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IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Suite from L'Oiseau de feu (The Firebird) (1919)

 

I. Introduction

II. L'Oiseau de feu et sa danse - Variation de l'Oiseau de feu

III. Rondes des princesses 

IV. Danse infernale de roi Kachtcheï

V. Berceuse

VI. Finale

Igor Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum, Russia, and died on April 6, 1971, in New York City. The complete ballet was first performed on June 25, 1910, by Ballets Russes at the Opéra in Paris, conducted by Gabriel Pierné. The suite is scored for 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, various percussion, harp, piano, and strings.

History is graced with entertaining anecdotes of how the great masterworks came to be. Even works conceived just a century ago have a mythic aura. Some are humorous, some painful and born under duress, but it was simply a business transaction most of the time. Not so for The Firebird. The birth of this legendary ballet, which has gained much commercial popularity, should be filed under extraordinary financial and creative gambles.

 

Suppose history had gone as planned, one hundred twelve years ago. In that case, it might well have been The Firebird by Nikolai Tcherepnin, Anatoli Liadov, or even Alexander Glazunov that we remember or possibly discard today. Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballet Russes, had plans for a season finale like no other in 1910 and had intended to hire the foremost composers to write a new ballet on Russian themes, all declined. Enter the young, relatively unknown 27-year old Igor Stravinsky. It was a gamble, but Diaghilev hired him; perhaps it was a new perspective that he could bring to the table. The stakes were high for the large-scale production of a new, un-tested score, financially for the company, but a massive opportunity for a young composer. Stravinsky was eager, and he delivered and conquered. 

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff would praise the work, "Great God! This is true Russia!" A student of Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky would continue to embrace exploring new harmonic colors and rhythmic exuberance from Russia's folk music and traditions. The composer's revolutionary Rite of Spring was to come in a few years. The Firebird remained a favorite of the composer, and he would often conduct several suites of the music. In addition to the complete ballet, Stravinsky arranged three concert suites in 1911, 1919 (the most performed), and 1945. 

 

The plot of The Firebird draws upon Russian folklore, and the ingredients are the makings of a summer blockbuster, including realms of magic, mystical creatures, a nasty villain, a heroic prince, and princesses in need of rescue.

 

The six movements of the suite are performed without pause and runs for 23 minutes.

I. Introduction

The suite opens with a flow of eighth notes, dark and brewing in 12/8 time, a sludge-like river in the low strings. Welcome to the magical realm, the garden of the evil king, Kastchei the Deathless. Trombones enter, adding a layer of tyrannical dread. But not all is evil here. Percolating woodwinds and arpeggiating string harmonics paint a magical forest filled with ethereal creatures, too shy and fearful of lingering in the open. 

 

II. The Firebird and It's Dance - The Firebird's Variations (L'Oiseau de feu et sa danse - Variation de l'Oiseau de feu)

With a sudden explosive and fiery string tremolo, the musical character changes instantly. Prince Ivan wandering the realm meets and attempts to capture the Firebird, a miraculously rare creature, her feathers flame-like, flickering, stunningly beautiful, and the music is frenetic with life. Symphonic wizardry of flourishing gestures and trills are pure sorcery, giving life to gestural variations of this mythic avian wonder. As the story goes, Prince Ivan and the Firebird band together to rescue kidnapped princesses and defeat Kastchei and his minions.

 

III. Round of the Princesses (Rondes des princesses)

Following the wild bristling activity of the variations, the young captured princesses appear performing a Khorovod, a Russian round dace. Hand-in-hand, the young beauties elegantly circle in a musical round with lyrical lines and solo passages. The music is tender and soulful, innocent with dreams of a better tomorrow. Prince Ivan sees the princesses dancing and is immediately smitten by one of them, anyone hearing this music would be equally lovestruck. And so, love at first sight.

 

IV. Infernal Dance of King Kaschei (Danse infernale de roi Kachtcheï)

The Firebird casts a spell, and Kaschei and his minions are forced to dance laughably to near death. The infernal booms into ferocious existence. The opening strike is so powerful, it's a precursor to the synthesizer effect Orchestra Hit. Low horns and bassoons take the opening melody, all off the beat. With each successive strike, 7 in all, the conjuring spell is cast. The leg muscles tighten, the arms swing uncontrollably. The heart will race, and the king will dance, strung-up like a puppet. The music is savage and visceral, and Stravinsky's music is magic incarnate. One canʻt help but feel as Kaschei jolted and electrified with the power chords, forced to move in autopilot to the syncopated rhythms and exuberant surges of energy.

 

V. Berceuse

When the dance carnage subsides, the exhausted Kaschei slumbers to a folk-like lullaby. First, in the bassoon, the Berceuse ebbs and flows with warmth and schmaltzy strings. Then, hypnotized and out of consciousness, the king sleeps. At this moment, Prince Ivan can destroy the source of Kaschei's power, a giant magical egg.

 

VI. Finale

With a solo horn soaring above a cloud of strings, the work's most famous folk-tune unleashes a sense of hope, new dawn. Sunshine incoming, light scatters across the realm, awakening life. Releasing the captured princesses, Prince Ivan united with his newly betrothed, triumphs in a cornucopia of celebration and exuberant fanfare that continues to sound today, more than 100 years later. © MTF

(Notes By Michael-Thomas Foumai)

ABOUT THIS PERFORMANCE (MASTERWORKS 1):

Unleashing a universe of sonic imagination, Darius Milhaud's jazz ballet conjures the primordial passion of humanity through African mythology in The Creation of the World. Sculpting beauty and elegance, Mozart's Flute Concerto in G bridges a gateway into the realms of sorcery with Ravel's extended universe of fairy-tales in Mother Goose and Stravinsky's spellbinding magical revolution in The Firebird. © MTF