Stravinsky unleashes the Firebird’s new rhythmic force

Catch fire! © Charles Thibo

A  Russian folk tale. An extraordinary composer. An extraordinary ballet impresario. Ecstatic critics, an overwhelmed audience. For the 1910 season of the “Russian Ballets” in Paris, Igor Stravinsky wrote a piece that became an instant success and meant for the composer his breakthrough on the international music scene: The Firebird. It also was the beginning of a long and fruitful cooperation between Stravinsky and the choreographer Sergei Diaghilev.

A revolution in ballet music

I had read “The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf” in a collection of Russian folk tales compiled by Alexander N. Afanasyev. It’s a rather short story, but the firebird, that exotic creature that can be both a blessing and a curse to his master, fascinated me. I had not known any music composed by Stravinsky. Somehow, this composer eluded me for a long time, just like Prokofiev. But having read the tale, I bought a recording of “The Firebird” by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez. Stravinsky was a revolutionary and so was Boulez; I thought that would fit. It did.

The critics hailed the ballet as a perfect symbiosis of music, choreography, stage decor and costumes. “The old-gold pattern of the fantastic back-cloth seems to have been invented to a formula identical with that of the shimmering web of the orchestra” , marvelled the French writer Henri Ghéon. The scenery and the costumes were designed by Alexander Golovin and Leon Bakst, and I found a lovely blog with sketches of the costumes.

Bowing to Rimsky-Korsakov

Thomas May wrote in a program note for the L. A. Philharmonic Orchestra that “Stravinsky dedicated ‘The Firebird’ to his teacher and friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, whose influence is reflected in the luminous orchestration,  a thematic technique Rimsky[-Korsakov] used in ‘The Golden Cockerel’, and the use of folk material. […] The musical language shifts between exotic, chromatic gestures to illustrate the supernatural dimension including a powerful non-Western scale that would later feature in [the harmonic vocabulary of Stravinsky’s later ballet] ‘The Rite of Spring’ and the sing-song simplicity of folk song.”

Tension, melody, imagination

The ballet consists of 15 scenes that closely follow Afanasyev’s story line. I have grown really fond of the ballet by now and it is rather hard to pick my top five (?) scenes.

Scene 2 – Kashchei’s Magic Garden: I love the dark, sombre theme, contrasting with the occasional use of bells. Extreme tension.

Scene 5 – Ivan Tsarevich Captures the Firebird: Almost impressionistic in its texture. Through the music you can imagine Ivan chasing the firebird and catching it finally.

Scene 9 – The Princesses’ Khorovod: A lovely round dance, with a faint echo of Tchaikovsky’s emphasis on melodious themes.

Scene 11 – Magic Carillon, Appearance of Kashchei’s Guardian Monsters: A luminous musical firework, very avant-garde, exquisitely exotic with plenty of action for the brass and percussions. Yes!

Scene 12 – Dance of Kashchei’s Retinue, Under the Firebird’s Spell: More tension, alternating snippets of percussions, strings, brass, oh my God! Spellbinding.

Scene 13 – Infernal Dance of all of Kashchei’s Subjects: Climax. Brute force. Pure dynamic. Harsh beauty.

I love his ballet!

© Charles Thibo

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