The Firebird

The Firebird

Infobox Ballet
name = The Firebird

image_size =
caption =
choreographer = Michel Fokine
composer = Igor Stravinsky
based_on =
premiere = 25 June 1910
place = Paris
ballet_company = Ballets Russes
characters =
set designer =
setting = Russia
created for = Tamara Karsavina
genre = Neoclassical ballet
type = classical ballet

"The Firebird" (French: "L'Oiseau de feu"; Russian: Жар-птица, "Žar-ptica") is a 1910 ballet by Igor Stravinsky and choreographed by Michel Fokine. The ballet is based on Russian folk tales of the magical glowing bird of the same name that is both a blessing and a curse to its captor.

The music was premiered as a ballet by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris on 25 June, 1910 conducted by Gabriel Pierné. [Stephen Walsh: 'Stravinsky, Igor', "Grove Music Online" ed. L. Macy (accessed 1 April 2008), ] It was the first of their productions with music specially composed for them. Originally the music was to have been written by Russian composer Anatol Liadov (1855-1914); but when he was slow in starting work, Diaghilev transferred the commission to the 28-year old Stravinsky. The ballet has historic significance not only as Stravinsky's 'breakthrough piece' ("Mark him well", said Diaghilev to Tamara Karsavina, who was dancing the title role: "He is a man on the eve of celebrity..."), but also as the beginning of the collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky that would also produce "Petrushka" and "The Rite of Spring".

The ballet was staged by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet in 1949 with Maria Tallchief as the Firebird with scenery and costumes by Marc Chagall, and was performed in repertory until 1965. The ballet was restaged by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins in 1970 for the New York City Ballet with new scenery and Karinska costumes for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival that introduced Gelsey Kirkland as the Firebird.


Stravinsky's ballet centers on the journey of its hero, Prince Ivan. Ivan enters the magical realm of Kashchei the Immortal; all of the magical objects and creatures of Kashchei are herein represented by a chromatic descending motif, usually in the strings. While wandering in the garden, he sees and chases the Firebird. The Firebird, once caught by Ivan, begs for its life and ultimately agrees to assist Ivan in exchange for eventual freedom.

Next, Prince Ivan sees thirteen princesses, with one of whom he falls in love. The next day, Ivan chooses to confront Kashchei to ask to marry one of the princesses; the two talk and eventually begin quarreling. When Kashchei sends his magical creatures after Ivan, the Firebird, true to its pledge, intervenes, bewitching the creatures and making them dance an elaborate, energetic dance (the "Infernal Dance"). The creatures and Kashchei then fall asleep; however, Kashchei awakens and is then sent into another dance by the Firebird. While Kashchei is bewitched by the Firebird she tells Ivan the secret to Kashchei's immortality and Ivan destroys it killing Kashchei. With Kashchei gone and his magic broken, the magical creatures and the palace all disappear, and all of the "real" beings (including the princesses) awaken and, with one final fleeting appearance from the Firebird, celebrate their victory.


People often speak of "Stravinsky's music for "The Firebird" as if just one work exists; in fact, besides the complete 50-minute ballet score of 1909-10 (written for a very large orchestra including quadruple woodwind and three harps, as well as a piano), there also exist no fewer than three shorter 'suites', arranged by the composer himself for concert performance. These date from 1911, 1919 and 1945. While the 1919-suite remains the most wide spread and well known, the 1945 version contains the most music from the original ballet score (partly motivated by the need to secure copyright in a USA that did not recognise European agreements).

Note that there is no consensus for the precise naming of either the different versions, or of the movements, or the numbering of the movements. Different recordings tend to follow different naming conventions. While this partly might be due to the English translation from the original French names, some recordings of the orchestral suites even avoid referring to the tale by just calling the movements by their formal names, i.e., Adagio, Scherzo, Rondo and Allegro.

Many adaptations of the "Firebird" Suite for Concert Band, Marching Band and Drum Corps have been made throughout the years.

1910 Ballet Score (aka "Ballet in 2 scenes for orchestra")

(1) Introduction; 1st Tableau: (2) The Enchanted Garden of Kashchei; (3) Appearance of the Firebird, Pursued by Prince Ivan; (4) Dance Of The Firebird; (5) Capture Of The Firebird By Prince Ivan; (6) Supplication Of The Firebird; (7) Appearance Of The Thirteen Enchanted Princesses; (8) The Princesses' Game With The Golden Apples; (9) Sudden Appearance Of Prince Ivan; (10) Khorovod (Round Dance) Of The Princesses; (11) Daybreak; (12) Magic Carillon, Appearance Of Kashchei's Monster Guardians, And Capture Of Prince Ivan; (13) Arrival Of Kashchei The Immortal; (14) Dialogue Of Kashchei And Prince Ivan; (15) Intercession Of The Princesses; (16) Appearance Of The Firebird; (17) Dance Of Kashchei's Retinue, Enchanted By The Firebird; (18) Infernal Dance Of All Kashchei's Subjects; (19) Lullaby; (20) Kashchei's Awakening; (21) Kashchei's Death; (22) Profound Darkness; 2nd Tableau: (23) Disappearance Of Kastchei's Palace and Magical Creations, Return to Life of the Petrified Knights, General Rejoicing

"Orchestration:" 4 flutes (3rd & 4th also Piccolo); 3 oboes; english horn; 3 clarinets (3rd also D Clarinet); Bass Clarinet; 3 bassoons (2nd also 2nd Contrabassoon); Contrabassoon; 4 Horns; 3 trumpets; 3 trombones; Tuba; 3 Trumpets (onstage); 2 Tenor Tuben (onstage); 2 Bass Tuben (onstage); Timpani; percussion; Glockenspiel; Xylophone; Celesta; 3 Harps; Pianoforte; Strings.

"Notice:" the naming convention of the movements and their numberings may be slightly different from one recording to another. E.g. the three parts of the 2nd Tableau may - amongst several others - be seen as: Part II, No. 19a, "Disappearance of the Palace and Dissolution of Kascheri's Enchantments"; No. 19b, "Captive Warriors Emerge From Spell"; No. 19c, "General Thanksgiving".

1911 Suite (aka "Concert suite for orchestra No. 1")

(1) Introduction - Kashchei’s Enchanted Garden - Dance of the Firebird; (2) Supplication of the Firebird; (3) The Princesses’ Game with Apples; (4) The Princesses’ Khorovod (Rondo, round dance); (5) Infernal dance of all Kashchei’s Subjects.

"Orchestration:" essentially as per the original ballet - the score was printed from the same plates, with only the new endings for the movements being newly engraved.

* Some recordings will list movement no. 1) as three movements.
* The 2005 remastered edition on Sony with conductor Pierre Boulez calls it "Ballet suite for orchestra", while the same previous 1991 edition on Sony called it "Suite, 1910". One could argue that the later is more correct even if they missed it by a year. The "Ballet suite for orchestra" would have been a more appropriate name for the "1945 Suite" as this compared to the two other orchestral suites contains most of the music from the original ballet score.
* Might also be referred to as a "Symphonic Suite".

1919 Suite (aka "Concert suite for orchestra No. 2")

(1) Introduction - The Firebird and its dance - The Firebird's variation; (2) The Princesses’ Khorovod (Rondo, round dance); (3) Infernal dance of King Kashchei; (4) Berceuse (Lullaby); (5) Finale.

"Orchestration:" 2 Flutes (inc. Piccolo); 2 Oboes (inc. English Horn); 2 Clarinets; 2 Bassoons; 4 Horns; 2 Trumpets; 3 Trombones; Tuba; Timpani; Percussion; Harp; Pianoforte; Strings.

* Some recordings will list movement no. 1) as two or three movements.
* Might also be referred to as a "Symphonic Suite".

1945 Suite (aka "Ballet suite for orchestra")

(1) Introduction - The Firebird and its dance - The Firebird's variation; (2) Pantomime I; (3) Pas de deux: Firebird and Ivan Tsarevich; (4) Pantomime II; (5) Scherzo: Dance of the Princesses; (6) Pantomime III; (7) The Princesses' Khorovod (Rondo, round dance); (8) Infernal dance of King Kashchei; (9) Berceuse (Lullaby); (10) Finale.

"Orchestration:" 2 Flutes (inc. Piccolo); 2 Oboes; 2 Clarinets; 2 Bassoons; 4 Horns; 2 Trumpets; 3 Trombones; Tuba; Timpani; Percussion; Harp; Pianoforte; Strings.

* Some recordings will list movement no. 1) as three movements.
* Might also be referred to as a "Symphonic Suite".

Popular Influence

The chapter in the animated film "Fantasia 2000" based on Stravinsky's piece uses an abridged version of the 1919 suite to tell the story of a spring sprite and her companion elk. After a long winter the sprite attempts to restore life to a forest but accidentally wakes the "Firebird" spirit of a nearby volcano. Angered, the Firebird proceeds to destroy the forest and seemingly the sprite. She is restored to life after the destruction and the forest life is reborn with her. The "Fantasia 2000" Firebird chapter is considered an exercise in the theme of life-death-rebirth deities; the depiction of the Firebird in it as a violent, flaming volcanic spirit is not related to Stravinsky's original theme. Arguably, this depiction acts as a literal "Rite of Spring," another Stravinsky ballet used by Disney in the previous "Fantasia" film.

Stravinsky's work has also had a great deal of influence in musical genres outside of classical. Throughout their career, the progressive rock group Yes have opened their live concerts with an excerpt from "The Firebird", and their 1974 song "The Gates of Delirium" is heavily influenced by musical ideas pioneered by Stravinsky. Another prog rock band Manfred Mann's Earth Band used thematic material from "The Firebird" as the basis for the track "Starbird" on their album "The Roaring Silence".

Electronic musician Isao Tomita arranged a synthesized version of the short 1919 "Firebird" suite for his 1975 album of the same name.

Cliff Eidelman's score for the 1991 film "" borrows thematic elements from the "Firebird".

The ballet was also the inspiration for Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix series.

elected recorded versions

Complete Ballet

*Igor Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1961 for Columbia Masterworks, and released on CD by Sony Masterworks. This recording has been released many times on LP and CD. This is considered the authoritative version because the composer conducts his own work.

*Seiji Ozawa conducting the Orchestre de Paris (released in 1973 on EMI as S-36910)

*Paul Jorgensen conducting the Royal Danish Orchestra, with the Royal Danish Ballet choreographed by Glen Tetley (1982 video; reissued on DVD by Kultur in 2002). Many have criticized this release for poor sound quality, and for changing the original story.

*Pierre Boulez conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Released in 1993, it is a live recording released on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

*Antal Dorati conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1959 and released on the Mercury Records label. It was re-released on CD in 1991.

*Dorati re-recorded the work with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1982 on the Decca label. It was re-released in 1992 along with Apollon musagète.

*Charles Dutoit conducting the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, recorded in 1984 and released in 1986 on the Decca label.

*Sir Colin Davis conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra, recorded on Philips Classics Records.

*Robert Craft conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra, recorded in 1996 on the now defunct Koch Records. It was re-released by Naxos Records in 2005, coupled with Petrushka (1947 version).

*Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Peninsula Boys Choir and the San Francisco Girls Chorus, in a 3-CD recording that also includes "The Rite of Spring" and "Perséphone". This set won the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance and the 2000 Grammy Award for Best Classical Album.

Firebird Suite

*George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (released on Epic Records as LC 3812 and BC 1149; the disc also includes William Walton's "Symphony No. 2")

*Pierre Monteux conducting the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra (released on Decca Records in 1972 as STS 15197; the disc also includes the complete "Petrushka" ballet)

*Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra (broadcast by the Radio Nederland Transcription Service on the Dutch Concert Rostrum, Program 8319; not commercially released; the program also includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Overture to The Marriage of Figaro" (Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra/Jean Fournet) and Johannes Brahms's "Variations on the Chorale St. Anthony, op. 56a" (Concertgebouw Orchestra/Erich Leinsdorf))

*Kazuhito Yamashita - arrangement for classical guitar (released on RCA Records in 1989; the disc also includes a classical guitar arrangement of Antonín Dvořák's "Symphony No. 9")

*Ivan Fischer conducting the Budapest Festival Orchestra, 1919 version (released on Hungaroton in 1990 as HCD 31095, recorded in 1988; the disc also includes the complete "Petrushka" ballet, 1946-47 version)

*Jahni Mardjani conducting the Georgian Festival Orchestra. This disc also has a version of Claude Debussy's Nocturnes

*Myung-Whun Chung conducting the Orchestra of the Bastille Opera, coupled to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Recorded in 1992 and released in 1993 on Deutsche Grammophon.

*Leonard Bernstein has recorded it several times with various orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Each of these has been released on CD multiple times.

*Leopold Stokowski recorded "The Firebird" Suite eight times, more than any other conductor ... with the Philadelphia Orchestra (acoustically) in 1924, and again (electrically) in 1927 and 1935; with the All-American Youth Orchestra in 1941 and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1942; with his own Symphony Orchestra in 1950; and in two stereo recordings, with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1957, and finally, at the age of 85, with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1967.

*Isao Tomita recorded an electronic arrangement of "The Firebird" Suite in 1975 using a Moog III synthesizer and other electronic instruments available at the time.

*Vincent Montana, Jr, recorded a Disco version in 1977 with the Salsoul Orchestra calling the piece "Magic Bird Of Fire" on his album "Magic Journey".

Excerpts from the Firebird Suite

*Berceuse: Lori Singer, solo cello performance (included on the Short Cuts soundtrack)

*Danse Infernal: Igor Stravinsky conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra (released on Columbia Records as MS 7094; disc includes five other Stravinsky compositions)
*The progressive rock band, Yes used an excerpt from Firebird Suite to open concerts, and also appears as the first track on many live CDs and DVDs.


External links

* [ NYCB website]
* [ George Balanchine Trust website]
* [ George Balanchine Foundation website]
* [ The Jerome Robbins Foundation and Trust website]

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