Stravinsky was a young, virtually unknown composer when Diaghilev recruited him to create a work for the Ballets Russes. The Firebird was Stravinsky’s first major success. Its Russian fantasy-like story tells of Prince Ivan, who befriends the Firebird and later summons the magical creature to aid him in defeating the evil magician Kastchei and his fiendish monsters, the firebird is both a blessing and a curse to its captor. Contrary to the premiere of ‘Le Sacre…’ three years later in 1913, when The Firebird was first performed on 25 June 1910, the critics were enthusiastic.
Cast in two scenes and having 22 dance numbers, the ballet opens with the “Introduction,” which is dominated by an ominous, searching ostinato, initially heard in the bass strings. The mood remains dark and mysterious in the ensuing “Kastchei’s Enchanted Garden,” but things brighten in the glittering instrumentation that depicts the appearance of the Firebird and in the “Dance of the Firebird,” where you can almost see the creature flit and flutter. This music corresponds to the second movement in the 1919 Suite No. 2, the most popular of the three the composer extracted from the ballet.
After the Firebird’s capture, the music turns dark and fills with yearning as the creature desperately pleads to Prince Ivan for its release, which he grants, thus gaining its favour. The music in the next four numbers deals with the enchanted princesses and is light and playful in the first two, reflective and sentimental in the latter pair.
“Daybreak” is vigorous and colourful, but conveys an ominous sense, a sense that continues when the Prince enters Kastchei’s palace. The next several numbers deal with Kastchei and his retinue of monsters, and with the capture of the Prince. In these the music becomes threatening and dark, but without ever losing its fantasy-like character.
The music depicting the Firebird’s reappearance to save the Prince again features a colourful, busy character. The dance of Kastchei’s court and the famous Infernal dance follow, the latter a grotesque, rhythmic piece that many listeners will recognise as comprising the seventh movement of the Suite No. 2.
“The Lullaby” follows, featuring an exotic, lonely theme on bassoon. This section serves as the source music for the eighth movement. The brief “Kastchei Awakens” precedes the most famous music in the ballet — “Kastchei’s Death” — which also comprises the Suite No. 2’s finale. It features a soaring, stately melody — probably the most familiar theme in any Stravinsky work — that grows grander and louder as it proceeds, crowning the ballet with an absolute sense of triumph.
00:00 – Introduction 02:37 – Kashchei’s magic garden 04:23 – Appearance of the Firebird, pursued by Ivan-Tsarevich 06:48 – Dance of the Firebird 08:11 – Ivan-Tsarevich captures the Firebird 09:03 – The Firebird entreats – Appearance of the thirteen enchanted princesses 17:17 – the Princesses’ game with the golden apples 19:39 – Sudden appearance of Ivan-Tsarevich 21:20 – The princesses’ Khorovod (Round Dance) 25:02 – Daybreak – Ivan-Tsarevich enters Kashchei’s palace 26:28 – Magic carillion, Appearance of Kashchei’s guardian monsters and the capture of Ivan-Tsarevich – Intercession of the princesses – Appearance of the Firebird 32:15 – dance of Kashchei’s retinue, under the Firebird’s spell 33:00 – Infernal dance of all Kashchei’s subjects 37:42 – Lullaby (The Firebird) – Kashchei wakes up – Death of Kashchei – Deep Shadows 42:59 – Dissapearance of the palace and dissolution of Kashchei’s enchantments; animation of the petrified knights; general rejoicing