On June 25, 2020, the musical world will take note of the 110th anniversary of the premiere in Paris of Igor Stravinsky’s Zhar-ptitsa (Firebird), an event which launched an extraordinary career in Western music that continued through two world wars and three citizenships, lasted 61 years, and left a legacy of greatness that endures undiminished today.
Stravinsky had just celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday when the Firebird ballet burst on a Parisian public that had only recently learned to embrace Debussy and Ravel as the flagbearers of ultra-modernism. French Impressionism, in the visual arts, was already well established before its counterpart in music caught up with it. Debussy had been nationally recognized as the leading French composer only since Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and La mer (1905), and only Ravel could match him on the same ground with works like Rapsodie espagnole (1908); all of these were considered the ne plus ultra of orchestral vigor and splendor on the one hand and emotional subtlety on the other.
Then with amazing suddenness Stravinsky arrived on the scene, challenging the French moderns with a violent brilliance of a Russian Impressionism that hardly anyone had even imagined. It was more than orchestral color and a strange new harmonic vocabulary — it was oriental exoticism, “For Russian Export,” as Stravinsky, weary of his Firebird achievement and its excessive popularity, later derided it. Fokine’s choreography was Russian-conventional but expertly planned, and Tamara Karsavina as the Firebird (gliding onto the stage on a wire) was both beautiful and astonishing throughout the evening, but it was the music that continues to amaze audiences today. (Odd footnote: Karsavina was succeeded in the post-season by a neophyte dancer, Lydia Lopokova, who later married John Maynard Keynes.) Debussy and Ravel, both then at the height of their careers, became Stravinsky’s close friends, “en toute sympathie artistique,” as Debussy wrote on a photograph.
One hears in Firebird plenty of sweet Romantic melodism, in the Khorovod (round dance), and the beloved Berceuse and Finale, the latter based on a well-known folksong. These segments are so familiar today that it is hard to recognize how sophisticated is their tonal language for their time. But a characteristically Russian chromatic vocabulary, with augmented triads and altered augmented-sixth chords, penetrates much more of the ballet; Stravinsky here shows some influence from his beloved teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, but also from the little-known Anatol Liadov (Diaghilev’s harmony teacher, in case you didn’t know), and even more from Scriabin, though Stravinsky disclaimed any such influence because he disliked Scriabin personally. At the end of the pas de deux there is a brief passage (nos. 46-47) in a dissonant atonal counterpoint hardly distinguishable from Schoenberg’s expressionist style of the same years; but it lasts only six bars.
Various writers have pointed out that Stravinsky was challenged to differentiate between the natural and the supernatural by musical means, and to an extent he succeeded. A significant part of the harmony of Firebird originates in Stravinsky’s experimentation with interval patterns, especially alternating major and minor thirds; when it generates whole-tone scales and augmented triads, the result sounds Russian, and not at all like Debussy’s use of the same patterns — and yet Stravinsky later declared that all of the Russian composers of his generation owe a generous debt to Debussy, too. The debt was reciprocated; Ravel’s orchestration of his own Ma Mère l’Oye ballet, for an orchestra no bigger than Beethoven’s, sounds remarkably as though Firebird were echoing in the background, and Stravinsky records how Debussy consulted him for advice in orchestrating Jeux (1912), for the largest ensemble that Debussy ever used.
Firebird became world-famous through the 1919 Suite, which includes slightly more than half of the original ballet music. The ballet entire, however, has been making a comeback in the concert hall in recent years, and orchestras that can afford its “wastefully large” complement (six trumpets! three harps!) will be rewarded with excellent music that is less familiar — the “Supplications” music for the pas de deux (no. 29), the Dance of the Enchanted Princesses with the Golden Apples (no. 55; someone else referred to this piece as “pure Tchaikovsky”), the “Magic Carillon” with its crazy counterpoint and offstage trumpets (no.98), and the sizzling reappearance of the Firebird (no. 119) — all of these worked out in an orchestral milieu of precision and incisiveness that is still remarkable today.
In his 1960 memoir, Memories and Commentaries, Stravinsky spoke of his Funeral Song in memory of Rimsky-Korsakov (1908; Russian title Pogrebal’naya pesnya) as the best music he composed before Firebird; but he couldn’t be certain, because the score was lost after the premiere, and he never heard the piece again. But the orchestra parts were rediscovered five years ago and the Funeral Song has been performed again, as I reported in these pages in 2016. I can now report that some of that music remained in the back of his mind when he was composing Firebird a year later. At an appropriately dramatic moment (no. 117), just before the Firebird reappears, an unusual tonal harmonic pairing — A minor to E-flat minor — is shouted out three times, fortissimo. The very same succession appears on the last page of the Funeral Song, bracketed by other foreign harmonies, to be sure, but unmistakably and emphatically present. The pairing of these harmonies in Firebird then becomes structural: A minor is the principal key of Kastchei’s Infernal Dance, and E-flat minor is the key of the Berceuse that follows it.
Stravinsky in his later years referred to the “success obstacle” of Firebird — like Debussy’s Clair de lune and Ravel’s Boléro and even Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht — all of which because of their popularity impeded the public’s comprehension of the composers’ other works. And the creative leap that Stravinsky made in just one year, from Firebird to Petrushka, is such an astounding artistic evolution, comparable to Beethoven’s blaze of originality in 1803-05, that Stravinsky deprecated, and many musicians fail to understand fully, what an original compositional language Firebird sets forth. But this doesn’t mean that we should love Firebird any less. In 1947, after learning the name of Stravinsky as a living composer, I heard for the first time some music of his — the Pastorale — and liked it. Then I learned about a piece called Firebird, was intrigued by the title, and listened for it on the radio. But I was frightened by all those augmented triads (no. 8). It was not until ten years later, as a college freshman, that I heard Firebird again, and have never forgotten it.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.