Has there ever been a more fruitful collaboration than the one between Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes, and composer Igor Stravinsky? Between 1910 and 1923, they brought to life no fewer than five ballets: The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Pulcinella, and Les Noces. Petrushka and The Rite of Spring have already appeared on this blog, and one day I may decide to feature Pulcinella and Les Noces as well. Today, however, I want to go back to the beginning, to The Firebird, the first collaboration between these two and Stravinsky’s first work of lasting importance.
Stravinsky began composing The Firebird in the fall of 1909 in response to a commission from Diaghilev, who was eager for a new work for the upcoming season of his Ballets Russes. He completed it in April 1910, and it premiered in Paris on June 25. That premiere was a resounding success; indeed, I can’t imagine anyone not being swept away by the combination of Stravinsky’s dramatic score and the dancers of the Ballets Russes.
The story of The Firebird has been nicely summarized by Phillip Huscher, Program Annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as follows:
Fokine’s adaptation of the fairy tale pits the Firebird, a good fairy, against the ogre Kashchei, whose soul is preserved as an egg in a casket. A young prince, Ivan Tsarevich, wanders into Kashchei’s magic garden in pursuit of the Firebird. When he captures her, she pleads for her release and gives him one of her feathers, whose magic will protect him from harm. He then meets thirteen princesses, all under Kashchei’s spell, and falls in love with one of them. When he tries to follow them into the magic garden, a great carillon sounds an alarm and he is captured. Kashchei is about to turn Ivan to stone when the prince waves the feather; the Firebird appears. Her lullaby puts Kashchei to sleep, and she then reveals the secret of his immortality. Ivan opens the casket and smashes the egg, killing Kashchei. The captive princesses are freed, and Ivan and his beloved princess are betrothed.
My own introduction to The Firebird was a 1962 recording by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Stravinsky himself. In the liner notes to that record, Stravinsky writes at length about the origins of The Firebird, and gives his own assessment of its strengths and weaknesses:
Though the orchestral body of the Firebird was wastefully large, I was more proud of some of the orchestration than of the music itself. The trombone glissandi in the Kastchei scene produced the biggest sensation with the audience, of course, but this effect was not original with me – Rimsky had used trombone slides, I think in Mlada, and Schoenberg in his tone poem Pelléas und Mélisande, to site earlier but less popular examples. For me the most striking effect in the Firebird was the natural-harmonic string glissando [at 1:56 in the video below] which the bass chord touches off like a Catherine’s wheel. I was delighted to have discovered this, and I remember my excitement in demonstrating it to Rimsky’s violinist and cellist sons. I remember, too, Richard Strauss’s astonishment when he heard it two years later in Berlin.
This video, recorded at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, goes a long way toward capturing the excitement and presence of a live performance. Visually, if not aurally, we have the best seat in the house. The many close-ups of the soloists in the Vienna Philharmonic reveal a thousand small details that we might otherwise miss, and make it easy to appreciate Stravinsky’s pride in his orchestration. We see firsthand the concentration on the faces of the musicians and the extraordinary involvement of the conductor, Valery Gergiev, who, conducting without a baton, seems to employ a sign language all his own.