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.
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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
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.
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.
Igor Stravinsky conducts the New Philharmonia Orchestra in a performance of his own Firebird at London's Royal Festival Hall in 1965.
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra | Sir Colin Davis, Conductor | Phillips
See David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony perform Stravinsky's Firebird at Carnegie Hall on March 10.
View a full list of events that are part of A Golden Age of Music >