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It’s intriguing to speculate how the history of music in the last century would have been altered if the extraordinary ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev had not decided to gamble on the young, relatively unknown Stravinsky. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes – which the émigré Russian had established in Paris – was just starting to take the West by storm, and Diaghilev wanted a splendid new production for the climax of its season in 1910. His initial plans for better-known composers fell through, so Diaghilev, on a hunch, gave the commission to Stravinsky, then in his late 20s. 

Stravinsky was handed a scenario (devised in part by Fokine, the show’s choreographer) that drew on old Russian folklore. The Firebird tells of the downfall of a powerful, ogre-like figure of evil, Kastchei the Deathless, through the intervention of a beautiful rare bird – the enchanting character of the title. The miraculous Firebird is so called on account of her beautiful feathers, which glitter and flicker like flames. Kastchei is in the habit of seizing pretty young princesses as captives while turning the knights who arrive to rescue them into stone. Crown Prince Ivan, the protagonist, enlists the Firebird’s help to destroy Kastchei and free his victims. 

You can readily hear how Stravinsky’s own imagination must have caught fire (he even set aside his work on a bird of a different feather – the fairy-tale opera The Nightingale – to take up Diaghilev’s invitation). The Firebird’s score blends the orchestral wizardry Stravinsky had learned as a student of Rimsky-Korsakov with the vitality of Russian folk music to yield a dazzling, evocative atmosphere. 

The Firebird’s musical language shifts between exotic, chromatic gestures to illustrate the supernatural dimension (including a powerful non-Western scale that would later feature in The Rite of Spring’s harmonic vocabulary) and the sing-song simplicity of folk song for the mortals. The suite opens with a spooky conjuring, low in the strings, of Kastchei’s magical realm. In his illusory garden, Prince Ivan encounters the Firebird, which is depicted with opulent colors and radiant trills. A calmly pastoral section follows, featuring Stravinsky’s already characteristically imaginative scoring for woodwinds. Prince Ivan observes the princesses who have been captured by Kastchei performing their ritual Khorovod, or round dance, and falls in love with the one destined to be his bride. 

To protect Ivan, the Firebird casts a spell over Kastchei and his monstrous aides. Whipped into motion by Stravinsky’s frenetic rhythms, they are compelled to dance themselves to exhaustion in a savage “Infernal Dance.” Their paroxysms subside, while a serene lullaby (“Berceuse”) lulls the hypnotized Kastchei to sleep, its lazy tune first given by the bassoon. Ivan is instructed to destroy the giant egg containing the ogre’s soul, and Kastchei’s power vanishes. A solo horn, intoning the score’s most-famous folk tune, announces the joyful arrival of sunlight. Together with Ivan and his betrothed, the rescued captives celebrate with music that swells and rings out in glorious triumph. — Thomas May