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Stravinsky - the Firebird Suite: An Analysis

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IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1871)

The Firebird Suite (1910; version from 1919)

Introduction - The Firebird and its Dance

Round of the Princesses (Khorovod)

Infernal Dance of King Kaschei

Berceuse

Finale

The first of Igor Stravinsky's three famous early ballets, The Firebird is the most traditional and derivative. While The Firebird, similar to Petrushka and The Rite Of Spring, is unquestionably one of Stravinsky's masterpieces, if considered strictly historically it can be, with some justice, viewed as warmed-over Rimsky-Korsakov (the device of contrasting a folkloristic, diatonic style representing human characters, with a highly chromatic style reserved for depicting the supernatural had its most conspicuous use in Rimsky's opera The Golden Cockerel) burnished with a patina of Debussy (the specifically colouristic orchestral opulence, although reflecting the influence of Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, sometimes additionally suggests the Debussy of La Mer). For such reasons, the Young Stravinsky (who was twenty-seven when he wrote The Firebird) came to be thought by many contemporary musicians and critics as a traditionalist and a nationalist - as one said, "the direct descendant of Nicolas Rimsky-Korsakov". In fact, it would have been difficult to perceive the future anti-nationalist and Rite Of Spring revolutionist in The Firebird, or for that matter, in any other of Stravinsky's initial orchestral pieces. Stravinsky himself ultimately put the matter in best perspective when he wrote that The Firebird "belongs to the styles of its time. It is more vigorous than most of the composed folk music of the period, but it is also not very original. These are all good conditions for a success."

Once, when Stravinsky asked Debussy what he really thought of The Firebird, his first ballet, the older composer replied, "Well, you had to begin somehow, didn't you?" Stravinsky himself had an ambiguous attitude towards the work. Even in 1909, when he first applied himself to it, he did not find the subject attractive. But, as a young and little- known composer approached by Diaghilev, Fokine, Nijinsky, Bakst and Benois in concert, he could scarcely refuse. Although it was The Firebird ballet, first performed in Paris in 1910, that began his international career, and although the orchestral suite has remained his most popular work, he was still a little embarrassed by it years afterwards. The original "wastefully large" instrumentation he revised in 1919, when he wrote a second suite, and again in 1945, when he put together a third and longer orchestral suite. Such critical actions, he said, "are stronger than words."

The scenario for Firebird, as adapted by Fokine, follows an old Russian folk tale. The Tsarevitch, Prince Ivan, is hunting the elusive Firebird, and during the night he wanders into a magical garden (Introduction). As he walks through the garden he sees the Firebird, a beautiful bird with dazzling plumage (The Firebird and her Dance and Firebird Variation). Ivan captures the Firebird, but agrees to let her go free, after taking one of her feathers as a trophy. At sunrise, Ivan meets thirteen princesses, who have come into the garden to dance and play with golden apples from the garden's orchard (Round-Dance of the Princesses). Ivan learns that the garden belongs to the evil magician-king Kaschei, who has enchanted the princesses, and who has the ability to turn his enemies into stone. The prince, now in love with one of the princesses, vows to enter Kaschei's castle and free his beloved. As soon as he opens the castle gate, however, Kaschei and his crew of demons appear and capture Ivan in a furious battle (King Kaschei's Infernal Dance). The magician-king tries to lull Ivan into unconsciousness with a bewitching lullaby (Berceuse), but Ivan protects himself with the magic of the Firebird's feather. The Firebird suddenly appears and distracts Kaschei's monsters by dancing wildly among them (Finale). The Firebird reveals to Ivan the secret of Kaschei's immortality: an egg that contains Kaschei's soul. Ivan smashes the egg. Kaschei immediately dies, and with him all of his enchantments. The ballet closes with triumphant rejoicing by the prince and his princess.

The sections of the 1919 Suite version:

Stravinsky was happy with his music for the Introduction, at least from a structural point of view, since its chains of alternating thirds and seconds and the prominent tritone link it with later scenes where there is a strong supernatural element such as the Infernal dance. For the supernatural characters--the Firebird, and Kaschei and his gang--Stravinsky created non-diatonic melodies based dissonant intervals such as the tritone. Here, on muted lower strings, the alternating thirds and seconds are strongly evocative of the atmosphere of King Kaschei's enchanted garden, where the Firebird comes to feed on the golden fruits growing on silver trees.

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