|Native title||Russian: Жар-птица, romanized: Zhar-ptitsa|
French: L'Oiseau de feu
|Based on||Russian folk tales|
|Premiere||25 June 1910|
|Original ballet company||Ballets Russes|
|Design||Aleksandr Golovin (sets)|
Léon Bakst (costumes)
The Firebird (French: L'Oiseau de feu; Russian: Жар-птица, romanized: Zhar-ptitsa) is a ballet and orchestral concert work by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. It was written for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes company; the original choreography was by Michel Fokine, who collaborated with Alexandre Benois and others on a scenario based on the Russian fairy tales of the Firebird and the blessing and curse it possesses for its owner. The Firebird was first performed at the Opéra de Paris on 25 June 1910 and was an immediate success, catapulting Stravinsky to international fame, and leading to future Diaghilev-Stravinsky collaborations like Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).
The ballet opens in Koschei's garden with Prince Ivan chasing the Firebird, whom he captures and takes a feather from. Thirteen princesses enter the garden (all of whom are trapped by the evil Koschei), and Ivan falls in love with one; they perform a short dance. When the princesses are called back into Koschei's palace, Ivan tries to follow, but is stopped by Koschei at the gates. Before the evil king turns Ivan to stone, the prince summons the Firebird with the feather, and she makes Koschei and his subjects do an "Infernal Dance". After they fall asleep from exhaustion, Ivan steals the egg that holds Koschei's soul and destroys it, killing Koschei and freeing the king's subjects. The ballet ends with grand rejoicing among the freed subjects.
In the music, Stravinsky used a system of leitmotifs placed in the harmony he dubbed "leit-harmony" to distinguish mortal and supernatural beings. The composer made a point to use many unique effects in the orchestra, including with ponticello, col legno, flautando, glissando, and fluttertongue. Stravinsky later composed three concert suites: one in 1911, ending with the "Infernal Dance"; one in 1919, which remains the most popular today; and one in 1945, in which Stravinsky reorchestrated much of the work and changed the structure.
Igor Stravinsky was the son of Fyodor Stravinsky, an operatic bass at the Imperial Opera in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Igor Stravinsky began learning piano at nine, and was later taught in harmony and counterpoint. He displayed great interest in music, attending his father's opera rehearsals during his teenage years and often reading through his father's scores. Despite his musical skill, Stravinsky's parents disapproved of a musical career, and in 1901, Stravinsky began studying law at Saint Petersburg University. He continued to take music lessons privately, and in 1902, began studying under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky completed several major works, including his first performed work, Pastorale (1907), and his first published work, the Symphony in E-flat (1907), which the composer categorized Opus 1.
In February 1909, a performance of Scherzo fantastique and Feu d'artifice in Saint Petersburg was attended by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who was intrigued by the vividness of Stravinsky's works. Diaghilev had founded the art magazine Mir iskusstva in 1898, but after it ended publication in 1904, he turned towards Paris for artistic opportunities rather than his native Russia. In 1907, the impresario presented a five-concert series of Russian music at the Paris Opera, and the next year, he staged the Paris premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov's version of Boris Godunov. By 1909, Diaghilev had connected with Michel Fokine, Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, and gained enough money to start his independent ballet company, the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to orchestrate music by Chopin for the ballet Les Sylphides, and the composer was finished by March 1909.
As the Ballets Russes faced financial issues, Diaghilev wanted a new ballet with distinctly Russian music and design, something the French and otherwise Western audience had recently come to love. Benois recalled that Pyotr Petrovich Potyomkin, a poet and ballet enthusiast in Diaghilev's circle, brought forth the subject of the Firebird with the 1844 poem "A Winter's Journey" by Yakov Polonsky, which includes the lines:
And in my dreams I see myself on a wolf's back
Riding along a forest path
To do battle with a sorcerer-tsar
In that land where a princess sits under lock and key,
Pining behind massive walls.
There gardens surround a palace all of glass;
There Firebirds sing by night
And peck at golden fruit.
Benois collaborated with Fokine, the composer Nikolai Tcherepnin, and the painter Aleksandr Golovin, among others, to concoct the full premise, drawing from several books of Russian fairy tales, including Alexander Afanasyev's collection and Pyotr Pavlovich Yershov's The Little Humpbacked Horse. Koschei,[a] the immortal king, and the captive Princess were incorporated from a Muscovite anthology, which also helped determine the Firebird's role in the story. Originally, Tcherepnin was to compose the music, as he had previously worked on Le Pavillon d'Armide with Fokine and Benois, but he withdrew from the project soon after. In September 1909, Diaghilev asked Anatoly Lyadov to compose the ballet, and while Lyadov expressed interest in the production, it became clear he would not be finished by the 1910 season. After considering Alexander Glazunov and Nikolay Sokolov for the role, Diaghilev asked Stravinsky to compose the score upon encouragement from Tcherepnin and Boris Asafyev.
Stravinsky began work in October or November of 1909, traveling to the Rimsky-Korsakov household with Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov, the son of Stravinsky's teacher, and to whom Stravinsky dedicated the score. Because Stravinsky began work before Diaghilev officially commissioned him, the composer's sketches did not align with the scenario; this became known to him when he met with Fokine in December and received the ballet's planned structure. While the composer worked, Diaghilev arranged for a number of private performances of the piano score for the press. The French critic Robert Brussel, a friend of Diaghilev's, wrote: "By the end of the first scene, I was conquered: by the last, I was lost in admiration. The manuscript on the music-rest, scored over with fine pencillings, revealed a masterpiece."
Rehearsals began in Ekaterininsky Hall, and Stravinsky attended every rehearsal to help with the music, often explaining the complicated rhythms to the dancers. Despite later lamenting about the "descriptive music of a kind I did not want to write," Stravinsky finished the work in nearly six months, and had it fully orchestrated by April; the orchestration was finished mid-May. Stravinsky arrived in Paris around the beginning of June for the premiere of The Firebird. It was his first visit to the city and the premiere of his first stage work.
The Ballets Russes season began on 4 June 1910 with stagings of Schumann's Carnaval, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, and short productions from the previous season. Upon arrival, Stravinsky attended the final rehearsals. Tamara Karsavina, who played the titular Firebird, later recalled, "Often he came early to the theatre before a rehearsal began in order to play for me over and over again some particularly difficult passage." In addition, Stravinsky worked closely with the conductor for the premiere Gabriel Pierné and the orchestra to "explain the music ... [but the musicians] found it no less bewildering than did the dancers." Two dress rehearsals were held to accommodate the dancers, many of whom missed their entrances due to the unexpected changes in the music, "which sounded quite different when played by the orchestra from what it had sounded like when played on a piano."
Excitement for the premiere was great, particularly in Diaghilev's circle of Mir iskusstva collaborators. The sculptor Dmitri Stelletsky, who helped develop the scenario, wrote to Golovin on 16 June, "I'm staying till Sunday; I must see The Firebird. I have seen your dazzling drawings and costumes. I like Stravinsky's music in the orchestra and the dances tremendously. I think the whole thing together with your sets will look spectacular. Serov has also put off his departure because of this ballet." Diaghilev remarked about Stravinsky during rehearsals, "Mark him well, he is a man on the eve of celebrity."
The Firebird premiered at the Palais Garnier on 25 June 1910, and was very well-received. Karsavina later told an interviewer, "With every performance, success went crescendo." Critics praised the ballet for the unity of the decor, choreography, and music. "The old-gold vermiculation of the fantastic back-cloth seems to have been invented to a formula identical with that of the shimmering web of the orchestra," wrote Henri Ghéon in Nouvelle revue française, who called the ballet "the most exquisite marvel of equilibrium" and added that Stravinsky was a "delicious musician."
Many critics praised Stravinsky's alignment with Russian nationalist music, with one saying, "[Stravinsky is] the only one who has achieved more than mere attempts to promote Russia's true musical spirit and style." Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi hailed the young composer as the legitimate heir to The Mighty Handful. The ballet’s success also secured Stravinsky's position as Diaghilev's star composer, and there were immediate talks of a sequel, leading to the composition of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. However, Russian audiences held less favorable views towards the work; the Russian premiere was not well-received by much of the audience, according to a reviewer in Apollon; "Many deserted the Hall of Nobles during the performance of this suite." A fellow Rimsky-Korsakov pupil, Jāzeps Vītols, wrote that "Stravinsky, it seems, has forgotten the concept of pleasure in sound... [His] dissonances unfortunately quickly become wearying, because there are no ideas hidden behind them." Nikolai Myaskovsky reviewed the piano reduction of the full ballet in October 1911 and wrote, "What a wealth of invention, how much intelligence, temperament, talent, what a remarkable, what a rare piece of work this is."
After the premiere and subsequent performances, Stravinsky claimed to have met numerous figures in the Paris art scene, including Marcel Proust, Sarah Bernhardt, Jean Cocteau, Maurice Ravel, André Gide, and Princesse Edmond de Polignac. Claude Debussy was brought on stage after the premiere, and he invited Stravinsky to dinner, beginning a friendship that Stravinsky wrote "lasted until the end of his life." Sergei Bertensson recalled Sergei Rachmaninoff saying of the music: "Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia!" Debussy later said regarding Stravinsky's score, "What do you expect? One has to start somewhere." Richard Strauss told the composer in private conversation that he had made a "mistake" in beginning the piece pianissimo instead of astonishing the public with a "sudden crash." Shortly thereafter he summed up to the press his experience of hearing The Firebird for the first time by saying, "it's always interesting to hear one's imitators." Sergei Prokofiev, who first heard the piano reduction at a gathering, told Stravinsky, "there was no music in [the ballet’s introduction] and if there was any, it was from Sadko."
In his 1962 autobiography, Stravinsky accredited much of the production's success to Golovin's set and Diaghilev's collaborators; he wrote that Fokine's choreography "always seemed to me to be complicated and overburdened with plastic detail, so that the artists felt, and still feel now, great difficulty in co-ordinating their steps and gestures with the music..."
After the success of the premiere, Diaghilev announced another run of performances, which Stravinsky took his family to from their home in Ustilug. Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov quickly traveled to Paris to see the ballet, and he later praised the production in a letter to his mother. Following the initial run, Alexander Siloti conducted the Russian premiere on 23 October 1910, performing an early draft of the 1911 suite. This performance was not well-received by much of the audience, according to a reviewer in Apollon; "Many deserted the Hall of Nobles during the performance of this suite." A fellow Rimsky-Korsakov pupil, Jāzeps Vītols, wrote that "Stravinsky, it seems, has forgotten the concept of pleasure in sound... [His] dissonances unfortunately quickly become wearying, because there are no ideas hidden behind them."
The debut London season of the Ballets Russes took place in 1912 at the Royal Opera House. The third ballet on the program was The Firebird, and it was well-received by the audience. The writer Osbert Sitwell wrote, "Never until that evening had I heard Stravinsky's name; but as the ballet developed, it was impossible to mistake the genius of the composer, or of the artist who had designed the setting..." The Ballets Russes revived the production in 1926 with new setting and costumes by Natalia Goncharova, using Fokine's original choreography. The revival was presented at the Lyceum Theatre in London. In 1916, the first productions of The Firebird and Petrushka in the Iberian peninsula took place; the Ballets Russes returned in 1921 for short season in Madrid.
Multiple companies presented their own choreographies and designs of The Firebird from 1927 to 1933, including the Berlin Staatsoper, the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, and the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. In 1935 and 1940, Wassily de Basil's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo revived the Ballets Russes production with Fokine's choreography and Goncharova's designs. The New York City Ballet staged The Firebird in 1949, with Maria Tallchief as the Firebird, choreography by George Balanchine, and scenery and costumes by Marc Chagall. The company restaged it in 1970 for the David H. Koch Theater, with new costumes by Karinska based on Chagall's designs. Jerome Robbins collaborated with Balanchine to choreograph the restaging.
Critics praised the music of The Firebird's emotional character; Cyril W. Beaumont wrote, "[The Firebird] is a supreme example of how music, although having no meaning in itself, can, particularly with a programme hint of its intention, evoke a mood appropriate to the ballet concerned." Robert Craft described the music "as literal as opera," referring to the "mimetic specificity" with which the music follows the story, a trait Stravinsky later disliked and apologized for. The composer wrote that The Firebird became a centerpiece in his career; his conducting debut was a ballet performance of The Firebird in 1915, and he performed it "nearly a thousand times" more.
Throughout the score, Stravinsky used a system of leitmotifs placed in the harmony he later dubbed "leit-harmony". The idea of leit-harmony was likely introduced to the composer from Rimsky-Korsakov's operas The Golden Cockerel (1907) and Kashchey the Deathless (1902). In these works, mortal elements were associated with the diatonic scales while supernatural elements were associated with the chromatic scale. For example, Stravinsky describes Koschei's leit-harmony as consisting of "Magic Thirds"; the harmony begins with a major or minor third, and the lower voice ascends a tritone while the higher voice descends a half step. The title character's leit-harmony uses a chromatic descent of the first four notes of the introduction, then reversing those notes, giving the music an "iridescent sheen", as Eric Walter White described.
In addition, Stravinsky wrote that The Firebird may be the first appearance of "metrical irregularity" in his music. The passage is marked 7
4, with barlines dividing measures into sets of one and two. White wrote that the composer's earlier works made use of consistent musical pulses, "which was to be disturbed as little as possible by tempo rubato..." Stravinsky remarked that he composed The Firebird in "revolt against Rimsky," and that he "tried to surpass him with ponticello, col legno, flautando, glissando, and fluttertongue effects."
A performance of the full ballet lasts about 45 minutes.
The work is scored for a large orchestra with the following instrumentation:
Stravinsky described the orchestra as "wastefully large", but White opined that the orchestration allowed him to use a variety of effects, including horn and trombone glissandi borrowed from Rimsky-Korsakov's parts of Mlada (1872).
|Original Episode Title||English Title|
|Le Jardin enchanté de Kastchei||Koschei's Enchanted Garden|
|Apparition de l'Oiseau de feu, poursuivi par Ivan Tsarevitch||Appearance of the Firebird pursued by Ivan Tsarevich|
|Danse de l'Oiseau de feu||Dance of the Firebird|
|Capture de l'Oiseau de feu par Ivan Tsarévitch||Ivan Tsarevich Captures the Firebird|
|Supplications de l'Oiseau de feu||Supplication of the Firebird|
|Apparition des treize princesses enchantées||Appearance of the Thirteen Enchanted Princesses|
|Jeu des princesses avec les pommes d'or||The Princesses' Game with the Golden Apples|
|Brusque apparition d'Ivan Tsarevitch||Sudden Appearance of Ivan Tsarevich|
|Corovod (Ronde) des princesses||The Princesses' Khorovod (Round Dance)|
|Lever du jour||Daybreak|
|Carillon Féérique, apparition des monstres-gardiens de Kastchei et capture d'Ivan Tsarevitch||Magic Carillon; Appearance of Koschei's Guardian Monsters; Capture of Prince Ivan|
|Arrivée de Kastchei l'Immortel – Dialogue de Kastchei avec Ivan Tsarévitch – Intercession des princesses||Arrival of Koschei the Immortal; His Dialogue with Ivan Tsarevich; Intercession of the Princesses|
|Apparition de l'Oiseau de feu||Appearance of the Firebird|
|Danse de la suite de Kastchei, enchantée par l'Oiseau de feu||Dance of Koschei's Retinue under the Firebird's Spell|
|Danse infernale de tous les sujets de Kastchei||Infernal Dance of All Koschei's Subjects|
|Berceuse (L'Oiseau de feu)||Lullaby (Firebird)|
|Reveil de Kastchei – Mort de Kastchei – Profond ténèbres||Koschei's Death|
|Disparition du palais et des sortilèges de Kastchei, animation des chevaliers petrifiés, allegresse génerale||Disappearance of the Palace and Dissolution of Koschei's Enchantments; Animation of the Petrified Warriors; General Thanksgiving|
The Firebird opens with a slow introduction into Koschei's enchanted garden, underlined by the low strings presenting the basis of the Firebird's leit-harmony. In the garden are Koschei's enemies petrified into statues. Crescendo and descrescendo phrases in the strings and woodwinds indicate the entrance of the Firebird, being pursued by Prince Ivan. The Firebird's capture by Ivan is depicted with sforzando chords in the horns, and exotic melodies in the oboe, English horn, and viola play as she begs to be released. After the Firebird is freed, Ivan takes one of her feathers, and thirteen enchanted princesses (all captives of Koschei) enter the garden to play a catching game. Ivan introduces himself to the youngest princess, with whom he has fallen in love, and they perform a slow khorovod. The melody for the khorovod is taken from a Russian folk song that Rimsky-Korsakov used in his Sinfonietta on Russian Themes. Offstage trumpets call the princesses back into the palace, but when Ivan pursues her, bells ring out and Koschei appears in front of the gates, signaled by roars in the timpani and bass drum.
Before Koschei turns Ivan into stone, the prince summons the Firebird with the feather, and she enchants Koschei and his subjects and begins the famous "Infernal Dance". Another Rimsky-Korsakov reference, the melody is borrowed from Rimsky-Korsakov's parts of Mlada, adding synopation and startling strikes throughout the theme. As the dance winds down, Koschei and his subjects fall asleep from exhaustion. The bassoon introduces the Firebird's tranquil lullaby. Ivan is instructed to destroy the egg that holds Koschei's soul. The music jostles around as Ivan tosses the egg from hand to hand.
When Ivan crushes the egg, Koschei dies and his subjects and enemies are freed from their enchantments. The finale opens with a solo horn announcing the break of dawn, another theme borrowed from Rimsky-Korsakov. The theme grows in the orchestra, building into a triumphant celebration among the freed subjects.
Shortly after the completion of The Firebird, Stravinsky wrote a piano solo reduction of the whole ballet. The composer later arranged three suites for concert performance, dated 1911, 1919, and 1945.
The first suite, titled "suite tirée du conte dansé 'L'oiseau de feu'", was composed in 1911 published by P. Jurgenson the following year. The instrumentation is essentially the same as that of the ballet. The score was printed from the same plates, with only the new endings for the movements being newly engraved. A performance of the 1911 suite lasts about 21 minutes.
This suite was composed in Morges, Switzerland for a smaller orchestra. Walsh alleged the suite was composed to re-copyright the work, as Stravinsky sold the new suite to his publisher J. & W. Chester, despite the original ballet still being in copyright. The score contained many errors; Stravinsky wrote in 1952 that "the parts of the 1919 version were ... full of mistakes ..." Regardless, the 1919 suite remains the most popular today. A performance of the 1919 suite lasts about 26 minutes.
In 1945, shortly before he acquired American citizenship, Stravinsky was contacted by Leeds Music with a proposal to revise the orchestration of his first three ballets in order to recopyright them in the United States. The composer agreed and proceeded to fashion a new suite based on the 1919 version, adding to it and reorchestrating several minutes of the pantomimes from the original score. The only instrumentation change was the addition of a snare drum. A performance of the 1945 suite lasts about 28 minutes.
Stravinsky received multiple commissions to transcribe his works for player pianos, some from the London Aeolian Company and some from the Paris Pleyel Company. In 1928, the Aeolian Company published an "Audiographic" piano roll of The Firebird, which contained both the piano reduction and comments on the work by Stravinsky. The composer identified many of the leit-harmonies in the opening comments of the roll, proving it an invaluable resource for information on the ballet.
The first orchestral recording of The Firebird was released by Columbia Records with Stravinsky conducting L'Orchestre des Concerts Straram in 1928. The 78 RPM record consisted of the 1911 suite with the Lullaby and Finale from the 1919 suite, as well as a recording of The Rite of Spring. James H. North writing in Fanfare was impressed by the quality of the recording, but disappointed by the "rough and awkward" playing and poor sound of the strings. In 1933, Stravinsky and the violinist Samuel Dushkin recorded a reduction of the "Scherzo" and "Lullaby" for His Master's Voice. The first recording of the 1945 suite was recorded in 1946 by the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York, and the first recording of the full ballet was recorded by the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in 1961. As of 2023, there were over 150 commercially available recordings of various parts of The Firebird.