The Firebird was Stravinsky’s first ballet score and the first of his three groundbreaking pre-World War One ballets, followed by Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913). It was written for the second Ballets Russes Paris season and was the first company production based on an entirely original score. Stravinsky’s orchestral showpiece Fireworks (1908) had been performed in St Petersburg in 1909: the Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev was in the audience, and the rest is history, though Stravinsky’s first commission from Diaghilev was the arrangement of two Chopin piano pieces for Les Sylphides later that year. The ballet was mostly composed in St Petersburg between December 1909 and May 1910.
Stravinsky was not the first choice to write the score of The Firebird. Anatoly Lyadov was originally approached, though after much dithering – which was characteristic of him, as he was notoriously indolent and self-critical – he turned down the job and Stravinsky replaced him. The subject was a familiar one to Russians; Richard Taruskin notes that Mily Balakirev, self-appointed leader of The Five, was commissioned to write a Firebird opera in the 1860s. This project did not come to fruition and only one number, based on Georgian folksong, survives. Stephen Walsh writes in his magisterial Stravinsky: A Creative Spring: 'The legendary figure of the Firebird was already a kind of insignia for the modern style in Russia: gorgeous yet enigmatic, a thing of preternatural, elemental freedom, she personified the indifference of beauty to the desires and cares of mankind. In this she was the very symbol of art for art's sake.' This exoticism and modernity rooted in beauty appealed to Parisian audiences in search of new sensations.
The ballet is dedicated to Andrey Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky’s close friend and son of his former teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. His teacher had composed a one-act opera, Kashchei the Immortal, in 1902: though this tale is unrelated to the traditional Firebird legend, the Alexandre Benois and Mikhail Fokine scenario for Stravinsky’s ballet merges the two stories.
The Firebird premièred at the Opéra de Paris on 25 June 1910, with choreography by Fokine and costumes by Léon Bakst which are now immediately recognisable as classic Ballets Russes style. It was conducted by Gabriel Pierné, who is better remembered as a composer. This first performance was packed with aristocrats and artists: Stravinsky recalled that the theatre smelled strongly of perfume. His new work shared billing with the première of a much more traditional exotic dance suite, Les Orientales, featuring pre-existing music by various Russian and Scandinavian composers. Firebird was immediately successful and Stravinsky was thereafter a celebrity composer in Paris. Anna Pavlova was originally slated to dance the title role, but modern works did not appeal to her and another Ballets Russes star, Tamara Karsavina, was the eventual creator of the role.
The ‘fairy-tale ballet in two tableaux’, as it was described, is innovative in that it incorporates folk elements in both choreography and music. An introduction is followed by the 22 numbers of the first tableau; there is only one number in the second tableau, titled ‘Disappearance of Kashchei's Palace and Magical Creations, Return to Life of the Petrified Knights, General Rejoicing.’ Prince Ivan enters the kingdom of Kashchei, and sees the Firebird while wandering in a garden. He captures the bird: she promises Ivan whatever he wants in exchange for her freedom. Ivan falls in love with one of 13 princesses; we see them in a traditional Russian round dance (khorovod) throwing golden apples to each other – always a challenge for the dancers. Ivan asks Kashchei for the princess’s hand in marriage and Kashchei tries to cast a spell on Ivan and turn him to stone, but Ivan waves a feather from the Firebird in his face, which prompts the bird to fly to his aid. The Firebird tells Ivan that Kashchei’s soul is contained in an egg. Ivan destroys the giant egg, the spell is broken and the ‘real’ creatures are the only survivors. Ivan marries the princess in the final scene.
Written for a huge orchestra, the music launched the 28-year-old Stravinsky as one of the most exciting composers on the Paris scene. Debussy was at the première; he considered the ballet ‘not perfect but in many ways it is nevertheless very fine because music is not subservient to the dance’. He was, however, an unreserved admirer of Petrushka, and he played the piano duet version of The Rite of Spring with Stravinsky at the critic Louis Laloy’s home on 2 June 1912 – a year before the première. By 1915, Debussy had refined his opinion of Stravinsky, writing to his friend Robert Godet: ‘Stravinsky himself is leaning dangerously in the direction of Schoenberg, but nevertheless remains the most wonderful orchestral technician of our time’. This orchestral mastery is already apparent in Firebird, a luxuriant showpiece that epitomises the style, colour and excitement of the Ballets Russes.