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8.555999 - STRAVINSKY: Firebird (The) (Piano Transcription)
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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

The Firebird (Piano transcription, 1910)

 

As coincidences go, The Firebird by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) abounds in them. Despite being considered the most outwardly ‘Russian’ of his major works, it came out of a cultural tradition which had largely ignored ballet since the death of Tchaikovsky, created for a non-Russian audience in a country, France, whose ballet tradition was a potent if waning one.

 

The ballet’s genesis goes back to 1909, when Ballets russes impresario Sergey Dyagilev, mindful of financial disaster after his first Russian season in Paris, decided to concentrate on ballet rather than opera productions, thereby cutting costs in the process. That the ballets of this first season, all Classical stylisations, had been less well received than the ‘exotic’ Russian operas, compelled him, as did the prompting of his chief adviser Alexandre Benois, to commission ballets in which Russian folk-lore was paramount. In this he was abetted by the reforming zeal of his choreographer Mikhail Fokin, who adapted The Firebird scenario from two different Russian folk-tales, with a number of recent additions. The result was the perfect ‘synthetic’ Russian folk-tale, but the problem remained of who was to provide the musical realisation.

 

Working, in his own order of preference, through the composers who had arranged Chopin numbers for his 1909 ballet Les Sylphides, Dyagilev first approached Nikolay Tcherepnin, whose ballet score for Le pavillon d’Armide had enjoyed a modest success in the first Ballets russes season. Tcherepnin had actually begun composing the ballet, when a disagreement with Fokin caused him to abandon work. Approach was then made to Anatoly Lyadov, who considered but rejected the proposal, as did the now obscure Nikolay Sokolov. Stravinsky was very much a ‘last resort’ for the impresario, having been called in at short notice to work on Les Sylphides after Dyagilev had been impressed by the St Petersburg première of his Scherzo fantastique in January 1909 (not Fireworks, first performed a year later, as is often stated). Begun in November and first given at the Paris Opéra on 25th June 1910, the success of The Firebird was instantaneous and absolute, assuring Stravinsky’s future as a composer.

 

That Dyagilev and Stravinsky were, in effect, continuing the tradition of Russian opera through the medium of ballet is evident in the combination of a folk-song-derived idiom for the human characters with a harmonically ‘exotic’ one for the supernatural figures. In this respect, The Firebird takes its place in a lineage going back to Stravinsky’s teacher Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and beyond him to the ‘father’ of Russian music Mikhail Glinka, notably his 1842 opera Ruslan and Lyudmila. The influence of Alexander Scriabin, however, whose piano sonatas and symphonic works The Divine Poem and The Poem of Ecstasy were then the latest thing in Russian musical culture, is also apparent, making The Firebird a judicious amalgam of Russian music past and present.

 

The ballet is divided into an Introduction and two Tableaux, the second being essentially a coda to the whole work. The Introduction sets the scene in mysterious and suspenseful terms, opening out into a depiction of the evil sorcerer Kastchei’s magic garden. The aura of calm is disturbed with the appearance of the Firebird, pursued by Prince Ivan-Tsarevich. The Firebird displays its fantastic plumage in a skittering and virtuosic dance, before being captured by Ivan. A lengthy supplication ensues, the Firebird winning its freedom in exchange for a feather, which, it informs Ivan, will act as a signal should the Prince find himself in dire need. It also tells him of thirteen princesses held captive in Kaschei’s domain, and these Ivan determines to set free. As the Firebird departs, the princesses emerge slowly and uncertainly into the magic garden. In a lively Scherzo, they play a game with the golden apples, interrupted by the sudden appearance of Ivan. He wins the trust of the most beautiful of the princesses, who proceed to dance a wistful Khorovod (round dance), employing the folk-tune In the Garden from Rimsky’s 1877 collection One Hundred Russian Folk Songs.

 

The sound of daybreak, and the princesses flee the garden into Kastchei’s palace. Ivan follows them, only to be confronted, at the sound of a magic carillon, and captured by the sorcerer’s guardian monsters. Kastchei the Immortal now enters, questioning Ivan and, despite the intercession of the princesses, deciding his fate. Waving the magic feather in the air, Ivan summons the Firebird, who arrives to cast a spell over Kastchei’s retinue, their increasingly animated dance leading to the Infernal Dance of all Kastchei’s subjects. This is cut short at a peak of excitement, the Firebird putting the subjects to sleep in a soulful Berceuse. Kastchei wakes up, only to find that the Firebird has shown Ivan the casket which contains the egg that is the sorcerer’s heart. Ivan duly smashes it, killing Kastchei and plunging the whole of his domain into darkness. The brief second Tableau depicts the disappearance of the palace, dissolution of Kastchei’s enchantments,

re-animation of the petrified knights and, to the sound of bells, the reunion of Ivan and his favourite princess in an Apotheosis of general rejoicing.

 

Despite the rapid subsequent development of Stravinsky’s musical idiom, The Firebird was to remain his most popular work during his lifetime. He prepared three concert suites from the score, in 1911, 1919 and 1945, as well as a transcription for solo piano in 1910. It became the only one of his pre-war ballets to be so arranged as, after World War One, the possibilities of the Pleyel player-piano, pianola and Duo-Art piano-roll led him to transcribe them for these systems, The Firebird appearing on all three during 1926 and 1927. As a reduction of his first major score, then, the present transcription retains a unique - and uniquely human - interest.

 

Richard Whitehouse


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