In 1910, Stravinsky premiered The Firebird ballet with the Ballet Russe, and it became an international success. The new collaboration between Sergei Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and the brilliant dancer Nijinsky brought together what must be considered the most extraordinary minds in ballet history.
Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky was born in 1882 in Russia, became a French citizen by 1934, and then a naturalized American in 1945. He died in New York in 1971. His early musical training was inconsequential (though his father was a respected Russian Basso) and thus he studied law. It was not until he joined with the great Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov that Stravinsky’s musical talents became ignited. Impresario Sergei Diaghilev heard Stravinsky’s music in 1908, and with continued encouragement Stravinsky wrote his first full length orchestral work, The Firebird, which made him famous and provided the genesis for two more ballets, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring.
History recalls these first seasons of remarkable performances of the Ballet Russe as “Everything that could strike the imagination, intoxicate, enchant, and win one over seemed to have been assembled on that stage …”.
Stravinsky was asked to write the music to this folk tale just months before its premiere. Previously it had been handed to the Russian composer Liadov (one of the Mighty Handful of Russian composers), but he procrastinated. Thus 27 year-old Stravinsky, unknown outside of Russia, was asked. His Firebird is considered one of his masterpieces.
The Firebird illustrates a popular Russian folk tale, summarized below:
(Introduction) The czar’s son, Prince Ivan, has an unexpected meeting with “a fabulous bird with plumage of fire” during a hunting excursion. In exchange for not being hunted down by Ivan, the fabulous Firebird bargains her freedom by giving Ivan a magic feather (The Firebird and Her Dance). Later, Ivan chances upon an enchanted castle with a courtyard full of lovely maidens (Round Dance of the Princesses). They warn Ivan of the evil Kastchei in the castle who, for his own amusement, turns travelers into stone. Ivan, undaunted, enters the castle, and is faced by the evil Kastchei. The magic feather shields him from harm, and the Firebird appears, sending Kastchei and his ogres into a mad dance (Infernal Dance of King Kastchei). The evil ones are left exhausted and eventually destroyed by the Firebird (Berceuse). Kastchei’s victims are freed from their stone spells, and Ivan wins the hand of a lovely Princess (Finale)