lyrical woodwind solos signal the entrance of the thirteen princesses who are Kashchey’s prisoners. Ivan hides, and the youngest and fairest of the princesses shakes some golden apples from the tree (illustrated by tremolo strings and a cymbal). Fast, fluttering music (not unlike that Stravinsky wrote in his Scherzo fantastique) then accompanies the princesses’ game with the golden apples.
This music comes to an abrupt stop when Ivan reveals himself.He introduces himself to the princesses accompanied by his solo horn, and they are so taken with him that they invite him to dance a korovod, or round dance (another famous selection included in the 1919 suite). In a tribute to his teacher, Stravinsky took the melody of the dance from a traditional Russian folk song that Rimsky-Korsakov also used in his Sinfonietta.
By the end of the dance, Ivan and the youngest princess have fallen in love, but their kiss is interrupted by trumpet callsthat announce that the princesses must return to Kashschey’s palace. Ivan and the princess reluctantly part, but no sooner has she left than Ivan determines to rescue her from the castle. As soon as he touches the golden gate, however, magic alarm bells ring out, and Kashchey’s demonic retinue captures him. Kashchey himself appears with a thunderous roll from the timpani and bass drum.
He confronts Ivan for trespassing,but Ivan spits at the evil sorcerer, much to his displeasure. The princesses intercede on Ivan’s behalf with their characteristic woodwind solos, but to no avail. After a pause, Kashchey begins to turn Ivan to stone with rumbling waves of sound from the depths of the orchestra.
Before it is too late, Ivan remembers the Firebird’s featherand summons her. Her flaming music signals her return, and she uses her magic to make Kashchey and his minions dance. The famous Infernal Dance (also included in the 1919 suite) is another musical tribute; it borrows its main melody from a passage in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Mlada that represented a witches’ sabbath. Stravinsky’s genius for rhythm, however, transforms the idea with syncopations and a series of musical lightning bolts that startled many unsuspecting attendees of the Paris premiere.
Exhausted from the dance, Kashschey and his creatures fall into a deep slumber, and the Firebird begins her lullabywith a haunting melody for bassoon. At the end of the lullaby, Kashchey awakens, but the Firebird shows Ivan where to find the egg that holds his soul. He tosses it from side to side accompanied by a lurching orchestra, and then smashes it, killing Kashchey and undoing his evil magic (the legend of Kashchey the Deathless’s egg likely inspired J. K. Rowling’s horcruxes).
The resplendent finalebegins with a horn solo based on a melody from a collection of folk songs that Rimsky-Korsakov had published (Tchaikovsky had also arranged the same melody for two pianos). The theme is repeated, building to an exhilarating ending. The chromatic chords that end the ballet outline the Firebird’s motif, bringing the ballet to a magical conclusion.