The Firebird (French: L'Oiseau de feu; Russian: Жар-птица, Žar-ptica) is a 1910 ballet by Igor Stravinsky based on the Russian folk tales of the magical glowing bird (see Firebird) that is both a blessing and a curse to its captor.
The music was premiered as a ballet by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris on 25 June 1910 conducted by Gabriel Pierné. It was the first of their productions with music specially composed for them. Originally the music was to have been written by Russian composer Anatol Liadov (1855-1914); but when he was slow in starting work, Diaghilev transferred the commission to the 28-year old Stravinsky. The ballet has historic significance not only as Stravinsky's 'breakthrough piece' ("Mark him well", said Diaghilev to Tamara Karsavina, who was dancing the title role: "He is a man on the eve of celebrity..."), but also as the beginning of the collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky that would also produce Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
Stravinsky's ballet centers on the journey of its hero, Prince Ivan. Ivan enters the magical realm of Kashchei the Immortal (see 'Linguistic Note' below); all of the magical objects and creatures of Kashchei are herein represented by a chromatic descending motif, usually in the strings. While wandering in the garden, he sees and chases the Firebird. The Firebird, once caught by Ivan, begs for its life and ultimately agrees to assist Ivan in exchange for eventual freedom.
Next, Prince Ivan sees thirteen princesses, one with whom he falls in love. The next day, Ivan chooses to confront Kashchei to ask to marry one of the princesses; the two talk and eventually begin quarreling. When Kashchei sends his magical creatures after Ivan, the Firebird, true to its pledge, intervenes, bewitching the creatures and making them dance an elaborate, energetic dance (the "Infernal Dance"). The creatures and Kashchei then fall asleep; however, Kashchei awakens and is killed by the Firebird. With Kashchei gone and his magic broken, the magical creatures and the palace all disappear, and all of the "real" beings (including the princesses) awaken and, with one final fleeting appearance from the Firebird, celebrate their victory.
People often speak of "Stravinsky's music for The Firebird" as if just one work exists; in fact, besides the complete 50-minute ballet score of 1909-10 (written for a very large orchestra including quadruple woodwind and three harps, as well as a piano), there also exist no fewer than three shorter 'suites', arranged by the composer himself for concert performance. These date from 1911, 1919 and 1945. While the 1919-suite remains the most wide spread and well known, the 1945 version contains the most music from the original ballet score (partly motivated by the need to secure copyright in a USA that did not recognise European agreements).
Note that there is no consensus for the precise naming of either the different versions, or the naming of the movements, or the numbering of the movements. Different recordings tend to follow different naming conventions. While this partly might be due to the English translation from the original French names, some recordings of the orchestral suites even avoids referring to the tale by just calling the movements by their formal names, i.e., Adagio, Scherzo, Rondo and Allegro.
1910 Ballet Score (aka "Ballet in 2 scenes for orchestra")
(1) Introduction; 1st Tableau: (2) The Enchanted Garden of Kashchei; (3) Appearance of the Firebird, Pursued by Prince Ivan; (4) Dance Of The Firebird; (5) Capture Of The Firebird By Prince Ivan; (6) Supplication Of The Firebird; (7) Appearance Of The Thirteen Enchanted Princesses; (8) The Princesses' Game With The Golden Apples; (9) Sudden Appearance Of Prince Ivan; (10) Khorovod (Round Dance) Of The Princesses; (11) Daybreak; (12) Magic Carillon, Appearance Of Kashchei's Monster Guardians, And Capture Of Prince Ivan; (13) Arrival Of Kashchei The Immortal; (14) Dialogue Of Kashchei And Prince Ivan; (15) Intercession Of The Princesses; (16) Appearance Of The Firebird; (17) Dance Of Kashchei's Retinue, Enchanted By The Firebird; (18) Infernal Dance Of All Kashchei's Subjects; (19) Lullaby; (20) Kashchei's Awakening; (21) Kashchei's Death; (22) Profound Darkness; 2nd Tableau: (23) Disappearance Of Kastchei's Palace and Magical Creations, Return to Life of the Petrified Knights, General Rejoicing
Orchestration: 4 Flutes (3rd & 4th also Piccolo); 2 Oboes; English Horn; 3 Clarinets (3rd also D Clarinet); Bass Clarinet; 3 Bassoons (2nd also 2nd Contrabassoon); Contrabassoon; 4 Horns; 3 Trumpets; 3 Trombones; Tuba; 3 Trumpets (onstage); 2 Tenor Tubas (onstage); 2 Bass Tubas (onstage); Timpani; Percussion; Glockenspiel; Xylophone; Celesta; 3 Harps; Pianoforte; Strings.
Notice: the naming convention of the movements and their numberings may be slightly different from one recording to another. E.g. the three parts of the 2nd Tableau may - amongst several others - be seen as: Part II, No. 19a, "Disappearance of the Palace and Dissolution of Kascheri's Enchantments"; No. 19b, "Captive Warriors Emerge From Spell"; No. 19c, "General Thanksgiving".
1911 Suite (aka "Concert suite for orchestra No. 1")
1) Introduction - Kashchei’s Enchanted Garden - Dance of the Firebird; (2) Supplication of the Firebird; (3) The Princesses’ Game with Apples; (4) The Princesses’ Khorovod (Rondo, round dance); (5) Infernal dance of all Kashchei’s Subjects.
Orchestration: essentially as per the original ballet - the score was printed from the same plates, with only the new endings for the movements being newly engraved.
Image:Shot from The Firebird.gif
1919 Suite (aka "Concert suite for orchestra No. 2")
(1) Introduction - The Firebird and its dance - The Firebird's variation; (2) The Princesses’ Khorovod (Rondo, round dance); (3) Infernal dance of King Kashchei; (4) Berceuse (Lullaby); (5) Finale.
Orchestration: 2 Flutes (inc. Piccolo); 2 Oboes (inc. English Horn); 2 Clarinets; 2 Bassoons; 4 Horns; 2 Trumpets; 3 Trombones; Tuba; Timpani; Percussion; Harp; Pianoforte; Strings.
1945 Suite (aka "Ballet suite for orchestra")
(1) Introduction - The Firebird and its dance - The Firebird's variation; (2) Pantomime I; (3) Pas de deux: Firebird and Ivan Tsarevich; (4) Pantomime II; (5) Scherzo: Dance of the Princesses; (6) Pantomime III; (7) The Princesses' Khorovod (Rondo, round dance); (8) Infernal dance of King Kashchei; (9) Berceuse (Lullaby); (10) Finale.
Orchestration: 2 Flutes (inc. Piccolo); 2 Oboes; 2 Clarinets; 2 Bassoons; 4 Horns; 2 Trumpets; 3 Trombones; Tuba; Timpani; Percussion; Harp; Pianoforte; Strings.
Kashchei should not be transliterated with the intrusive ‘t’ often seen: Russian uses a single character for the double-consonant ‘shch’.
Stravinsky (Russian: Страви́нский) should rightfully have been spelled Stravinskij, as described in the transliteration of modern Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet (based on ISO 9: 1986) and spelled in e.g. the Scandinavian countries.
Arrangements and adaptations
Electronic musician Isao Tomita arranged a synthesized version of the short 1919 'Firebird' suite for his 1975 album Firebird.
The chapter in the animated film Fantasia 2000 based on Stravinsky's piece takes an unrelated approach, telling the story of a spring Sprite and her companion Elk. After a long winter the Sprite attempts to restore life to a forest but accidentally wakes the Firebird spirit of a nearby volcano. Angered, the Firebird proceeds to destroy the forest and seemingly the sprite. She is restored to life after the destruction and the forest life is reborn with her. The Fantasia 2000 Firebird chapter is considered an exercise in the theme of life-death-rebirth deities; the depiction of the Firebird in it as a violent, flaming volcanic spirit is not related to Stravinsky's original theme. Ironically, this depiction of the Firebird suite arguably acts as a literal 'Rite of Spring,' another Stravinsky ballet previously used by Disney.
Stravinsky's work has had a great deal of influence in musical genres outside of classical. Throughout their career, the progressive rock group Yes have opened their live concerts with an excerpt from the Firebird, and their 1974 song "The Gates of Delirium" is heavily influenced by musical ideas pioneered by Stravinsky.
Many adaptations of the Firebird Suite for Marching Band and Drum Corps have also been made throughout the years.
Selected recorded versions
The great Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova provides narration in a recording of the complete ballet score that features the Seattle Symphony and conductor Gerard Schwarz. This Delos CD brings the story alive, especially for those new to ballet and/or the younger set. Ms. Makarova danced the role of the Firebird many times in her career.
Excerpts from the Firebird Suite