About this Recording
6.110081 - STRAVINSKY: Firebird (The) / Petrushka
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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Firebird • Petrushka

The Firebird (1910)

For the first performance of Firebird, June 25th, 1910, the Ballets Russes programme of the Théâtre National de l’Opéra, Paris, published the following synopsis:

The Firebird, one of the most popular Russian folktales, begins when Ivan Tsarevich, the crown prince, sees a marvellous bird of flaming gold. He pursues but fails to catch it, and only succeeds in snatching one of its glittering feathers. The chase has taken him into the domain of Kastchei the Immortal, demi-god of evil, who attempts to capture him and, as he has already done with many valiant knights and princes, turns him to stone. Kastchei’s daughters and thirteen princesses intercede for Ivan Tsarevich and try to save him. Finally the Firebird appears, breaks Kastchei’s spell, and rescues everyone. Ivan Tsarevich and the knights, delivered from their fate, seize the golden apples from Kastchei’s garden.

This neglects to say that the ballet concludes with the coronation and wedding of Ivan Tsarevich, which was Stravinsky’s idea, and it does not explain that the Firebird’s supernatural powers are stronger than the demonic powers of Kastchei.

Michel Fokine, who choreographed the ballet, gave a greatly amplified summary of the plot, from which we learn that Ivan first sees the Firebird at moonlight, is blinded by her lucency, prepares to shoot her (!), and on second impulse to take her alive. She flies to the tree with the golden apples in Kastchei’s garden, where Ivan captures her. She pleads with him, and he releases her, whereupon she gives him one of her fiery feathers, telling him that it will prove useful to him. He places the talisman in his tunic and starts to leave. The door of Kastchei’s castle opens and twelve beautiful princesses, followed by the Princess of Unearthly Beauty, steal out and into the garden where they play with the golden apples. Unearthly Beauty’s apple rolls into a bush, where Ivan is hiding. He retrieves it, bows to her, and returns the apple. The frightened princesses, though attracted by his beauty, modesty, and gallant manners, shyly withdraw. Unearthly Beauty falls in love with him and he with her.

The approaching dawn warns the princesses to return to Kastchei’s palace. Ivan follows but Unearthly Beauty stops him, saying that it would mean his death. Outside the wall, he realises that he cannot live without her and returns to search for her. Hacking at the gate with his sword, he sets off the magic carillon, Kastchei’s alarm, whereupon fiendish bolibotchki and kikimoras stream out of the castle and capture him. Kastchei appears and questions his prisoner, who respectfully doffs his hat, then, on beholding the sorcerer’s hideous visage, spits at him. Ivan is placed against the wall, constructed of petrified knights, and Kastchei begins the incantation that will turn him to stone as well. Suddenly Ivan remembers the Firebird’s feather. He waves it and she appears, casting a spell over Kastchei and his demons and forcing them to dance until they fall exhausted to the ground. Meanwhile, Ivan tries to rescue Unearthly Beauty, but the Firebird leads him to a chest concealed in a tree stump. This contains an egg that represents Kastchei’s soul and the secret of his immortality. When Ivan squeezes the egg, Kastchei squirms. When Ivan tosses it from hand to hand, Kastchei flies from side to side of the stage. When Ivan smashes it on the ground, Kastchei falls dead. His kingdom of evil disappears and is replaced by a resplendent city. Ivan and Unearthly Beauty are married and crowned Tsar and Tsarina.

The ballet world is indebted to Sergey Dyagilev above all for discovering Stravinsky’s genius and, on the strength of the young composer’s three-minute Fireworks (1908), entrusting him with the commission for this first modern ballet. Stravinsky began the composition in December 1909, interrupting work on his opera The Nightingale. The sketch-score was finished in March, the reduction for piano two-hands on 3rd April, the full score on 18th May.

To create advance publicity for the Paris première, Dyagilev invited the French critic R. Brussel to an audition of the score in St Petersburg, played by Stravinsky at the piano. Brussel wrote that:

We all sat in the little ground-floor room on Zamiatin Perenlok [Dyagilev’s St Petersburg apartment] … The composer, young [27], slim, and uncommunicative, with vague, meditative eyes, and lips set firm in an energetic-looking face, was at the piano. But the moment he began to play, the modest, dimly lighted room 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-rest, scored over with fine pencillings, revealed a masterpiece.

Tamara Karsavina, who danced the title rôle at the première and for many years subsequently, recalled that:

Stravinsky often came early to the theatre before a rehearsal began in order to play for me, over and over again, some specially difficult passage. I felt grateful, not only for the help he gave me, but for the manner in which he gave it. For there was no impatience in him with my slow understanding; no condescension of a master of his craft towards the slender equipment of my musical education. It was interesting to watch him at the piano. His body seemed to vibrate with his own rhythm; punctuating staccatos with his head, he made the pattern of his music forcibly clear to me, more so than the counting of bars would have done.

Stravinsky arrived in Paris for rehearsals on 7th June. During them, he revised and corrected extensively, leaving only a few pages without his red ink, or pencil, changes. During one of the rehearsals, Dyagilev was heard to say: “Mark the young composer well; he is a man on the eve of celebrity.” The prediction proved true. The première, at the Paris Opéra, was an enormous success. Extra performances had to be scheduled and the season extended into the summer. Stravinsky became an international figure overnight. Claude Debussy praised the music and invited him to lunch with Erik Satie, who photographed the two of them together. But before many years Stravinsky was suffering from the universal popularity of the piece, and its use all his life as a stick with which to beat his newer, ground-breaking later music.

One of the many differences between the present recording and its predecessors is the restoration of two long, valveless trumpets on stage, each playing a single note. The clarion sonority of these instruments standing out above the entire orchestra, a thrilling effect in all likelihood heard for the first time since 1910 in this recording.

Petrushka (1911; revised 1947)

A cliché of Stravinsky criticism is that Firebird, Stravinsky’s most popular work, is also his least characteristic. Already in Petrushka (1911) he turned against the heart-on-sleeve expressiveness and literary effusiveness of the earlier ballet (“con tenerezza,” “lamentoso,” “timidamente,” “dolente,” “con maligna giola”). But musical imagery is similarly tied to the storyline in Petrushka, and no less closely. The principal difference between the two pieces in theatrical terms is that Firebird remains a naive, sweet, childlike fairy tale, while Petrushka is a drama of great power and originality.

The Scenario

First Tableau. The Admiralty Square, St Petersburg, in the 1830s, a sunny winter day during Carnival Week. The scene shows a segment of the Shrove-tide Fair. Crowds of people are strolling about the stage— common people, gentlefolk, a group of drunkards armin- arm, children clustering around the peepshow, women around the stalls. A street musician appears with a hurdy-gurdy. He is accompanied by a dancer. Just as she starts to dance, a man with a music-box and another dancer turn up on the opposite side of the stage. After performing simultaneously for a short while, the rivals give up the struggle and retire. Suddenly a Mountebank comes out through the curtains of a marionette theatre. The curtains are drawn back to reveal three puppets on their stands—Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Blackamoor. The Mountebank charms them into life with his flute, and they begin to dance—at first jigging on their hooks in the little theatre, but then, to general astonishment, stepping down from the theatre and dancing among the public in the open square.

Second Tableau. Petrushka’s Cell. The black walls are covered with stars and a crescent moon. Devils painted on a gold ground decorate the panels of the folding doors that lead into the Ballerina’s Cell. On one of the walls is a portrait of the Mountebank scowling. While the Mountebank’s magic has endowed all three puppets with human feelings and emotions, it is Petrushka who feels and suffers most. Bitterly conscious of his grotesque appearance, he feels himself to be an outsider, and resents his complete dependence on his cruel master. He consoles himself by falling in love with the Ballerina, but when she visits him in his cell, his uncouth antics frighten her and she flees. In his despair, he curses the Mountebank and hurls himself at his portrait, but succeeds only in tearing a hole through the cardboard wall of his cell.

Third Tableau. The Blackamoor’s Cell. The wallpaper is patterned with green palm trees and colourful fruits on a red ground. On the right, a door leads into the Ballerina’s cell. The Blackamoor, in a magnificent costume, is reclining on a divan and playing with a coconut, shaking it, then superstitiously kneeling before it. Though he is brutal and stupid, the Ballerina finds him attractive and quickly captivates him with her wiles. Their love scene is interrupted by the sudden arrival of the furiously jealous Petrushka. The Blackamoor kicks him out.

Fourth Tableau. The Fair, as in the First Tableau. The nighttime festivities of the Carnival are now at a peak. A group of wet-nurses dance together. A peasant playing a pipe crosses the stage leading a performing bear. A bibulous merchant, accompanied by two gypsies, scatters handfuls of banknotes among the crowd. A group of coachmen strike up a dance and are joined by the nurses. Finally, a number of masqueraders—devil, goat, and pig—rush onto the scene while Bengal flares are let off in the wings. At this moment there is a commotion in the Mountebank’s theatre, the rivalry between the puppets having taken a fatal turn. Petrushka rushes out from behind the curtain, pursued by the Blackamoor, whom the Ballerina tries to restrain. The Blackamoor strikes down Petrushka with his scimitar. Snow begins to fall, and Petrushka dies, surrounded by the astonished crowed. The Mountebank appears and reassures the bystanders that Petrushka is only a puppet with a wooden head and body stuffed with sawdust. The crowd disperses as the night grows darker, and the Mountebank is left behind. But as he starts to drag the puppet off the stage, he is startled to see Petrushka’s ghost appear on the roof of the little theatre, jeering and mocking at everyone whom the Mountebank has fooled.

The growth of Stravinsky’s musical imagination and technical mastery during the months following The Firebird is one of the wonders of twentieth-century music. Firebird revealed an original musical genius in the process of discovering itself, but the score is overtly influenced by the composer’s teacher, Rimsky- Korsakov. In contrast, Petrushka is entirely new, harmonically, rhythmically, and instrumentally innovative on every page. Common to both ballets is the reliance on folk-music melody. The long-line tunes in the Wet Nurses and the Dance of the Coachmen come from even more popular sources than the Ronde and the Berceuse in Firebird.

But considered as a theatre piece, Firebird is devoid of real characters and psychological dimensions, and its plot is the flimsiest of fairy-tales. Moreover, the timescales of the two ballets are wholly dissimilar. The atmospheric Introduction to Firebird seems protracted in comparison to the in medias res beginning of Petrushka, and the dances in the earlier ballet are detachable set-pieces, or at any rate more so than in Petrushka, with the exception of the Russian Dance — which explains why Stravinsky was able to extract three suites from Firebird, but none from Petrushka.

The drama in Petrushka takes place in Tableaux Two and Three. The outer world, that of the stage spectators and, at the end, of the theatre audience, is conjured in the First and Fourth Tableaux. The interaction of the two at the dénouement reveals that the eternal triangle is the essential geometry of the puppet world as it often is of our own. While the Ballerina and the Moor are mechanical figments, however, Petrushka is more than that, though exactly what remains unresolved in the ironic ending.

Compared to the lush orchestra of Firebird, the sonorities of Petrushka are brittle (the Russian Dance) and evanescent (the Mountebank’s music and the ending). Moreover, Petrushka annexes new harmonic territory. The famous “Petrushka chord,” which combines the triads of C major and, remote from it, F sharp major, introduces bitonality, and though Stravinsky was not deeply interested in exploring its possibilities in his later music, he did make use of it on a small scale in, for example, Circus Polka and Danses concertantes. At the end of the Third Tableau, when the Moor evicts Petrushka, the music is in two keys, as it is again at the end of the ballet when the Moor pursues, and this time kills him.

The idea of an inner and an outer, binary world, of two existential prisons, is complemented in other aspects of the work. In the First and Third Tableaux, two melodies are juggled in two different meters simultaneously, first with the competing hurdy-gurdy and music-box, and second, in the Third Tableau, when the Ballerina’s Valse and its bass accompaniment are in two different keys.

Robert Craft


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