Programme note: Stravinsky - The Firebird
Stravinsky was 27, and unknown outside Russia, when Diaghilev commissioned him to write a ballet on the legend of the Firebird for his Russian ballet season in Paris in 1910.
Kashchey’s enchanted garden – Appearance of the Firebird, pursued by Ivan Tsarevich – Dance of the Firebird – Ivan Tsarevich captures the Firebird – Supplication of the Firebird – Appearance of the 13 enchanted princesses – Game of the princesses with the golden apples (Scherzo) – Sudden appearance of Ivan Tsarevich – Khorovod (Round Dance) of the princesses – Daybreak – Magic Carillon, appearance of Kashchey’s monster-guardians and capture of Ivan Tsarevich – Arrival of Kashchey the Immortal – Kashchey’s dialogue with Ivan Tsarevich – Intercession of the princesses – Appearance of the Firebird – Dance of Kashchey’s entourage under the Firebird’s spell – Infernal Dance of all Kashchey’s subjects – Lullaby (The Firebird) – Kashchey awakes – Death of Kashchey – Profound Darkness
Kashchey’s palace and spells vanish, return to life of the stone knights, general rejoicing
Stravinsky was 27, and unknown outside Russia, when Diaghilev commissioned him to write a ballet on the legend of the Firebird for his Russian ballet season in Paris in 1910. The only Stravinsky that had previously been heard outside Russia was a pair of Chopin arrangements which he had made for Les sylphides in Diaghilev’s 1909 season. These in turn had been a speculative commission by Diaghilev on the strength of a single hearing of Stravinsky’s Scherzo fantastique at a St Petersburg concert in January 1909. Nor was Stravinsky Diaghilev’s first choice for the Firebird project. Even though the Paris press had found fault with the 1909 season for the mediocre quality of its music as compared with the brilliantly innovative dance and design, Diaghilev’s first instinct was still to shuffle the old Russian musical pack: he approached Lyadov and Tcherepnin (whose music had already been denigrated by the Paris critics), and considered asking Glazunov, among other orthodox Rimsky-Korsakov pupils, before finally taking the plunge with this largely untried son of a leading bass-baritone at the Mariinsky Opera.
Nobody knew what kind of music might correspond to the dazzling stage pictures of Bakst and Benois, or the intensely exciting and expressive choreography of Fokine. Even today, if we want to re-experience the frisson that ran through Proust’s Paris when The Firebird finally had its premiere at the Opéra in June 1910, we have to put ourselves in the position of an audience who knew no orchestral music by Scriabin, little by Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakov and still less by Glinka or Glazunov. Stravinsky’s music alludes, more or less directly, to these and others. It is, indeed, a highly derivative score, in quite a different sense from the later, neo-Classical works, which refer consciously to outside idioms in a complicated, perhaps partly ironic way. The Firebird has the simple derivativeness of inexperience. Its debt to Rimsky-Korsakov is instantly apparent to anyone who knows the late operas of that composer. The idea of representing the oppositions good/evil and normal/magical through diatonic/chromatic harmony comes directly from The Golden Cockerel, but is in any case a commonplace of Russian 19th-century opera from Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila onwards. The folk-song manner of the princesses’ round dance (‘Khorovod’) and the finale is pure kuchkism, derived from the colour variation technique of the Russian nationalists (the so-called Moguchaya Kuchka, or ‘Mighty Handful’), of whom Rimsky-Korsakov had been a leading member; indeed, the actual tunes of these two scenes were taken from Rimsky’s own published collection of 100 Russian folk tunes. But the score also draws on the very different style of Scriabin, whose work Stravinsky at the time still admired (later he was invariably rude about it). The ‘Dance of the Firebird’ is plainly indebted to the gasping, highly eroticised manner of The Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus, subsequently described by Stravinsky as ‘those severe cases of musical emphysema’. And yet, in a good performance, the music’s brilliance and assurance as a whole are still enough in themselves to take one’s breath away. Combined with Fokine’s choreography, his and Karsavina’s dancing, and Golovine’s and Bakst’s intensely atmospheric designs, it had Paris at Stravinsky’s feet overnight.
The story, which was handed to the young composer on a plate, is a standard-issue 19th-century Russian fairy tale. Diaghilev had stunned Paris in 1909 with what has since been unkindly dubbed travel-poster Russianism, and he had no intention of disappointing expectations in his second ballet season. We are in the enchanted garden of Kashchey the Immortal, a demon figure comparable to the dwarf Chernomor in Glinka’s Ruslan, who turns people (especially princesses and knightly warriors) to stone. The Firebird appears, pursued by Prince Ivan, and tries to pick golden apples from the magic tree (‘Dance of the Firebird’), but Ivan catches her and, despite her supplications (Adagio), will only release her in return for a magic feather. The Firebird flies away, and at once 13 princesses emerge from Kashchey’s castle (‘Game of the princesses with the golden apples’). Prince Ivan confronts them (solo horn) and exchanges glances with the most Ebeautiful one; the girls dance a round dance (‘Khorovod of the princesses’ – oboe solo). Ivan and the beautiful princess kiss. But dawn is breaking and the girls must return to the castle. Ivan tries to follow, but at once Kashchey’s monstrous retinue spill out of the castle and seize him (‘Magic Carillon, appearance of Kashchey’s monster-guardians and capture of Ivan Tsarevich’ – the most remarkable pages of the whole score, but little known because they’re not in any of the published concert suites).
Kashchey himself then appears and, despite the intercession of the princesses, tries to cast a spell on Ivan. But Ivan waves the magic feather and the Firebird reappears, herself lays a spell on the whole retinue and compels them to dance (‘Infernal Dance of all Kashchey’s subjects’). Exhausted, they all fall asleep (‘Lullaby’), and the Firebird shows Ivan the egg which contains Kashchey’s soul. He dashes it to the ground, Kashchey dies and his captives are released. In the brief second tableau, Ivan and the beautiful princess are married amid scenes of jubilation (‘Kashchey’s palace and spells vanish, return to life of the stone knights, general rejoicing’).
In later life Stravinsky turned against The Firebird, partly because he came to resent its popularity and the regularity with which he was invited to conduct it in preference to his more recent music, but partly also because of old-fashioned elements in the work’s style and structure (for instance, the prominence of what he called ‘pantomime’, that is action music of the kind he tended to cut out of his later ballets and particularly noticeable in a concert performance such as this evening’s of the complete ballet). At the time of the Paris premiere, though, the critics were more struck by the integration of music, dance and design – something to which Diaghilev had always aspired. Henri Ghéon thought the work ‘the most exquisite marvel of equilibrium that we have ever imagined between sounds, movements and forms’. And Stravinsky was immediately recognised as the equal of the great dancers and designers the press had so gushingly praised in 1909. For Michel Calvocoressi he was ‘the only composer who has achieved more than mere attempts at promoting Russia’s true musical spirit and style’. But even Calvocoressi can have had little inkling of what would soon become of this musical spirit and style.
Programme note © Stephen Walsh