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Stravinsky's Firebird - a Fiery Symphony Indeed

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Stravinsky’s Firebird:

A ‘Fiery’ Symphony Indeed

Allison Dawson

Igor Stravinsky was an incredible composer that put a very broad brushstroke onto the canvas of music history. Even his ‘failures’ turned into incredible successes, for instance, The Rite of Spring. Born in 1882 in Russia, he received his education at St. Petersburg University. He began his schooling as a law student but he had a true passion for music, and he was very aware of this going into the university. Two years before beginning his law education in 1899 he had began studying piano under Leokadia Kasperova who had been a student of Anton Rubinstein in his earlier years. In 1901 he began studies of counterpoint and harmony with Fedir Akimenko and then three months later he began studying under Vasily Kalafati who is said to have been a much sweeter mentor than most. Both Akimenko and Kalafati were previous students of his later mentor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.[1] While these early mentors were no doubt incredibly important to who Stravinsky became, Rimsky-Korsakov is generally credited as his first major mentor.

According to Walsh from Oxford Music Online, Stravinsky met Nikolai’s youngest son, Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, during his law studies at St. Petersburg University in Russia. They became friends and it is likely that Vladimir saw some sort of potential in Stravinsky that he knew should not be forgotten. As such, Vladimir convinced his new friend to take a trip to Heidelberg, Germany where the Rimsky-Korsakov family summered.[2] Armed with a portfolio of short pieces - some of which could have included the only known surviving full compositions of this period of his life, namely “the little piano ‘Scherzo in G Minor’, and the Pushkin song, Tucha (‘The Storm’)”[3] Walsh continues to explain that while Rimsky-Korsakov probably was not blown away by these compositions (it is suggested he was a very hard man to please) he must have seen a spark of something in Stravinsky. Rimsky-Korsakov insisted that Stravinsky continue with his theory studies under his tutelage while he also oversaw his composing. Some of his earliest composition presentations occurred in Rimsky-Korsakov’s living room every Wednesday when the family would host a music night.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov appreciated Stravinsky’s sense of “modernism”, but only to a point. They worked together as  mentor and protégé until Rimsky-Korsakov began to favor a student by the name Maximilian Steinberg - could it be that Rimsky-Korsakov favored him because Maximilian eventually became betrothed to Rimsky-Korsakov’s daughter? Or perhaps it is more likely that Rimsky-Korsakov simply appreciated Stravinsky’s brilliance but he was far from pleased with the musical style that Stravinsky ended up working toward. It was too modernistic. The two had a falling out and Stravinsky moved on to the next chapter of his life.[4] Though they no longer worked together as tutor and tutee, Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov remained connected and Stravinsky tried to attend still the Wednesday night traditions occasionally until his beloved mentor died in 1908.[5] 

According Leonid Sabaneeff of the Russian Review, Stravinsky’s studies in St. Petersburg and under Rimsky-Korsakov’s wing earned him a temporary spot in the “Mighty Band” - the musical Russian National School - also called Moguchaya kuchka  or “The Big Five”: Mily Balakirev (the leader), César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov himself.[6] It soon became evident that Stravinsky was meant for bigger and better things than the rest of the school, most of whom preferred to remain in their own little music box of comfort. A box filled with music that was made with each ounce of the composer’s heart and soul, both metaphorically and literally - they considered their music the physical embodiment of their soul. The Russian School of Music was especially keen to this kind of composing. Stravinsky on the other hand remained emotionally reserved from the music and leaned more toward the Western style of music. He did not feel the need to follow the Russian style because he was a composer that preferred to take risks and use his musical imagination.

Sabaneeff  suggests that Stravinsky's compositions were made for the sake of exploring the fringes of music and not to tell stories of his self-revelations like so many other composers of the time. He simply offered up works of intricacy and virtuosity. Though perhaps “simply” is not a descriptive word that adequately describes the quality of his work. His musical works were far from simple and likewise his style as a composer was also far from simple. Unlike many composers that strived to find the one style that defined the rest of their career (such as Mozart) or composers that evolved slowly into a defining style (for instance Wagner and Beethoven), Stravinsky strived to find multiple artistic styles to work in and mesh throughout his whole career. His main goal seemed to be, however, to return to the classics while combining the new elements of extremist modernism and neoclassicism.[7] 

Ultimately, Igor Stravinsky was a diverse composer who had more than a few major successes in his life. From the Russian nationalistic folk compositions Firebird, Petrushka and Rite of Spring - the latter was originally seen as horrifying and rather poorly accepted until it eventually skyrocketed to incredible popularity awhile later - Stravinsky had his craft mastered. A new Stravinsky eventually evolved and emerged as a force to be reckoned with as long term composers often do. The reimagined Stravinsky wrote many things that are still popular as well: King Oedipus, The Symphony of Psalms, Sonata for Piano, etc.[8] The remainder of this paper focuses on the historic and aesthetic musical topics of one of his most pivotal works in his early career: Firebird. Also explored is just integrated the piece has remained in modern life and education.

The Firebird was originally commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, or the Russian Ballet. Stravinsky and Diaghilev became acquainted sometime after the death of Stravinsky’s original mentor Rimsky-Korsakov in 1908 when Stravinsky began deepening his interest in his connections with the World of Art group. Diaghilev just happened to be a part of that particular group and he was a man with experiences quite similar to Stravinsky.  Diaghilev also studied law in St. Petersburg followed by a rapid increase of interest in the arts. Diaghilev soon became involved in different productions of ballet and realized that he had found where his true passion laid. With his ballet company, he intended to create a blend of music and dance that truly captured the essence of Russian culture. And so, in 1909 Ballets Russes was born. Diaghilev’s ballets were incredibly different from ballets such as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. It was typical of Diaghilev to have created short ballets, short enough that many could be presented in a single evening to the same audience. He also loved to commission original pieces to be combined with original choreographies. Diaghilev, together with his close composer colleague Mikhail Fokine, agreed that their ballets deserved to be total works of art: the scenes, the costumes, the dancing, the lighting, the music, the stage and the props, etc. This style became commonly known at an integrated ballet.[9] 



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