Stravinsky's Firebird - a dazzling masterpiece

“I love ballet and am more interested in it than in anything else… For the only form of scenic art that sets itself, as its cornerstone, the tasks of beauty, and nothing else, is ballet.” – Igor Stravinsky.

L’Oiseau de Feu, or The Firebird as it is known in English, was first performed by the Ballets Russes on 25 June 1910 at the Opéra de Paris, conducted by Gabriel Pierné. By the next day, Igor Stravinsky’s name was on the lips of all theatre-goers across Paris.

Despite only receiving the commission to compose The Firebird as a last resort, after several composers had already rejected the project, it was this ballet that elevated the 28-year-old Stravinsky’s reputation and sparked a widespread fascination with the new compositional style of this up-and-coming Russian composer. Indeed, this monumental work marked the beginning of a long-lasting collaboration between the composer himself and Sergei Diaghilev (founder of the Ballets Russes), an artistic partnership which would produce such iconic and innovative works as Petrushka (1911), The Rite of Spring (1913), Le Rossignol (1914) and Pulcinella (1920).

But what is The Firebird? In Slavic mythology and folklore, the Firebird is a large bird, glowing with enchanting plumage and bringing blessings and doom to any who might seek to capture her. Resembling tongues of flame, her sparkling feathers give the Firebird her name. The myth itself centres upon the heroic odyssey of the young prince Ivan Tsarevich, and Stravinsky’s Suite takes us on a musical voyage following his tale.  

Whilst hunting, Prince Ivan stumbles into the realm of Kashchei the Immortal, a sorcerer whose soul is preserved within an egg, hidden inside a casket. Stravinsky sets the eerie scene with the sound of muted lower strings at the opening of the Introduction. With a sudden shimmering in the strings, Prince Ivan chances upon, and manages to capture, the Firebird herself (The Firebird and her Dance). She pleads with him to spare her, offering him one of her enchanted feathers in exchange for her freedom, with which he will be able to summon her in times of need. Feather in hand and the Firebird set free, Ivan continues his journey, meeting thirteen princesses who are all under the spell of Kashchei (The Dance of the Princesses). Falling in love with one of them, the Russian prince attempts to follow the group of princesses, but is set upon by Kashchei’s creatures. Just as Ivan is about to be turned to stone, he waves the Firebird’s feather and summons her. She appears instantly, first sending the monsters into an energetic, intoxicating dance (The Infernal Dance), and then with her lullaby (Berceuse – played in the orchestra by the bassoon, with a gentle, lilting accompaniment), they fall into a deep sleep. While they sleep, the Firebird reveals to Ivan the secret of Kashchei’s immortality, provoking Ivan to destroy the hidden egg. The captive creatures are immediately set free, the sorcerer’s palace disappears, and the princesses are awakened from his spell. As the audience hears the Firebird’s theme echoed across the orchestra, those freed from Kashchei’s wicked grasp celebrate their victory (Finale). We hear a lyrical melody in the horn, a glistening harp, as the violin section echoes the theme and it builds throughout the entire orchestra, culminating in a glorious song of deliverance.

According to the French composer, Maurice Ravel, the audience of the Belle Époque wanted a ‘taste’ of the avant-garde, and this was reflected in their musical tastes. The Romanticism of the nineteenth century had also created a vogue for all things ‘folk’, and cultural exoticism had captured the imaginations of Parisian cultural elites. Tapping into both of these artistic trends, The Firebird was a sudden and overwhelming success. This young Russian composer was the very essence of novelty and exoticism, displaying his complex and colourful style to great effect in this magical ballet. Through Stravinsky’s rich tonal palette, and the timbral effects found within his expansive orchestral scoring, the composer incorporated traditional folk melodies into an avant-garde sound world that perhaps epitomised the contradictory impulses of decadence and rustic innocence which so appealed to Parisian elites of the time.

Oxford Alternative Orchestra at St John’s are thrilled to present The Firebird Suite, an orchestral concert work drawn from the ballet. The Firebird’s story is told musically across the movements of the Suite, and through its harmonic and instrumental exploration, Stravinsky brings to life this mystical and bewitching tale. As the Firebird herself is liberated, Stravinsky frees our imaginations through this wonderfully complex, daring, and vividly colourful work.

- Miranda Bardsley

Hannah Schneider