Kalpana Kalpana (Editor)

The Firebird

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Michel Fokine

Based on
Russian folk tales

Igor Stravinsky

Original ballet company
Ballets Russes

The Firebird

25 June 1910 Paris Opera

The Firebird Prince Ivan Tsarevich Koschei, the Immortal The Beautiful Tsarevna

The Firebird (French: L'Oiseau de feu; Russian: Жар-птица, Zhar-ptitsa) is a ballet by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, written for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, with choreography by Michel Fokine. The scenario by Alexandre Benois and Fokine is based on Russian fairy tales of the magical glowing bird that can be both a blessing and a curse to its owner. At the premiere on 25 June 1910 in Paris, the work was an instant success with both audience and critics.


The ballet has historic significance not only as Stravinsky's breakthrough piece, but also as the beginning of the collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky that would also produce Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, Pulcinella and others.


Igor Stravinsky was the son of Fyodor Stravinsky, the principal bass at the Imperial Opera, St Petersburg, and Anna, née Kholodovskaya, a competent amateur singer and pianist from an old-established Russian family. Fyodor's association with many of the leading figures in Russian music, including Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Mussorgsky, meant that Igor grew up in an intensely musical home. In 1901 Stravinsky began to study law at St Petersburg University, while taking private lessons in harmony and counterpoint. Having impressed Rimsky-Korsakov with some of his early compositional efforts, Stravinsky worked under the guidance of the older composer. By the time of his mentor's death in 1908 Stravinsky had produced several works, among them a Piano Sonata in F minor (1903–04), a Symphony in E major (1907), which he catalogued as "Opus 1", and in 1908 a short orchestral piece, Feu d'artifice ("Fireworks").

In 1909 Feu d'artifice was performed at a concert in St Petersburg. Among those in the audience was the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who at that time was planning to introduce Russian music and art to western audiences. Like Stravinsky, Diaghilev had initially studied law, but had gravitated via journalism into the theatrical world. In 1907 he began his theatrical career by presenting five concerts in Paris; in the following year he introduced Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov. In 1909, still in Paris, he launched the Ballets Russes, initially with Borodin's Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. To present these works Diaghilev recruited the choreographer Michel Fokine, the designer Léon Bakst and the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Diaghilev's intention, however, was to produce new works in a distinctively 20th-century style, and he was looking for fresh compositional talent.

Genesis and premiere

The ballet was the first of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes productions to have an all-original score composed for it. Alexandre Benois wrote in 1910 that he had two years earlier suggested to Diaghilev the production of a Russian nationalist ballet, an idea all the more attractive given both the newly awakened French passion for Russian dance and also the ruinously expensive costs of staging opera. The inspiration of mixing the mythical Firebird with the unrelated Russian tale of Koschei the Deathless possibly came from a popular child's verse by Yakov Polonsky, "A Winter's Journey" (Zimniy put, 1844), which includes the lines:

Benois collaborated with the choreographer Michel Fokine, drawing from several books of Russian fairy tales including the collection of Alexander Afanasyev, to concoct a story involving the Firebird and the evil magician Koschei.

Diaghilev approached the Russian composer Anatoly Lyadov (1855–1914) to write the music. There is no evidence, however, despite the much-repeated story that Lyadov was slow to start composing the work, that he ever accepted the commission to begin with. There is evidence to suggest that Nikolai Tcherepnin had previously started composing music for the ballet—music which became The Enchanted Kingdom—but that Tcherepnin, for reasons unexplained, withdrew from the project after completing only one scene. Diaghilev eventually transferred the commission to the 28-year-old Stravinsky.

The ballet was premiered by the Ballets Russes in Paris on 25 June 1910, conducted by Gabriel Pierné. Even before the first performance, the company sensed a huge success in the making, and every performance of the ballet in that first production, as Karsavina recalled, met a "crescendo" of success. The critics were ecstatic, praising the ballet for what they saw as an ideal symbiosis between decor, choreography and music: "The old-gold vermiculation of the fantastic back-cloth seems to have been invented to a formula identical with that of the shimmering web of the orchestra" enthused Henri Ghéon in Nouvelle revue française (1910). The scenery was designed by Alexander Golovine and the costumes by Léon Bakst.

For Stravinsky, it was a major breakthrough both with the public and with the critics, Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi in particular hailing Stravinsky as the legitimate heir to The Mighty Handful. The Firebird'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 The Rite of Spring. "Mark him well—said Sergei Diaghilev to Tamara Karsavina, who was dancing the title role—he is a man on the eve of celebrity..."

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. The Khorovod, meanwhile, uses the same folk tune Rimsky-Korsakov presented in his Sinfonietta, Op. 31.

Subsequent ballet performances

The Firebird has been restaged by many choreographers, including George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins (co-choreographers), Graeme Murphy, Alexei Ratmansky, and Yuri Possokhov.

The ballet was revived in 1934 by Colonel Wassily de Basil's company, the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo, in a production staged in London, using the original decor and costumes from Diaghilev's company. The company subsequently performed the ballet in Australia, during the 1936–37 tour.

The work was staged by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet in 1949 with Maria Tallchief as the Firebird, with scenery and costumes by Marc Chagall, and was kept in the repertory until 1965. The ballet was restaged by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins in 1970 for the New York City Ballet with elaborated scenery by Chagall, and with new costumes by Karinska based on Chagall's for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival that introduced Gelsey Kirkland as the Firebird.

The Mariinsky Ballet performed the original choreography at Covent Garden in August 2011, as part of their Fokine retrospective.

The National Ballet of Canada created a version of the Firebird for television, occasionally rebroadcast, in which special effects were used to make it appear that the Firebird is in flight.

On 29 March 2012, the American Ballet Theatre premiered the ballet with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, starring Misty Copeland.

Plot summary

The ballet centers on the journey of its hero, Prince Ivan. While hunting in the forest, he strays into the magical realm of Koschei the Immortal, whose immortality is preserved by keeping his soul in a magic egg hidden in a casket. Ivan chases and captures the Firebird and is about to kill her; she begs for her life and he spares her. As a token of thanks she offers him an enchanted feather that he can use to summon her should he be in dire need.

Prince Ivan then meets thirteen princesses who are under the spell of Koschei and falls in love with one of them. The next day, Ivan confronts the magician and eventually they begin quarrelling. When Koschei sends his minions after Ivan, he summons the Firebird. She intervenes, bewitching the monsters and making them dance an elaborate, energetic dance (the "Infernal Dance"). The creatures and Koschei then fall into a deep sleep. While they sleep, the Firebird directs Ivan to a tree stump where the casket with the egg containing Koschei's soul is hidden. Ivan destroys the egg and with the spell broken, the magical creatures that Koschei held captive are freed and the palace disappears. All of the "real" beings, including the princesses, awaken and with one final hint of the Firebird's music (though in Fokine's choreography she makes no appearance in that final scene on-stage), celebrate their victory.

Order of numbers in the 1910 ballet score

The score calls for four flutes (third and fourth doubling first and second piccolos), three oboes, one English horn; 3 clarinets in A (3rd doubles clarinet in D), one bass clarinet in A, three bassoons (2nd doubles second contrabassoon), one contrabassoon; four horns in F, three trumpets in A, two trombones, one bass trombone, one tuba, three onstage trumpets, two onstage tenor Wagner tubas, two bass Wagner tubas; a percussion section with timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tambourine, tamtam, tubular bells, glockenspiel, xylophone; one piano, one celesta; three harps and strings.

The Firebird ballet suites

Besides the complete 50-minute ballet score of 1909–10 (written for a very large orchestra including quadruple woodwind and three harps, as well as a piano), there are three shorter suites arranged by the composer himself for concert performance which date from 1911, 1919 and 1945. The 1919 and 1945 suites are scored for smaller orchestras. While the 1919 suite remains the most well known and often played, the 1945 version contains the most music from the original ballet score (partly motivated by the need to secure copyright in a USA that did not recognize European agreements).

There is no consensus for the precise naming of either the different versions, or of the movements, or the numbering of the movements. Different recordings tend to follow different naming conventions. While this partly might be due to the English translation from the original French names, some recordings of the orchestral suites even avoid referring to the tale by just calling the movements by their tempo markings (i.e., Adagio, Allegro, etc.) or the name of the musical form (Scherzo, Rondo, etc.).

Many adaptations of The Firebird Suite for concert band, marching band and drum corps have been made throughout the years.

Order of movements in the 1911 Suite

"Concert suite for orchestra No. 1"

  1. Introduction – Kashchei's Enchanted Garden – Dance of the Firebird
  2. Supplication of the Firebird
  3. The Princesses’ Game with Apples
  4. The Princesses’ Khorovod (Rondo, round dance)
  5. Infernal Dance of all Kashchei's Subjects

Orchestration: essentially as per the original ballet—the score was printed from the same plates, with only the new endings for the movements being newly engraved.

Some recordings will list movement no. 1 as three movements.

In 1928, Stravinsky conducted a group of Parisian musicians in a recording of this suite for Columbia Records, which was released on a set of 12-inch 78-rpm discs.

The Kalmus orchestral score for this suite is dated "1910", while Luck's Music publishes this version as "1912".

The 2005 remastered edition on Sony with conductor Pierre Boulez calls it "Ballet suite for orchestra", while in 1991 Sony called it "Suite, 1910".

Order of movements in the 1919 Suite

"Concert suite for orchestra No. 2"

  1. Introduction—The Firebird and its dance—The Firebird's variation
  2. The Princesses’ Khorovod (Rondo, round dance)
  3. Infernal dance of King Kashchei
  4. Berceuse (Lullaby)
  5. Finale

Orchestration: 2 Flutes (2nd also Piccolo); 2 Oboes (2nd also English Horn for one measure); 2 Clarinets; 2 Bassoons; 4 Horns; 2 Trumpets; 3 Trombones; Tuba; Timpani; Bass Drum; Tambourine; Cymbals; Triangle; Xylophone; Harp; Pianoforte (also opt. Celesta); Strings.

Some recordings will list movement no. 1) as two or three movements. It is sometimes also referred to as a "Symphonic Suite".

Order of movements in the 1945 Suite

"Ballet suite for orchestra"

  1. Introduction—The Firebird and its dance—The Firebird's variation
  2. Pantomime I
  3. Pas de deux: Firebird and Ivan Tsarevich
  4. Pantomime II
  5. Scherzo: Dance of the Princesses
  6. Pantomime III
  7. The Princesses' Khorovod (Rondo, round dance)
  8. Infernal dance of King Kashchei
  9. Berceuse (Lullaby)
  10. Finale

Orchestration: 2 Flutes (2nd also Piccolo); 2 Oboes; 2 Clarinets; 2 Bassoons; 4 Horns; 2 Trumpets; 3 Trombones; Tuba; Timpani; Bass Drum; Snare Drum; Tambourine; Cymbals; Triangle; Xylophone; Harp; Pianoforte; Strings.

Once again, some recordings will list movement no. 1) as three movements or may refer to this as a "Symphonic Suite". Stravinsky recorded this suite in 1967, his last commercial recording for Columbia Records.


The Firebird is arranged by Isao Tomita for synthesizer.

The numbers The Princesses' Khorovod and The Infernal Dance of King Katscheï were used in Bruno Bozzetto's animated film Allegro Non Troppo. The segment visualizes a variant of the Adam and Eve story. However, in this version, both Adam and Eve refuse to eat the apple offered by the Serpent, who then swallows it himself. Falling asleep, he is immediately plunged into a nightmare where he is first tormented by fiery demons and then plagued by things that are supposed to corrupt mankind (sex, alcohol, money, material objects, drugs, violence); he also somehow grows arms and legs and is magicked into a suit and fedora. When he wakes up, he is still wearing the suit and hat; after telling Adam and Eve his dream in a fast-motion and incomprehensible fashion, he sheds the suit (losing his arms and legs but keeping the hat) and spits up the still-whole apple.

The chapter in the animated film Fantasia 2000 based on Stravinsky's piece uses an abridged version of the 1919 suite (mostly evidenced by a shortened Infernal Dance) to tell the story of the Spring Sprite and her companion, an elk. After a long winter, the Sprite is brought forth by the Elk and attempts to restore life to a forest but accidentally wakes the "Firebird" spirit of a nearby volcano. Angered, the Firebird proceeds to destroy the forest and seemingly the Sprite. She survives, but is initially despondent. With the Elk to comfort her, she quickly regains her confidence and restores the forest to its prior glory. The Fantasia 2000 Firebird chapter is considered an exercise in the theme of life-death-rebirth deities; the depiction of the Firebird in it as a violent, flaming volcanic spirit is not related to Stravinsky's original theme.

Saviour Pirotta and Catherine Hyde's picture book, Firebird, is based on the original stories that inspired the ballet. It was published by Templar in the UK and Candlewick Press in 2010 to celebrate the ballet's centenary. It won an Aesop Accolade in the US and was nominated for the Kate Greenaway Award in the UK. The paperback was published in 2014.

The ending section of the ballet is closely associated with the progressive rock band Yes, who regularly used it as their "walk-on" music in concert in the 1970s. It was used in the opening ceremony of Sochi 2014 during the Cauldron Lighting segment.

Complete ballet

Notable recordings of the complete ballet include:

Firebird Suite

  • Leopold Stokowski recorded The Firebird Suite eight times, more than any other conductor: with the Philadelphia Orchestra (acoustically) in 1924, and again (electrically) in 1927 and 1935; with the All-American Youth Orchestra in 1941 and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1942; with his own Symphony Orchestra in 1950; and in two stereo recordings, with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1957, and finally, at the age of 85, with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1967.
  • Leonard Bernstein recorded the suite with the New York Philharmonic for Columbia Masterworks (now Sony Masterworks) in 1957, and again with the Israel Philharmonic for Deutsche Grammophon in 1984. Bernstein's first version also includes Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade on the CD release. Bernstein's second recording of the piece is included on a CD-set entitled Bernstein Conducts Stravinsky.
  • Pierre Monteux conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra (released on Decca Records in 1972 as STS 15197; the disc also includes the complete Petrushka ballet).
  • Isao Tomita recorded his own synthesizer arrangement of The Firebird Suite on his 1976 album, Firebird.
  • Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, 1919 version recorded in 1975 and released on Deutsche Grammophon
  • Neeme Järvi conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, 1945 version recorded in 1988 and released on Chandos Records in 1989; also includes Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Dubinushka, Op. 62 and Lyadov's Baba-Yaga op. 56, The Enchanted Lake Op. 62 and Kilimora Op. 63.
  • Kazuhito Yamashita—arrangement for classical guitar (released on RCA Records in 1989; the disc also includes a classical guitar arrangement of Antonín Dvořák's Symphony No. 9).
  • Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra, 1919 version (released on Hungaroton in 1990 as HCD 31095, recorded in 1988; the disc also includes the complete Petrushka ballet, 1946–47 version).
  • George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (released on Epic Records as LC 3812 and BC 1149; the disc also includes William Walton's Symphony No. 2).
  • Robert Shaw conducting the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (released on Telarc as CD-80039); the disc also includes [some of the] Music from Prince Igor, by Alexander Borodin.
  • Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra (broadcast by the Radio Nederland Transcription Service on the Dutch Concert Rostrum, Program 8319; not commercially released; the program also includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Overture to The Marriage of Figaro (Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Jean Fournet) and Johannes Brahms's Variations on the Chorale St. Anthony, op. 56a (Concertgebouw Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf)).
  • Excerpts from The Firebird Suite

  • Berceuse: Lori Singer, solo-cello performance (included on the Short Cuts soundtrack)
  • Danse Infernale: Igor Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (released on Columbia Records as MS 7094; disc includes five other Stravinsky compositions)
  • Firebird Suite (1919 version—excerpt): James Levine and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Included on the Fantasia 2000 soundtrack album.
  • References

    The Firebird Wikipedia