Piece of the Week: Firebird Suite by Stravinsky

Firebird Suite

Igor Stravinsky was a virtually unknown composer in St. Petersburg Russia when he was discovered by the famous Parisian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev at a concert in 1909, and from that moment began one of the most productive and iconic artistic partnerships of the early twentieth century. Russian music was at the time very popular in Paris, and Diaghilev had been scouting for composers to write music for his new Ballets Russe dance company. The Firebird, which premiered in 1910, was the first collaboration between Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and the iconic dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinski. The piece launched both Stravinksy’s career and helped build the wild popularity of the Ballets Russe de Paris. Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Nijinski would go on to collaborate on several more iconic ballet pieces, including Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913), the latter of which was so shocking in its use of dissonance and violent choreography that it famously caused a riot upon its premier.

The Firebird, though less controversial than the later Rite of Spring, is no less important a piece. The story is a fantastical tale of a prince, a magical firebird, a wicked sorcerer and an enchanted princess. With such a typically “romantic” setup, Stravinsky could easily have rested on a tried and true 19th century symphonic style. Yet Stravinsky pushed at the edges of traditional tonality, incorporating chromatic and sometimes dissonant extended harmonies, off-beat rhythms, folk-melodies into an otherwise familiar tonal landscape.

The Firebird was later made into a five-movement instrumental suite, and SmartMusic has several arrangements of this piece available for your band or orchestra. The piece provides an excellent point of entry into twentieth-century music for your students and audiences. Check out these options and consider putting some Stravinsky in your concert calendar.

Audio Sample: The Firebird (Berceuse and Finale), for Full Orchestra, from Alfred Publishing

Audio provided by Alfred Music Publishing Co., Inc.

Composition Notes

These thrilling selections from one of the most beloved 20th century musical compositions for symphony orchestra provides a great introduction for younger players to Stravinsky! This transcription provides access at the perfect level.

 Audio Sample: Danse Infernale from The Firebird Suite, for Full Orchestra, from Belwin

Audio provided by Alfred Publishing Co., Inc.

Composition Notes

“The Firebird,” a dramatic ballet in one act, was first performed in 1910. It was a resounding success and brought immediate fame to the composer. “Danse Infernale” takes place in the castle of the sorcerer, Kastchei, who captures wayfaring strangers and turns them to stone. Grotesque orgres and terrifying monsters dance wildly. Later in the ballet, Kastchei is destroyed and the music proceeds to the beautiful “Berceuse and Finale.”

Audio Sample: Suite from the Ballet “The Firebird,” for Concert Band, from Ludwig Music Publishing

Audio recorded by Carnegie Mellon University bands.

 Composer Biography

Igor Stravinsky was born on June 17, 1882, in Oranienbaum, Russia and died on April 6, 1971, in New York City. He is considered to be one of the most influential composers of the Modern era. While encouraged to study law by his father, Stravinsky preferred instead to study composition with Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Stravinsky’s compositions came to the attention of Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes, who commissioned from him the ballet scores for “The Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring.” These works contained powerful rhythms, massive chord formations and brilliant instrumentation. “The Rite” was so affecting that the audience rioted at its premiere. Stravinsky then turned to the neoclassical style that revived the forms, harmonies, genres, and textures of seventeenth and eighteenth century composers. Works from this period include the oratorio “Oedipus Rex” and the “Symphony of Psalms.” Each work develops rich and somber sonorities and uses Baroque era (1600-1750) techniques, such as the fugue, within slowly shifting tonalities and rhythms. This period climaxed with the opera “The Rake’s Progress” that was much more experimental in tonality than his other works from this period. After Schoenberg’s death in 1951, Stravinsky began to compose serial, atonal music, a method pioneered by Schoenberg some years earlier. Stravinsky lived in Los Angeles for twenty-five years, then moved to New York City. He died there just two months before his ninetieth birthday.

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If you are an educator, musician, composer or student with a suggestion for a “piece of the week” blog post, you can email your suggestion to Griffin at [email protected]. Please let me know the name of the piece, composer, publisher, and why this piece is special to you.


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