Review Summary: Stravinsky’s major breakthrough workL'Oiseau de feu
was a commissioned work by Sergei Pavlovich Djagilev for the Ballets Russes, with which was to be built on the success achieved in 1909 by the company in Paris. Anatoly Lyadov was originally intended for the composition, but since he hesitated with a commitment, Djagilev handed the order to then largely unknown Igor Stravinsky in December 1909. The scenic plot, the libretto, was created by Michel Fokine, one of the most important dancers and choreographers of the Ballets Russes. The combination of Russian folktale tradition with spectacular stage appearances, such as the shiny firebird, the miracle tree, the giant egg and double-headed monsters, has had a great effect on the Paris public, when first performed at the Opéra de Paris on 25 June 1910. Before getting into this ballet, it's important to note that Stravinsky later made several versions of the score for concert performances: 1911 Suite; 1919 Suite; and 1945 Ballet Suite.
The original 50-minute ballet score of 1910 was written for a very large orchestra including quadruple woodwind, three harps and a piano. Divided in two Tableaux
, The Firebird
ballet, arguably Stravinsky’s first mature work, contains so many of the techniques and characteristics we ascribe to the sound that is Stravinsky. In this composition, the 27-year-old Stravinsky tried to arrogantly revolt against his old teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
. However, Stravinsky used several ideas from works by Rimsky-Korsakov in his score. Koschei's "Infernal Dance" borrows the highly chromatic scale Rimsky-Korsakov created for the character Chernobog in his opera Mlada
. Furthermore, he used leitmotifs, more specifically major and minor thirds, within a tritone. One of Stravinsky’s traits that often appears is how he uses tritones to represent evil magic, and more simple harmony and chord progressions to show good magic. This could represent a glimpse of the Firebird. Another one of Stravinsky’s traits is that he works with sound, this section would be much easier for the string player to play across the strings, however to achieve the exact magical effect he wants it. This use of sound is also heard when the violins play spiccato, another very specific sound. The mood becomes unearthly once again this could represent the Firebird's magic disappearing.
The dramatic finale is a good example of the basic ideas of musical theory. In particular, the multi-resolution principle and hierarchical structure of time-frequency elements are prominent in the passage. It can also be found the characteristic Stravinskian organization of the sound into pulsation strata. It is also interesting that these strata are more clearly heard, if one pays attention to the arc of repetition of the main theme at increasing pitches, this very long arc is a repetition over a longer time-scale of the smaller arcs that form the string background between the glissandos. Stravinsky repeats the main theme many times over multiple time scales, that instead of glissandos being used to separate strata, Stravinsky introduces powerful drum strikings, and there are metaphors to flying birds.
All in all, L'Oiseau de feu
is one of the most astounding pieces of music of the 20th century and is considered a pioneering work. For Igor Stravinsky, it was a major breakthrough both with the public and with the critics, achieving success and fame. The ballet's success also secured Stravinsky's position as Diaghilev's star composer, and there were immediate talks of a sequel, leading to the composition of Petrushka
and Le Sacre du printemps
. The work of Stravinsky exerted great influence in music, going beyond the limits of classical music. Throughout its career, the progressive rock group Yes
has opened nearly every live performance with excerpts from the Firebird suite and the song "Gates of Delirium" is highly influenced by Stravinsky's pioneering musical ideas.