The Firebird (L'Oiseau de feu) - version 1919


At the end of the summer of 1909, following a vacation spent at his wife’s estate in Ustilug, Stravinsky returned to St. Petersburg with the intention to continue his work on the composition of his opera The Nightingale. Unexpectedly, however, he received a telegram from Sergey Diaghilev. The famous impresario offered the young and still barely known composer to write the music to the Firebird ballet, which was scheduled for performance in the spring of 1910.  “Even though I felt daunted by the very fact to have to complete a commission within a specified deadline – at the time I didn’t have any idea what my capabilities were and I was afraid lest I be delayed – I accepted“, Stravinsky wrote in his book Chronicles of My Life. He goes on to say: “It was a very flattering proposal – to select me, of all the representatives of my generation, and to invite me to cooperate in a great artistic work, side by side with the men we were used to regard as masters in their field.”

Stravinsky received a finished libretto created by the prominent twenty-century choreographer Mikhail Fokin, who at the time worked at Daghilev’s troupe. The ballet-master reminisces: “There were no ballets derived from Russian life or Russian fairy-tale themes. We (Diaghilev, a group of artists and me) began to search for tales. The best literary adaptations of Russian tales had already been used in theatrical works (mainly as operas by Rimsky-Korsakov). All images created by folk fantasy had already been artistically reproduced. Only the image of the Firebird remained untouched, and the Firebird happens to be the most fantastic creation in folk tales, and at the same time best suited for impersonation in dance. But there was no fairy-tale that was totally suited to be recreated as a ballet. And I undertook to glean various folk tales and to compile a libretto based on them.”

The artists Benois, Golovin and Stelletsky, the poet Potyomykin and the expert in old-Russian literature Remizov were enlisted to work on the project. The plot made use of the tales of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf, about Kashchey the Deathless and the Beautiful Tsarevna. In addition, Fokin added to the libretto the nocturnal dances, produced in the St. Petersburg’s Mariinski Theatre in the spring of 1909. All story lines are just a pretext for evoking magical pictures of the enchanted kingdom and the image of the dazzlingly beautiful bird; from the very outset, the libretto is invested with the vividness and the picturesque contemplation, which set the mood of its inherent musical dramatism. What underlies the fairy tale is the desire to seize the wonderful moment and to take delight in it, and the ballet seems to be a medium best suited for this purpose. The image of the fabulous Firebird has become a symbol of absolute, unattainable beauty and provides an opportunity for this adoration.

The idea of commissioning the Firebird exactly from Stravinsky came to Diaghilev during a concert featuring one of the first works of the composer, Firework. Says Fokin: “This work was not a particular success with the audiences, but both Dyagilev and I were fascinated by its music. It had precisely what we needed for Firebird – its music blazed, shined, sparkled. That was just what I needed for the fiery figure in my ballet…” Stravinsky started the work on the ballet with elation, in close cooperation with Fokin. Dyagilev with his company was in Petersburg at the time, and the composer delivered the music to him piecemeal, with Fokin immediately producing the dance numbers. The ballet was completed in time and the company headed for Paris, where Stravinsky arrived following a short break from his intensive work. The premiere of Firebird took place on 25 June 1910 on the stage of the Grand Opera in Paris. It was attended by the entire high-life of Paris:  Marcel Proust, Jean Giraudoux, Paul Claudel, Morris Ravel, Claude Debussy, Florent Schmitt, Manuel de Falla. The performance was a colossal success Within a day, the totally unknown Russian composer had become a celebrity.

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