Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Firebird - Suite (1919)
Introduction - Dance of the Firebird
Round Dance of the Princesses
Infernal Dance of Katschei
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.
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).
© Jon Tolansky