In the years leading up to Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" the most seminal work which certainly provided the opportunity and impetus for the work was "the Firebird Suite". Commissioned by the impresario of french ballet Serge Diaghilev the "Firebird" was the first of three great Stravinky's ballets that comprise a distinctive stylistic period in his career. The three works "The Firebird Suite, "The Rite of Spring", and "Petrushka" are distinctive in their dramatic use of rhythms, polychords, and use of colorful orchestration. Despite their innovation some scholars believe these early works to be overly formulaic and contrived.
"The spectacular success of this first of a long line of Diaghilev ballet commissions barely disguises now the fact that the music was both derivative and to some extent formulaic. It was true that, at orchestral rehearsals, Stravinsky had to explain the music to the bewildered players, and that, at the first rehearsal, the sonorities were so unexpected that dancers missed their entrances." (Stephen Walsh)
Diaghilev had first heard Stravinsky's Feu d'artifice, op. 4 Fireworks in 1908. Fireworks was a wedding gift to his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov's daughter and compared to the forth coming ballets was quite tonal. Nicholas Cherepnine and A.K. Liadov (Diaghilev's former proffessor) were early contenders for the task of producing the score for The Firebird. (White, Eric p.145) When Diaghilev found his first choice Liadov was too busy to produce the score in time for the ballet's production he was no doubt impressed enough with the young composer to think of Stravinsky.(White, Eric p.145)
Here is a recording of Feu d'artifice, op. 4 "Fireworks" conducted by Stravinsky himself.
The Firebirds premiere in 1910 was a great success putting Igor (a twenty something) in the limelight of Paris.
"Overnight Stravinsky became a household name. Socially he was lionized. He was befriended by the Parisian great and good, by Diaghilev's aristocratic backers, by composers like Debussy, Ravel and Satie, by writers like Claudel, Proust, Gide and D'Annunzio, and even by the venerable Sarah Bernhardt." (Stephen Walsh)
The story of the Firebird ballet " centers on the journey of its hero, Prince Ivan. Ivan enters the magical realm of Kashchei the Immortal; all of the magical objects and creatures of Kashchei are herein represented by a chromatic descending motif, usually in the strings. While wandering in the gardens, he sees and chases the Firebird. The Firebird, once caught by Ivan, begs for its life and ultimately agrees to assist Ivan in exchange for eventual freedom." (Wikipedia)
In the Nouvelle Revue Française, Henri Ghéon called The Firebird the most exquisite marvel of equilibrium we have ever imagined between sounds, movements and forms’. (Stephen Walsh)
Listen to Stravinsky Conduct "The Firebird Suite"
The next work in this series of ballets was Petrushka. In his book Chronicle Stravinsky recounts that he wanted to compose"an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part " Stravinsky again uses elements of chromaticism to indicate the supernatural and as a visual allegory to the piano he shifts from chords on the white notes to the black notes creating a bi tonal effect. Petroushka echos the Russian puppet theater and tells the story of a puppet come to life. Stravinsky's score mirrors the action and mood on stage in a dynamic and imaginative way. For example in the first scene set at a country fair the Stavinsky borrows folk material and an accordion motif and combines them with overlapping sonorities to imitate the bustle of a crowd.(Eric white p.161)
watch Petrushka, Scene II - Petrushka's Room
Stravinsky's compositional method for the Diaghilev ballets was to reorganized folk tunes using chromatic elements and somewhat serialist techniques of inversion, , retrograde, augmentation, and diminution. In the Firebird Stravinsky uses diatonic melodies to signify the human element while he implements chromaticism to inhabit the supernatural. This idea he drew form Rimsky-Koraskov's "the Golden Cockerel"(Eric White p.144) The three works are also know for their intense syncopation and colorfull orchestration. Stravinsky describes the orchestras for which he was writing as "wastefully large" but he conceded that they gave him every effect and register he could want.(Eric whitep.188)These works are unified by this method and by Stravinsky's preoccupation with bi tonality (Eric White p. 161)
After Le Sacre was complete Stravinsky set about completeing and publishing his first opera the Nightingale.
. "Stravinsky, Igor." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 8 Jun. 2009 <http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/52818pg3>.
"The Firebird." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Jun 2009, 10:31 UTC. 3 Jun 2009
White, Eric W. Stravinsky The Composer and his Works. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. p.144