About this Recording
8.554060 - STRAVINSKY: Firebird (The) / The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps)
The Firebird (L'oiseau de feu) (Suite No. 2, 1919)

Igor Stravinsky was the son of a distinguished bass soloist at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, creator of important rôles in new operas by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was born, the third of four sons, at Oranienbaum on the Gulf of Finland in the summer of 1882. In childhood his ability in music did not seem exceptional, but he was able to study music privately with Rimsky-Korsakov, who became a particularly important influence after the death of the composer's imperious father in 1902. He completed a degree in law in 1905, married in the following year and increasingly devoted himself to music. His first significant success came when the impresario Dyagilev, a distant relative on his mother's side of the family, commissioned from him the ballet The Firebird, first performed in Paris in 1910. This was followed by the very Russian Petrushka in 1911 for the Dyagilev Ballets Russes, with which he was now closely associated, leading in 1913 to the notorious first performance of The Rite of Spring, first staged, like the preceding ballets, in Paris. Although collaboration with Dyagilev was limited during the war, when Stravinsky lived principally in Switzerland, it was resumed with the ballet Pulcinella, based on music attributed to Pergolesi, and marking Stravinsky's association with neo-classicism. The end of the association with Dyagilev was marked by what the impresario considered a macabre present, the Cocteau collaboration Oedipus Rex.

Stravinsky has been compared to his near contemporary Picasso, the painter who provided décor for Pulcinella and who through along career was to show mastery of a number of contrasting styles. Stravinsky's earlier music was essentially Russian in inspiration, followed by a style of composition derived largely from the eighteenth century, interspersed with musical excursions in other directions. His so-called neo-classicism coincided with the beginning of a career that was now international. The initial enthusiasm for the Russian revolution of 1917 that had led even Dyagilev to replace crown and sceptre in The Firebird with a red flag, was soon succeeded by distaste for the new régime and the decision not to return to Russia.

In 1939, with war imminent in Europe, Stravinsky moved to the United States, where he had already enjoyed considerable success. The death of his first wife allowed him to marry a woman with whom he had enjoyed a long earlier association and the couple settled in Hollywood, where the climate seemed congenial. Income from his compositions was at last safeguarded by his association with Boosey and Hawkes in 1945, the year of his naturalisation as an American citizen. The year 1951 saw the completion and first performance of the English opera The Rake's Progress, based on Hogarth engravings with a libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman, a work that came at the final height of the composer's neo-classicism. The last period of his life brought a change to serialism, the technique of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg, a fellow-exile in California, with whom he had never chosen to associate. In 1962 he made a triumphant return to Russia for a series of concerts in celebration of his 80th birthday. Among his final compositions are the Requiem Canticles of 1965-6 which follow his Requiem Introitus for the death of the poet T.S. Eliot, but prefigure his own death, which took place in New York in April, 1971. He was buried in the cemetery on the island of San Michele in Venice, his grave near that of Dyagilev, whose percipience had launched his career sixty years before.

The Rite of Spring, with choreography by Nijinsky was first staged at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris in May, 1913. The work had already caused considerable trouble in Dyagilev's ballet company. Nijinsky, the principal male dancer, in 1912 began to replace Fokin as choreographer, and with The Rite of Spring he tackled a formidable task, to provide a new kind of dance for a plot of primitive symbolism and energy, coupled with music of a very new kind. Stravinsky alleged a degree of musical incompetence in Nijinsky, who needed, he once claimed, to be taught the rudiments of the subject. Nevertheless the dancer was able to match the music with something equally original and startling. Neither music nor choreography proved in any way acceptable to the general public on the occasion of the first performance, although all had gone well enough in a preview before an invited audience of cognoscenti. At the first public performance there was an uproar, as members of the audience took sides for or against the piece. In spite of deafening and violent objections from many, the dancers and musicians continued to the end, although the music was inaudible. The result was, at least, a succès de scandale. In later years the music of the ballet was to exercise a strong influence over the course of twentieth century music, although Nijinsky's original choreography proved less durable.

Drawing on pagan Russia as its source of inspiration, The Rite of Spring opens with the Adoration of the Earth, the introduction to which is marked by the evocative bassoon solo with which it starts and finishes, leading without a break to the forceful rhythm of the Augurs of Spring, Dances of the Young Girls (‘Les augures printaniers: Danses des adolescentes’). The Ritual of Abduction (‘Jeu du rapt’) follows, with two groups of girls, dressed in red, pursued in a simulated ritual of abduction, by the young men. The Spring Rounds (‘Rondes printanières’) are introduced by trills on flutes, with a simple Russian clarinet melody, the dancers moving in circles. Now the Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes begins (‘Jeux des cités rivales’), interrupted by the Procession of the Sage (‘Cortège du sage’), as the tribal elders lead in their wise old high priest. He lies prone on the ground, in adoration of the earth (Adoration de la terre), after which the people celebrate with the Dance of the Earth (‘Danse de la terre’).

The second part of The Rite of Spring is The Sacrifice (‘Le sacrifice’). The mysterious introduction evokes a twilight scene, desolate, and yet inhabited by strange and primitive creatures. A dark hill-top is marked by sacred stones and totems. From the Mystic Circles of Young Girls (‘Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes’) one will be chosen as sacrificial victim, as they circle in rhythmic motion, watched by the tribal elders. Once the victim is chosen, lost in an ecstatic trance, her rôle is glorified in The Glorification of the Chosen One (‘Glorification de l'élue’), a dance of fierce asymmetrical rhythms. Fanfares herald the Evocation of the Ancestors (‘Evocation des ancêtres’), and the elders, wearing animal-skins, celebrate the Ritual Action of the Ancestors (‘Action rituelle des ancêtres’), moving forward to the stark and exotic rhythms of the final Sacrificial Dance (‘Danse sacrale’), as the victim joins in a ritual that must end in her own death.

The ballet The Firebird (‘L'oiseau de feu’) was devised for Dyagilev by Fokin. Music was originally commissioned from Lyadov, but delay on his part led to an invitation to Stravinsky, who had already scored for Dyagilev two movements of Les Sylphides for the 1909 Paris season. Décor was by Golovin, with costumes for the Firebird, danced by Karsavina, and for the Tsarevna by Bakst. Stravinsky started the music in November 1909 and completed it in orchestral score by May, 1910, in time for its first staging at the Paris Opéra on 25th June. He later arranged three concert suites from the ballet. The second of these, written in 1919, uses a smaller orchestra than the extravagant original ballet score.

Prince Ivan captures the exotic Firebird in the magic garden of the ogre Kashchey. He releases her when she gives him one of her feathers, to be used to summon her help in moments of danger. Ivan falls in love with the beautiful Tsarevna, one of thirteen princesses held prisoner by Kashchey, whom Prince Ivan finally defeats with the help of the Firebird. In the second Suite the first dance of the Firebird is followed by the dance of the Princesses, based on Russian folk-songs. The dance of the ogre Kashchey and his subjects leads in the ballet, to the Firebird Lullaby, and the Suite ends with the rejoicing of the Finale, when the Prince and his Princess are united.

Close the window