Stravinsky: The Firebird Suite (1919 Version)

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 Version) on Tuesday, October 8th at 7:30PM at the Athenaeum Theatre.

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Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
The Firebird Suite (1919 Version)

It is with some fortune that Stravinsky was able to compose The Firebird, as it was not evident from his early life that he would become a composer – or even make a living in the field of music. Raised in a musical family in Saint Petersburg, Imperial Russia, Stravinsky began piano lessons at the age of 10. He was a competent, though not gifted, pianist. However, in 1899, 17-year-old Stravinsky decided that he wanted to be a composer. His father, Fyodor Stravinsky (1843 – 1902), was one of the outstanding operatic bass baritones of his time, and he thought himself capable of recognizing musical talent. Fyodor professed to see no such worthy talent in his son. Young Igor was informed that he would study law and go on to a career in the Russian civil service. So it was that in 1901 Stravinsky enrolled at the Saint Petersburg Imperial University to study law.

Coincidently, among his classmates was Vladimir Rimsky-Korsakov, the youngest son of the great Russian nationalist composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908). With Vladimir’s encouragement, Stravinsky sucked up his courage and arranged an audience with the czar of Russian music to obtain an appraisal of his musical composition abilities. Stravinsky described what happened: “I told him of my ambition to become a composer and asked his advice. He asked me to play some of my first attempts. Alas! The way he received them was far from what I had hoped. He told me that before anything else, I must continue my studies in harmony and counterpoint with one or another of his pupils in order to acquire complete mastery in the schooling of craftsmanship. But at the same time he strongly advised me not to enter the conservatory. As I was twenty, he feared that I might find myself backward in comparison with my contemporaries, and that this might discourage me. He further considered it necessary that my work should be systematically supervised, and that that could only be achieved by private lessons. He finished by adding that I could always go to him for advice, and that he was quite willing to take me in hand once I had acquired the necessary foundation.” In fact, what Rimsky-Korsakov told Stravinsky was: You’re too old, and you’re not good enough to get into the Conservatory, nor are you worthy of my time. If you study with one of my students, maybe, one day, you will be good enough to study with me. Meanwhile, you’re a friend of my son, and the son of the great Fyodor Stravinsky, so I’ll be happy to offer you my advice should you seek it out. 

For all intents and purposes, Stravinsky did not push composition any further. Yet domestic circumstances conspired in his favor, as his father died just four months after his meeting with Rimsky-Korsakov. With this sad event, Stravinsky became unshackled from paternal influence and revisited his dream of becoming a composer – following Rimsky-Korsakov’s previous advice to the letter. He studied with several of Rimsky-Korsakov’s students from 1902 to 1905. At the same time, Stravinsky injected himself into the concert world in which Rimsky-Korsakov lived. He would attend rehearsals, concerts, and evening musicals with the old man himself. True to his word, Rimsky-Korsakov took Stravinsky on as a private student in 1905. They worked together for three years, during which Stravinsky continued his astonishingly rapid development as a composer. When Rimsky-Korsakov died on June 8, 1908, Stravinsky was devastated. But, as sometime happens when a father figure (such as Stravinsky’s own biological father) is no longer around to express disapproval, Stravinsky actually found himself liberated by Rimsky-Korsakov’s death. He was now free to be the composer he wanted to be. 

Stravinsky began to experiment with a style of music that did not fit the traditional, semi-predictable mold of melodic and harmonic development. His newer works, written after Rimsky-Korsakov’s death, demand an entirely new way of listening to music from the audience. There is a requirement of auditory finesse, with no shortage of mental agility, to understand what is being said in the music. As strong as this statement is, these words are not the invention of the program annotator. Rather, they reflect the collective voice of musicologists and composers for more than a century. Stravinsky – almost single-handedly – changed the way we think of Western music, especially with his Rite of Spring. Simply put, what Beethoven was to the 19th century, so Igor Stravinsky was to the 20th: a massively influential composer and a game changer, who created a style of writing that no later composer could avoid.

Soon after Rimsky-Korsakov’s death, Stravinsky left Russia, settling first in Paris, then Switzerland, and ultimately in the United States. Although for all practical purposes he could be viewed as a citizen of the world, much of the spirit and character of his native Russia remained with him throughout his long and fruitful life. This spirit – which consisted partly of a deep knowledge of Russian folklore, partly of a large repertoire of folk tunes that he used liberally in his scores, and partly of his sheer adventurousness –permeated his music. All these elements stamped Stravinsky’s music with a unique character that allows us to blindly identify his work almost immediately. 

Young Stravinsky’s veneration of Russian folklore was manifested early on, in the loving care with which he set to music the fairy-tale of The Firebird in 1909. Written on commission from the great dance impresario Sergei Diaghilev (1872 – 1929), The Firebird was composed for his second season of ballet in Paris. Its enormous success at the Paris Opéra premiere in June 1910 not only established Diaghilev as the leader of Paris’ avant-garde, it also established Stravinsky as the most promising of Europe’s young generation of composers. Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, also both composed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, followed in rapid succession. The first three ballets made his name: Igor Stravinsky, aged 27, had arrived. In the early 1960s, he noted that The Firebird quickly became a “mainstay” of his life as a conductor: “I made my conducting debut with it (the complete ballet) in 1915 at a Red Cross benefit in Paris, and since then I have conducted it nearly a thousand times.”

The tale of The Firebird is simple, even elemental. An enchanted bird, the Firebird, guides Crown Prince Ivan, who is lost in the woods, to the castle of Kastcheï the Immortal. The evil Kastcheï, who holds 13 princesses captive, would ordinarily turn Ivan to stone, as he has all the other knights who have attempted to free the princesses. But Ivan is more valiant than those who preceded him, and he has a magic bird on his side, which apparently helps a great deal. Aided by the Firebird, who tells him the secret of Kastcheï’s immorality – that his soul is in the form of an egg kept in a casket, which is promptly crushed – the Prince defeats the evil forces. The magic castle then vanishes into thin air, and all the knights come back to life to comfort the freed princesses. Ivan makes away with the most beautiful princess, of course, who becomes his bride as the dark woods fill with light and all dance to the familiar finale-music. 

After the ballet’s premiere, Stravinsky prepared a five-movement concert suite. In 1919, he revised this suite, omitting two movements and adding the Berceuse and Finale. The version you hear tonight has pleased audiences for a century. The music encompasses many rhythmic tunes and wonderful folklore. Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) was a fan of the work, saying, "Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia!"

Program Notes by Luke Smith.

Lakeview Orchestra will perform Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 Version) on October 8th, 2019: Arrive in Style >>>

Luke Smith