• Igor Stravinsky

    Born in the Russian village of Ustilig, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) received his musical training in St. Petersburg, then the Russian capital, within the academic tradition of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky was his student through the 1890s, but they had a falling out when he was shunted aside in favor of another composer, Maximilian Steinberg, who married Rimsky-Korsakov's daughter. Sour grapes began to ferment, and Stravinsky began to seek a way to make a name for himself outside of his teacher's orbit.

    He earned his first public success performing his pieces at a concert series called the Evenings of New Music in St. Petersburg, which was organized by a group of artists interested in avant-garde music.

    Later, the group experimented with reviving ancient pagan art as a way to revitalize the present. Importantly, ballet was championed over opera, considered a dead art. Stravinsky, out of favor with his conservative teacher, got heavily involved with the group, and when its members decided to relocate to Paris as part of a vast émigré movement in the lead up to the Russian Revolution, it took the name Ballets Russes. The troupe needed a composer, and Stravinsky landed the job, though he was not the first choice (he was the fifth).
  • Notes on the Piece

    The Paris-based Ballets Russes acquired fame, if not fortune, through the staging of exotic ballets on Russian themes. The company’s ingenious impresario Sergei Diaghilev knew that to make ends meet he needed to present French theatergoers with a Russia that was spellbindingly barbaric, fantastic, and flickering with the flames of revolution. The ballets that Stravinsky composed for Diaghilev between 1910 and 1913 trafficked in these neo-nationalist stereotypes. The third of them, a parable of virgin sacrifice on the ancient Slavic steppe called The Rite of Spring, earned Stravinsky his greatest success, though less because of the music than the choreography.

    The performance featured dirty dancing (muddy rather than sexual) and, combined with the music, its premiere precipitated a near-riot.

    In contrast, Stravinsky’s first Diaghilev ballet, The Firebird, made Russia chic, cool. The look of the ballet was so dazzling as to influence French fashion, and the music provided relief from the somber prevailing trends of Impressionism and Expressionism.

    Ironically, nothing in the ballet was original. The scenario is a kasha of Russian fairytale and myth, the most important characters being the good Prince Ivan, the evil Kashchei the Deathless, and the mythical Firebird. In the first tableau, Ivan dances his way into the supernatural realm of Kashchei and becomes trapped after falling in love with one of the 13 princesses whom, Ivan belatedly learns, are being held against their will. (Kashchei is operating the folkloric equivalent of a brothel.) In the second tableau, Kashchei’s spell is broken, his kingdom dissolved, and the princesses freed. Throughout, the Firebird serves as Ivan’s magical helper.

    The ballet’s choreographer, Michel Fokine, is seen as an innovator, freeing ballet from the grip of moribund classical technique. The dramatic structure of The Firebird, however, does not differ that much from an old-fashioned pas d’action. The music is likewise rooted in the past, still under the powerful spell that Stravinsky’s teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov cast. As in Rimsky’s fairytale operas, “good” in The Firebird is denoted by consonant harmonies and tonalities, evil by generous splashes of chromaticism and tone-semitone (octatonic) scale segments. The hero, Ivan, is associated with the guilelessly soulful Russian folk: His theme is based on a Russian protyazhnaya, a “melismatic” song expressing melancholic sentiments. There are two borrowings in the score from Rimsky-Korsakov’s collection of 100 folksongs: “In the Garden,” assigned to the oboe for the round dance of the princesses; and “By the Gate the Pine Tree Swayed,” given to the French horn in the ballet’s glowing apotheosis.

    What turned The Firebird from derivative potpourri into a masterpiece is Stravinsky’s updating and backdating of the lessons Rimsky-Korsakov taught him. The magic lies in the elaborate orchestration and the excitingly uneven rhythmic writing. Stravinsky changes the orchestration of his themes at each repetition, breaks them down into their constituent parts, pushes their accents across the bar-line, and moves them out of sync with their own accompaniments. He made the folklore at the heart of the score fantastic, giving French audiences the exotic Russia of their imaginations.

  • Watch

    Carnegie Hall's Jeremy Geffen and David Robertson of the St. Louis Symphony introduce The Firebird and reveal the composers who influenced Stravinsky's complex orchestration.

  • Watch

     

    Igor Stravinsky conducts the New Philharmonia Orchestra in a performance of his own Firebird at London's Royal Festival Hall in 1965.

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