Stravinsky: The Firebird

The Firebird by  Lev Lominago

The Firebird by Lev Lominago

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 NocesPetrushka 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.

Published in: on December 31, 2015 at 2:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Stravinsky: Petrushka

Stravinsky_picassoPetrushka is the second of the three landmark ballet scores that Stravinsky composed for impresario Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.  The first, from 1910, was The Firebird; the third, from 1913, was The Rite of Spring, which I featured on this blog in March 2011 in a post you can read herePetrushka was completed early in 1911 and was given its premiere in June of that year in Paris, with Nijinsky dancing the title role.

I was introduced to Petrushka many years ago – sometime during my years at the University of Colorado – through a 1967 London Records LP featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of Zubin Mehta.  I was immediately captivated by this extraordinary work, its exuberance and melodic richness, and, if I may paraphrase Marc-Andre Hamelin from last month’s post, “I do not expect this work to lose the hold it has on me at any time in the future.”

I still have that old album, the liner notes to which were written by the late British musicologist, Robin Golding.  I have reproduced below his synopsis of the plot of Petrushka, and have added a few timer indications from the video that follows to serve as guideposts to the viewer.

This video features the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Andris Nelsons, in a performance that perfectly captures the energy and vitality of Stravinsky’s score.  I particularly like one YouTube viewer’s comment on this video: “Don’t think I’ve ever seen a conductor so happy to conduct a piece of Stravinsky.”


Petrushka began to take shape in 1910, shortly after the composer had completed the score of The Firebird, and it is interesting to note that originally the work was intended not as ballet music, but as a short concert-piece for pianoforte and orchestra, called by the Russian name for that mythical tragicomic figure of which another derivation is Pierrot.  This concert-piece is retained in the score of the ballet Petrushka as the music for the scene in the Second Tableau.

Gradually the larger concept of a story based on this sad and lonely figure was evolved, and Stravinsky added another movement to the pianoforte-orchestral work – a Russian dance which now ends the First Tableau of Petrushka.  Finally, the whole emerged as a ballet, in which form it was given for the first time in Paris on June 13, 1911, with Nijinsky in the name part.  To this day it remains one of the most satisfying of all ballets, with its brilliant music and simple yet timeless story.

The work is scored for a large orchestra, including a bold array of percussion instruments, whilst, of course, the pianoforte has a prominent part in the orchestration.  In 1947 Stravinsky revised the work, linking the four tableaux by means of drum interludes, and making alterations to the scoring.  The action takes place in the Admiralty Square, St. Petersburg during the annual fair of the Shrovetide Festival, about the year 1830.


All is bustle and excitement; crowds of colorful characters pass to and fro, to the accompaniment of similar animation in the orchestra.  Shrill, lively flute figures are heard and lead to a broader, more emphatic tune, based on the Russian Easter song Christ is Risen.  An organ grinder appears [1:42], and clarinets quietly introduce a fragment of a more wistful melody which is rudely interrupted by the general flurry, but the musician persists with his theme.  His lady companion strikes a triangle and begins to pirouette to a jolly little tune [2:21] (which Stravinsky had heard played on a barrel-organ when he was working on the score of Petrushka).  This theme is given to flutes and clarinets, and repeated by a solo trumpet.  Now another street musician appears, also accompanied by a dancer; he plays on a musical box, and then both groups perform together, whilst their respective themes are heard simultaneously in the orchestra.  As they conclude, the crowd begins its movement once more, the lively rhythms recommence, and former themes are heard again, including the Easter song.  After a big climax, two drummers give a loud roll on their drums as an old Showman appears outside his booth, which is shaped to represent a small theatre.  Mysterious phrases on the woodwind, harp, and celesta lead to a flute solo [5:45], as the Showman produces his instrument and begins to play.  He indicates to the crowd that his flute has magic powers, and, as he plays, the curtain rises in front of his booth, disclosing three puppets: Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor.  The Showman touches them in turn with the flute, and – to two staccato notes – each puppet comes to life, to the amazement of the onlookers.  The three figures then animatedly join in the brilliant Russian Dance which the orchestra plays [7:00], and this exciting music concludes the First Tableau.


In the Second Tableau of the ballet we are shown only Petrushka’s little cell.  The door opens, and Petrushka is kicked into the room, where he lies in a corner.  Two clarinets give out a fanfare which becomes a motto theme to represent Petrushka, who curses in anger at the Showman who has such evil power over him.  The orchestra imitates his rage and helplessness.  He picks himself up, and begins to dance to a light accompaniment of flute and piano [11:02].  Suddenly the Ballerina enters the room [12:33], and Petrushka, who, of course, loves her, is overcome with joy.  He jumps and dances in his simple delight, but the Ballerina will have none of him and goes away.  Again Petrushka rages impotently (depicted by clarinet and piano cadenzas), after which trumpets stridently proclaim his fanfare as the curtain falls.


This opens with barbaric strains from the orchestra, and the Moor is seen playing with a coconut.  The colouring of the music becomes as dark and somber as the Moor himself, and a slow, weird tune is given out quietly by clarinet and bass clarinet [15:00], accompanied by cymbals, bass drum, and pizzicato strings.  To this strange melody the Moor dances rather clumsily.  There is a more vigorous section as he attempts to break open the coconut with his scimitar, but fails.  Now the Ballerina appears again; she is heralded by a roll on the side-drum and dances in playing upon a trumpet [17:09].  The Moor is captivated by her elegance, and when she begins a waltz (introduced by bassoon arpeggios) he attempts to join in with the theme of his own slow dance [18:37], which, however, does not fit.  Outbursts in the orchestra represent the Moor’s gruff cries of approval, and the Ballerina repeats the waltz, now orchestrated differently.  Without warning, Petrushka rushes in, mad with rage and jealousy [19:58].  He attacks the Moor, who quickly draws his scimitar and puts the unlucky puppet to flight.


Now we are back in the outside world again; the crowds are as great and boisterous as before.  For a moment the bustle ceases as spiky figures are heard from the oboes and trumpets but the animation quickly resumes, and soon a rocking figure on oboes, clarinets, and horns leads into the dance of a group of nursemaids who have joined the scene.  As they dance, fragments of a new theme are heard, first on the oboe and then from the horns [22:14].  This is a Russian folksong, Down the Petersky, and it is gradually worked up until the full orchestra plays it with rich harmonization.  A more staccato section leads to fragments of another folksong, Oh, My Room, My Little Room, which is eventually given complete by a solo trumpet [23:58], after which both folktunes are heard together.

A peasant comes on the scene with a performing bear, and the bass of the orchestra growls out a rough figure which suggests the cumbersome animal [24:38].  As the peasant dances to the tune on the clarinet, the bear tries to imitate him (on the tuba), whilst the crowd stands and gapes at this new attraction.  When the performance has finished, the hurly-burly is resumed, in the midst of which a drunken merchant appears and flings banknotes to the crowd, whilst two gipsy girls who are with him dance to a sprightly figure given out by oboe and cor anglais.  A slackening of the tempo leads to a new dance, that of the coachmen, based on yet another folksong, I Was Going up a Hill.  It is given out fragmentarily by trumpets, strings, and horns, and later interrupted by a return of Down the Petersky [27:33].  After some brilliant working up, the music quietens for a few moments as a group of masqueraders enters to an accompaniment of piano, harp, woodwind, and strings [29:13].  One of them represents a devil (bold, descending jumps on the brass); others are a goat and a pig who prance about, to the delight of the crowd.

As the music progresses, there are sounds of a commotion from the Showman’s booth.  Petrushka’s fanfares are heard on muted trumpets [30:45], and Petrushka himself rushes out of the booth followed by the Moor, who chases him with brandished scimitar.  The Moor strikes at Petrushka, who falls to the ground and, after a few pathetic convulsions, dies.  The Showman picks up the body of Petrushka, from which he shakes out some grains of sawdust.  He reassures the people that the figures in the drama are merely puppets which had been given life by his magic powers, and the crowd soon melts away, leaving the Showman alone in the gathering twilight.  Suddenly Petrushka’s fanfare is heard from the trumpets [33:45], harsh and menacing, and the figure of the puppet’s ghost appears above the top of the booth.  It shakes its fist angrily and pulls a derisive “long nose” at the Showman, who drops the sawdust dummy he is carrying and hurries fearfully from the scene.

Notes by Robin Golding

Published in: on October 30, 2014 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review: Compagnie Marie Chouinard Performs Chopin and Stravinsky


Last Friday, January 25, I went to a concert at the University of Washington’s Meany Hall that was unlike any I had ever attended: a performance by the Compagnie Marie Chouinard of music by Chopin and Stravinsky that demonstrated, even to a neophyte like me, how thrilling and emotionally satisfying modern dance can be.

The troupe consists of 10 dancers: 6 women and 4 men.  The first piece on the program was 24 Preludes by Chopin, and featured UW doctoral student Brooks Tran on piano.  I was already acquainted with Chopin’s preludes, and with the very first notes, I recognized the powerful dimension that dance added to the music.  As choreographed by Marie Chouinard, every single dance brought to mind words like “creative”, “inventive”, and “imaginative”.  To give just one illustration, at one point a single dancer held center stage while six others lay on their stomachs at the sides of the stage, hidden behind curtains except for their legs and feet, doing a swift flutter-kick.

The highlight of the Chopin was the turbulent “Raindrop” prelude, Op. 28, No. 15.  A single woman stood alone and motionless at the center of the stage, looking forlorn and desolate, reciting the notes of the musical scale in French, while another danced a lengthy, improvised solo in a tight pool of light upstage to her right.  The first woman was repeatedly interrupted and whisked offstage by the rest of the troupe marching determinedly across the stage, only to run back at once and continue her recitation.  The dance ended with both the speaker and the soloist being embraced by other dancers and escorted tenderly offstage.

This was the emotional climax of the entire piece.  In it, as in all the preludes, the choreography attempted no story or narrative, but when it ended, the feeling lingered of something very human.  At the conclusion of not just this, but several of the dances, the patron to my right breathed a hushed “Wow” to herself.  She spoke for many of us.

Throughout the 24 preludes, one’s attention was so focused on the dancers that it was easy to overlook the contribution of the pianist, Brooks Tran.  Mr. Tran played with great flair and understanding, and as the performers were taking their bows at the conclusion of the piece, the audience reserved its most enthusiastic applause for him.

Following the intermission, we were treated to a performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with the University of Washington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Pasternak.  As was the case in the Chopin preludes, Marie Chouinard made no attempt to follow any narrative in The Rite of Spring.  Rather, Stravinsky’s magnificent score was transformed into a series of set pieces involving one or more dancers in which the drama was in the movement alone.

A production so abstract, so free from story-line, begs the question, does The Rite of Spring suffer from this absence of narrative?  Does it feel like something is missing?  The answer is straightforward: If the story-line of the “Rite” is important to you, then this production may not be to your taste.  My guess is that very few people who love The Rite of Spring could tell you much about the story-line anyway.  The music is what we know and love, and this collaboration featured not only excellent musicianship but superlative dance as well.  The choreography was painstakingly fused to the music, and the musical climaxes were thrillingly rendered.  Ultimately, though this was not The Rite of Spring I was expecting, I would not have traded it for any other.

If you have a chance to see the Compagnie Marie Chouinard, you owe it to yourself to go.  I was fortunate to see them perform to live music, but if you are not so lucky, you should go anyway. Check their webpage for their schedule.  Put it on your own personal bucket list.  I know I won’t pass up the chance to see them again.

Derrick Robinson

Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring Conductor – Michael Tilson Thomas and The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Igor Stravinsky

In the same singular explosion of creative energy that had given birth to The Firebird in 1910 and Petrushka in 1911, Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring (French: Le Sacre du Printemps) in 1911-1912.  In this, the 100th anniversary of this seminal work, it seems fitting to mention that no less an authority than Aaron Copland characterized it simply as “…the foremost orchestral achievement of the 20th century.”  Leonard Bernstein said of one passage, “That page is sixty years old, but it’s never been topped for sophisticated handling of primitive rhythms…”  Of the work as a whole, Bernstein said, “…it’s also got the best dissonances anyone ever thought up, and the best asymmetries and polytonalities and polyrhythms and whatever else you care to name.”  (Stravinsky’s reaction to Bernstein’s 1958 recording of Le Sacre with the New York Philharmonic was rather more succinct: “Wow!”)

I was introduced to The Rite of Spring as a child through its inclusion in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”.  Although Stravinsky derided that performance as “execrable”, and the accompanying animation as “an unresisting imbecility”, the movie nevertheless introduced his masterpiece to a vastly wider audience than it would otherwise have had.  Much later, I saw a televised performance of Stravinsky himself conducting Le Sacre, and purchased the 1961 recording in which he leads the Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

Concerning its composition, Stravinsky said,

I was guided by no system whatever in Le Sacre du Printemps.  When I think of the music of the other composers of that time who interest me – Berg’s music, which is synthetic (in the best sense), and Webern’s, which is analytic – how much more theoretical it seems than Le Sacre.  And these composers belonged to and were supported by a great tradition.  Very little immediate tradition lies behind Le Sacre du Printemps, however, and no theory.  I had only my ear to help me; I heard and I wrote what I heard.  I am the vessel through which Le Sacre passed.

I know of no other piece of music that can match Le Sacre du Printemps for pure unrelenting excitement.  I never tire of listening to it.  It sounds as daring and innovative to me today as it did the first time I heard it, more than fifty-five years ago.  In this brilliant video, produced by PBS, Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.