Just a few years before The Firebird premiered in Paris, Igor Stravinsky was an undistinguished law student in St. Petersburg wishing he was a composer instead. By chance he met the son of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who was the reigning tsar of Russian composers, ingratiated himself with the family, and soon was taking lessons with the man himself.
Meanwhile, Sergei Diaghilev was developing plans to bring Russian art to European capitals, beginning with painting and sculpture, then experimenting with opera, and finally settling on the more affordable ballet. Together with the dancer Michel Fokine, he established the Ballets Russes in Paris, which mostly choreographed to existing works by Schumann, Chopin, and older Russian composers. To repurpose non-ballet music for dance was an innovative idea, but soon Parisians were clamoring for fresh sounds. Diaghilev and Fokine began to develop an ambitious new ballet for their French audience, and they paired two Russian folk characters—the magical Firebird and the evil Kashchei the Deathless—for the story.
At least three established composers turned down the project before Diaghilev tried the 27-year-old Stravinsky, who had previously only orchestrated a few Chopin piano pieces for the Ballets Russes. He was the last choice, and Diaghilev could not have expected anything more than a serviceable score from the untested composer. Stravinsky set to work writing in his St. Petersburg apartment between December 1909 and May the following year, sometimes meeting with Fokine to improvise music and dance together.
The story follows Prince Ivan Tsarevich, who goes on a walk through the garden of Kashchei, a monstrous king. The prince sees the Firebird near a golden apple tree and captures it, only releasing it in exchange for a feather. Soon he meets 13 maidens and falls in love with one of them, who unfortunately turns out to be under Kashchei’s evil spell and has lured the prince into a trap. The captured prince summons the Firebird with the feather, and the creature reveals that Kashchei’s immortality derives from a magical egg he keeps in a box. The prince smashes the egg, Kashchei dies, the maidens are liberated, and everyone rejoices.
The Firebird was Stravinsky’s first major piece, and it set him on course to write The Rite of Spring and other innovative works over the course of a lengthy career. An original voice already comes through in The Firebird, but current scholarship has emphasized its links to earlier Russian music—links that Stravinsky himself downplayed, not wanting to appear indebted to the country of his birth, or to the past.
But many of the melodies are borrowed from Russian folk music, and even his harmonic slights-of-hand and orchestrational wizardries don’t stray too far from those of his old teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. The Firebird’s distinctive sound-world is largely created by contrasting murky, chromatic harmonies (representing supernatural evil) with bright, singable melodies (representing human good). It’s a vivid effect, but one borrowed from 19th-century Russian opera—not a 20th-century invention. What really distinguishes Stravinsky here is the skillful shaping of his melodies—how he trims and arranges the sinewy phrases—and his unique rhythmic sense—both the jagged exclamations in fast sections and the undulating tensions in slow ones.
What does it matter if Firebird isn’t wholly original, when no one can dispute its irresistible pull? This was recognized even from the very first reports. The French critic Robert Brussel visited a piano rehearsal in St. Petersburg in the winter of 1910. Perhaps the very first member of the public to hear it, he wrote: “the moment [Stravinsky] began to play, the modest and dimly lit dwelling glowed with a dazzling radiance. By the end of the first scene, I was conquered: by the last, I was lost in admiration. The manuscript on the music-stand, scored over with fine penciling, revealed a masterpiece.”
Stravinsky traveled to Paris that spring for the premiere, and it was met with universal acclaim. Nearly every musical and literary figure in Paris attended the first night—and suddenly Stravinsky, who the day before had been a complete unknown, was shaking hands with Claude Debussy and Marcel Proust.
Every good ballet needs a suite made from it, and Stravinsky revisited the piece three times (1911, 1919, and 1945) to adapt it for concert performance. He selected his favorite numbers and reduced the scoring from Diaghilev’s opulent orchestra—which included an overflowing brass section, unusual percussion, and three harps—to a more practical size. Today, the 1919 suite is most commonly performed.
The music emerges from the dark in the lowest depths of the orchestra, setting the stage as Kashchei’s cursed domain. Then the first magical effect: sliding harmonics in the strings, and the Firebird itself appears for its dance (glittering violins, chirping clarinet and flutes). Soon the Prince encounters the 13 princesses (Ronde des princesses), who dance a khorovod—a Russian circle dance, warmly accompanied by solo violin, winds, and cello. But it was a trap—in a sudden eruption of timpani, brass, and xylophone, Kashchei appears for his infernal dance. He is subdued by the return of the Firebird and its lullaby (Berceuse), sung mostly by the bassoon. Peace is restored in the Finale, which slowly builds from the glow of a horn solo into a magnificent full-orchestra celebration.