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The Firebird by Stravinsky: Story & Analysis

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Magical mystery with a touch of folklore. Characters represented by elegant melodies and exotic chromatic sounds. In this lesson, learn about the story of Stravinsky's ''The Firebird'' and explore its music.

What is The Firebird?

Have you ever listened to a story told through music? Well, that's what The Firebird does.

The Firebird, a ballet based on Russian folklore, premiered in 1910. Its music was written by Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), then a young unknown Russian composer. In the early 1900s, Europeans were fascinated by all things Russian, including art and music. To take advantage of this, famous Russian ballet promoter Sergei Diaghilev established his Ballet Russes in Paris in 1909. The following year, to highlight his second season, Diaghilev wanted a new ballet based on Russian folklore, and he needed someone to write the music. He asked several composers, but they turned him down. So he turned to Stravinsky.

It was a gamble that paid off spectacularly.

The Story of The Firebird

The Firebird' is based on Russian folklore and myth. The title character is a powerful female spirit bird with magical feathers that provide beauty and protection. She's called the Firebird because they glitter like tongues of flame.

Illustration of Prince Ivan capturing the Firebird, by Leon Bakst, costume designer for the 1910 production
Prince Ivan capturing the Firebird

The story begins with Prince Ivan Tsarevich wandering in a garden at night. He sees the Firebird eating golden apples and captures her. However, he releases her when she offers him a magical feather. The Firebird warns Prince Ivan that he's near the castle of Koschei the Deathless, a fearsome sorcerer. The next morning, hidden in the garden, Prince Ivan watches thirteen captured princesses enter the garden and dance (remember, it's a ballet). He falls in love with one of them and decides to rescue them.

Later costume design for character of Koschei the Deathless
Costume design for Koschei

There's a problem, however. The garden's full of statues, because Koschei turns anyone to stone who tries to rescue the princesses. Clearly he doesn't want to share. Regardless, Prince Ivan confronts Koschei and uses the Firebird's feather to prevent becoming another immobile statue. The Firebird then casts a spell over the sorcerer and his followers, causing them to dance uncontrollably until they drop. The prince then destroys a magical egg that holds the key to the sorcerer's immortality. The spell is broken, the princesses are free, the statues return to life, and Prince Ivan marries his bride. All in 45 minutes!

Analysis of the Music in The Firebird

The Firebird was Stravinsky's first large orchestral work. It's full of exciting music that captivated audiences of the time. Although we can't analyze the complete musical score, let's cover some important points that make the music memorable.

Use of Theme

Stravinsky uses different kinds of music to tell the story. First, he identifies each character with a musical theme that conveys their personality. Remember, it's a ballet, so there's no singing or speaking. Human characters like Prince Ivan and his princess are represented by folk tune-like melodies using a familiar scale. You know, the one that starts ''Do, Re, Me.'' This seven-note scale is called the diatonic scale. It creates melodies and harmonies that sound pleasing and familiar to the ear.

On the other hand, mythical characters like the Firebird and Koschei are represented by chromatic musical passages. Chromaticism uses notes outside the diatonic scale. It makes music more mysterious, exotic, and unexpected. The scale identifies these characters as otherworldly. For Kashchei, Stravinsky moves into dissonant chords. Dissonance has notes that clash. Composers use it purposely to create harsh and jarring sounds.

Composition

The Firebird begins with a quiet, mysterious undercurrent of low strings. Then, the woodwinds join, and the story begins. Each section uses contrasting music and, depending on who's involved in the action, alternating passages of harmony, chromaticism, and dissonance. Throughout the composition, Stravinsky constantly changes rhythms, even when themes reoccur. This creates great vitality and ensures the listener's never sure what's coming next.

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