November 1909 in the country area outside of St. Petersburg; December 1909 to May 1910 in St. Petersburg
June 25, 1910 at the Paris Opera House, conducted by Gabriel Pierné, with choreography by Michel Fokine
Igor Stravinsky was only twenty-seven years old when he received the commission for The Firebird from Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev, a ballet impresario, had previously hired Stravinsky to arrange a few short piano pieces for earlier productions at his Ballets Russes, and clearly recognized both the talent and potential of the young composer’s work. Initial discussions between Stravinsky and Diaghilev took place as early as the summer of 1909, but an official commission was not offered until December. Interestingly, Diaghilev actually offered the job to two other composers during this period, and only returned to Stravinsky after both of these earlier commissions fell through. Stravinsky, aware that he was not the first choice to produce the score, began composing anyway:
I had already begun to think about The Firebird when I returned to St. Petersburg from Ustilug in the fall of 1909, though I was not yet certain of the commission (which, in fact, did not come until December, more than a month after I had begun to compose; I remember the day Diaghilev telephoned me to say go ahead, and I recall his surprise when I said that I already had started). Early in November I moved from St. Petersburg to a dacha belonging to the Rimsky-Korsakov family about seventy miles southeast of the city. I went there for a vacation in birch forests and snow-fresh air, but instead began work on The Firebird. Andrei Rimsky-Korsakov was with me at the time, as he often was during the following months; because of this, The Firebird is dedicated to him. The Introduction up to the bassoon-and-clarinet figure at bar seven was composed in the country, as were notations for later parts. I returned to St. Petersburg in December and remained there until March, when the composition was finished.1 [Note: Stravinsky continued orchestrating The Firebird until May 1910.]
It quickly became clear during rehearsals that most of the musicians and dancers were completely baffled by Stravinsky’s new score. The stage manager of the Ballet Russes, S.L. Grigoriev, recounts:
From the moment they heard the first bars the company were all too obviously dismayed at the absence of melody in the music and its unlikeness to what they were used to dancing to at the Mariinsky. Some of them declared that it did not sound like music at all. Stravinsky was usually present to indicate the tempo and rhythms. Now and again he would play over passages himself and, according to some of the dancers, ‘demolish the piano’. He was particularly exacting about the rhythms and used to hammer them out with considerable violence, humming loudly and scarcely caring whether he struck the right notes. It was invigorating to watch such a display of temperament, which certainly inspired Fokine in his work… Stravinsky attended the orchestra rehearsals and endeavoured to explain the music; but energetically though the musicians attacked it, they found it no less bewildering than did the dancers.2
While the dancers and musicians may have been “bewildered” by the avant-garde score, Stravinsky viewed it as a logical continuation of the established Russian tradition. He even compared his melodic material in The Firebird to that of Tchaikovsky, and his orchestration techniques to those of his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov.3 More importantly, the public seems to have had little issue with the complexity of The Firebird, giving it an overwhelmingly positive reception at its premiere.4 Stravinsky detailed the event in his 1936 autobiography:
The performance was warmly applauded by the Paris public. I am, of course, far from attributing this success solely to the score; it was equally due to the spectacle on the stage in the painter Golovin’s magnificent setting, the brilliant interpretation by Diaghileff’s artists, and the talent of the choreographer.5
The Firebird’s success was a turning point in Stravinsky’s early career, and led to further collaborations with Diaghilev that would cement his status as one of the century’s most important composers. In hindsight, it is surprising to learn that Stravinsky was doubtful in his ability to even attempt such an ambitious project:
The Firebird did not attract me as a subject. Like all story ballets it determined a descriptive music of a kind I did not want to write. I had not yet proved myself as a composer, and I had not earned the right to criticize the aesthetics of my collaborators, but I did criticize them, and arrogantly, though perhaps my age (twenty-seven) was more arrogant than I was… However, if I say I was less than eager to fulfill the commission, I know that, in truth, my reservations about the subject were also an advance defence for my not being sure I could.6 Although The Firebird remained Stravinsky’s most popular work for the rest of his life, he was never entirely satisfied with the score. He went on to release orchestra suites of the ballet in 1912, 1919 and 1945, each featuring a number of significant alterations and revisions.7
The plot of The Firebird is based on an old Russian fairy tale of the same name (in Russian Zhar’-ptitsa). As envisioned by original choreographer Michel Fokine, the ballet version follows the Czarevich Ivan, who one night discovers a magical garden outside the castle of the evil sorcerer King Kastchei. Through the garden walls, Ivan is amazed to see golden fruit hanging from silver trees, scattered amongst the petrified knights who had dared enter before. Out of nowhere, the dark garden is suddenly illuminated, and the mysterious Firebird enters, moving to pick a golden apple from its tree. Ivan climbs over the fence and snatches the Firebird, but the Czarevich—being a noble and benevolent man—is so moved by the creature’s plaintive cries that he decides to releases her. In exchange for his compassion, the Firebird presents Ivan with one of her fiery plumes and promises to return should he ever find himself in need. The Firebird flies away, leaving Ivan alone once again in the dark garden.
As Ivan prepares to leave, twelve beautiful princesses file into the garden, followed by a thirteenth princess whom Ivan believes to be the most fair of all. Unbeknownst to the sleeping Kastchei, the princesses entered the garden each night to play with the golden apples under the glittering moonlight. Enchanted by the thirteenth princess, Ivan decides to introduce himself, and though initially very shy, the princesses soon let Ivan join in their game. As dawn starts to break, the princesses suddenly realize they must return to the castle before the evil Kastchei awakes. When Ivan attempts to follow, the thirteenth princess stops him and tells him that he will die if he enters. The gates close, and the princesses are gone.
Ivan refuses to accept that his beautiful princess is gone forever, and begins clanging at the gates with his sword. The entire kingdom is awoken, and all manner of grotesque figures spew forth to attack the Czarevich. Ivan proves to be a capable and resilient warrior, but the king’s minions inevitably overtake him. King Kastchei himself emerges from the castle, and summons Ivan forward to be questioned. Ivan, defiant to the end, responds by spitting in Kastchei’s face. Enraged, the evil sorcerer pins Ivan against the wall, and begins the incantation that will turn him to stone. The thirteenth princess begs Kastchei for mercy, but it is of no use—the Czarevich appears doomed to join the other petrified statues in the garden.
Suddenly, Ivan remembers the feather given to him by the Firebird, and quickly pulls it out, waving it in the air. The Firebird immediately swoops in and blinds the monsters, bewildering them into an uncontrollable dance. Kastchei and his minions dance themselves to the point of exhaustion, and finally collapse on the ground. As the monsters rock themselves to sleep, the Firebird gently glides over them as if singing a lullaby (our bassoon solo from the “Berceuse”). She then leads Ivan to a nearby tree stump, next to which sits a chest containing an egg. This egg, the Firebird explains, holds the very soul of Kastchei, and is the key to his defeat. Ivan triumphantly slams the egg to the ground, smashing it to pieces, and in doing so destroys the evil sorcerer forever. As the ballet ends, the kingdom is transformed into a Christian city, the castle into a cathedral, and Ivan takes the thirteenth princess as his wife and queen.
1 Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Expositions and Developments (University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1959), 127-28.
2 S.L. Grigoriev, The Diaghilev Ballet: 1909 – 1929, translated and edited by Vera Bowen (R. & R. Clark, Ltd.: Edinburgh, 1953), 32 & 37.
3 Pieter C. Van den Toorn, The Music of Igor Stravinsky (Yale University Press: New Haven & London, 1983), 2.
4 Maurice Ravel, however, attributed much of the premiere’s success to the sheer dullness of Diaghilev’s last two productions.
5 Igor Stravinsky, An Autobiography (Calder & Boyars: London, 1975), 29-30.
6 Stravinsky and Craft, Expositions and Developments, 128.
7 See the Pedagogy section for more on Stravinsky’s numerous revisions of Firebird and how it has affected bassoonists.