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The Firebird (1910)

Stravinsky: The Firebird (1910)

The Ballets Russes

When the visionary impresario Serge Diaghilev heard the young and unknown Igor Stravinsky's new orchestral fantasia Fireworks in St Petersburg in 1909 he immediately approached the composer and asked him to join his new Ballets Russes Company. Diaghilev had brilliantly assessed Stravinsky's originality, imagination and great potential for his highly radical company, for which he was planning a completely new kind of ballet repertoire. For his Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet) he had already engaged innovative choreographers, painters and dancers to create works of novel dynamism and theatricality in ballet. His choice of Stravinsky as a composer for the Company was an act of destiny, as in due course it was to result in the birth of the most revolutionary musical work ever heard. That was to be in 1913 when The Rite of Spring was premiered by the Ballets Russes in Paris. It was the culmination of a remarkable collaboration between Stravinsky and Diaghilev which had previously produced the brilliantly original and macabre puppet ballet, Petrushka in 1911, and the year before the romantic and evocative The Firebird - Stravinsky's first major work and his first major international success.

The Firebird - scenes:


The Enchanted Garden of Katschei

The Appearance of the Firebird pursued by Prince Ivan

The Dance of the Firebird

The Capture of the Firebird by Prince Ivan and Supplication of the Firebird

The Appearance of the 13 Enchanted Princesses

The Princesses' Game with the Golden Apples

The Sudden Appearance of Prince Ivan

The Round Dance of the Princesses


Magic Carillon

The Appearance of Katschei's Monster Guardians and the Capture of Prince Ivan

The Arrival of Katschei the Immortal

The Dialogue of Katschei and Prince Ivan

The Dance of Katschei's Retinue Enchanted by the Firebird

The Infernal Dance of Katschei and All His Subjects


Katschei's Awakening and Death

The Disappearance of Katschei's Palace and Magical Creations

The Return to Life of the Petrified Knights and General Rejoicing at Prince Ivan and Princess Vasilisa's Wedding

The Story

The story of The Firebird was put together by the choreographer Fokine, who adapted it from several Russian fairy tales that had been recorded by the writers Alexander Pushkin and Alexander Asanafiev. Both Stravinsky and the designer Leon Bakst contributed vital ideas too.

In the Kingdom of Thrice-Nine, a demon King, Katschei the Deathless, rules over a vast forest inhabited by enchanted princesses and knights petrified to stone. His retinue, totally controlled by his spell, obeys him slavishly. In the centre of the forest is an enchanted garden with a great tree bearing golden apples. Every night a bird with a blazingly luminous plume comes to eat the apples.

One night Prince Ivan, youngest son of King Vyslav, secretly enters the forest, maybe to find a princess to be his wife. He is so taken by the brightly burning bird that he captures her to take her back to his court as a showpiece for his hunting. Her tears move the Prince, who feels compassion for the first time. He sacrifices his honour and sets her free. In return, the Firebird leaves him with an enchanted feather from her tail, which will protect him when he uses it.

The Prince now encounters 13 princesses in the forest. They are all under Katschei's evil spell. The princesses invite Ivan to join them in a formal round dance. During this dance Prince Ivan falls in love with one of the princesses, the beautiful Vasilisa. As Ivan and Vasilisa are left alone, the sun rises, and as is compulsory for all enchanted creatures in forests, she and all the other princesses disappear at dawn. But the Prince is so in love that he follows them, foolhardily, entering the forbidden gates of Katschei's palace.

Alarms go off from all directions, demons block off all the Palace entrances and exits, and the trees and bushes are suddenly filled with imps and goblins. Katschei appears, resembling a huge skeleton with the thinnest blue skin, and hands and feet like long green claws. He tortures Ivan to turn him to stone. But when the Prince pulls out the Firebird's feather, Katschei withdraws and the demons pull back as a blazing light fills the forest. The Prince's gesture has summoned the Firebird, and now she leads Katschei's retinue and then Katschei himself into an entranced dance, which becomes wild and frenzied until they all collapse into a deep sleep.

To keep them asleep the Firebird conjures up a lullaby, during which Katschei dreams of his death. The Firebird leads Prince Ivan to an oak tree in the forest grove. Hidden in its trunk is a large egg, inside which is Katschei's Death, which has been kept captive for centuries. When Prince Ivan touches the egg Katschei awakes and rushes at the Prince. Ivan throws the egg in the air, it falls on the ground and smashes, and Katschei's Death escapes at last. Immediately King Katschei disappears into the air, along with his demons, wives, children and two-headed servants. As his spell is broken the petrified knights of stone stir and begin to move. Sunlight starts to shine through every part of the forest as Katschei's Palace dissolves. Crowns appear on the heads of the princesses, and Princess Vasilisa and Prince Ivan come forth in regal costume. As all the Knights and Princesses form a grand wedding procession, Prince Ivan and Princess Vasilisa are married, and The Firebird, saying a last farewell to the Prince who once showed her compassion, flies away never to be seen again.

The Music

In The Firebird Stravinsky aimed to portray the folk make-believe element in a new way, distinguishing between the human and supernatural worlds with strongly different harmonies and orchestration. Although that principle had been traditional in the more conventional ballets of Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, with Stravinsky the contrasts were far greater than before. Novel, original sounds were brought forth that, especially in the elemental music associated with the evil King Katschei, occasionally were to foreshadow the extraordinary new ideas Stravinsky was to give birth to in Petrushka and then the Rite of Spring.

The music and orchestration of The Firebird combines some of the rich exoticism of Rimsky-Korsakov, in its evocative nature painting, with striking new effects realistically and weirdly describing the enchanted world and characters under Katschei's spell. During the mysteriously sinister opening, setting the scene in Katschei's enchanted garden, the Paris audience at the world première on the 25th of June 1910 heard something totally new when the violins created the extraordinary impression of wind in the forest trees by quietly sliding up and down the highest and usually unused harmonic registers of the instrument.

When the Firebird enters, Stravinsky's orchestration is in the conventional world of Rimsky-Korsakov's exoticism but his harmonic and rhythmic writing has a new, intense bizarreness that creates a sparkling macabre quality that permeates the ballet, as also does an old-fashioned poetic romanticism that was hardly ever to recur in his later music (indeed Stravinsky quotes some old Russian folk songs, such as in the Round Dance of the Princesses, and although he later quoted folk music elements in Petrushka and Les Noces, they are far more direct in The Firebird).

The most originally forward looking music in The Firebird comes when King Katschei appears, and most especially during the Infernal Dance when there are strong hints of Stravinsky's later provocative work. The orchestra is very large, particularly in the woodwind section and to a lesser extent in the percussion section, which includes a very original and extended solo for the xylophone as Katschei's retinue dance under the Firebird's spell (this is one of the earliest examples of the use of the xylophone as a virtuoso instrument).

© Jon Tolansky

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