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Discovering Stravinsky's "Firebird" : The story and the music

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- The story of The Firebird involves just a few characters. There's the Firebird. Ivan, the prince. Koschei, the monster. 13 princesses, and some other monsters that the Koschei has created. He's immortal, and he petrifies people. It's a terrible thing, and Ivan arrives in front of the monster's castle, and he sees that it's dark, but he hears and sees a Firebird. He captures her. He was hunting, not for Firebirds, but he captures her, and she begs for her release. He releases her, and she says, whenever you need help, I will be there for you. Next, 13 princesses come out of the castle and do a Round Dance. He falls in love with one of them. They return to the castle, and then, the next day, Ivan goes to this monster, this Koschei, sorcerer, and says, I'd like to marry one of these princesses. Will you give me permission? They get into a quarrel, and the monster gets all of his monstrous friends to run after Ivan. At this moment, the Firebird comes back to repay the freedom that she received, and to help him. She gets all of those monsters to do an Infernal Dance. And they do this Infernal Dance. And at the end of The Infernal Dance, they all fell asleep, 'cause they're all so tired. This is a chance for Ivan to get away. Koschei wakes up. She gets him once again to engage in a dance, tells Ivan how to go about the breaking the spell, and how to kill this monster. He does. He marries a princess. All the Petrified people become normal, and everybody's happy, and life goes on wonderfully after that. The premier was in 1910. The first suite was in 1911. The suite that we play is from 1919. It's in six basic sections. The introduction to The Firebird sets the mood, tone of Ivan writing in front of this castle. (slow, suspenseful music) The mood is set by muted strings, viola, cellos playing in unison together. The bass is also playing with them, but the bass is divided. Half of them are playing what we call arco, with the bow, and half of them are played staccato, plucking the string. You can also notice that the bass drum is the only other instrument playing a role underneath, again, to create this suspension. In short order, the woodwinds come in. And this is Ivan's entrance into that meadow in front of the castle. Besides the low woodwinds and the horn, you have trombone, two trombones, also just creating the image of what Ivan is feeling in the forest. A little glissando on the harp, just little, little gestures that set the mood in an extraordinary way. Next thing we find is, all of a sudden, there's a shimmering section of the strings. They play a quick note loud, and then they do a tremolo to create a kind of activity without any specific musical gestures. It's not a melody. It does relate to the harmony, but it's not significant. Then the upper strings and the woodwinds come in in a very skittery way, and you know that this is obviously the Firebird. And then, we get to the first solo for the Firebird. As you look at it, you'll see that it's all woodwinds. It's piccolo flutes, clarinets, and then eventually, the strings come in and add a little something. But again, it's repeated, it's very clear, it's short, and it's the first solo for the Firebird for these variations. (fast, exciting melody) Next comes the Round Dance of the princesses. This has a introduction in the woodwinds. Beautiful oboe solo accompanied by the harp. (gentle, romantic melody) It's not really part of the main body of the movement yet. That comes when the strings play this folk-like tune, and that's clearly where the body of the dance begins. (lilting romantic melody) As Stravinsky develops this, that material that he had just used now in the strings he does in the woodwinds. This is very common of all composers, but especially in the 20th century. You take material first played by the strings, and you take the exact same material and just change the orchestration. In other words, put it in different instruments. In this case, he puts it in the woodwinds led by the flutes, and it has a new sound. We call that a different color. (soft, romantic melody) Eventually, this movement comes to an end and, abruptly, there's this loud chord! (sudden sharp chord) Sounded by the whole orchestra, the percussion. And this is, of course, the Infernal Dance. This is the dance where the monsters are, being. in a sense, led by the Firebird to this wild dance, and she's hoping that they'll tire and fall asleep again. Which. of course, they do. It's interesting, because what he does is he has that chord that startles one if you're not expecting it. So, you jump out of your seat. And then, the basses have this very fast figure going on that doesn't really do much, except create an agitated feeling. Then, the low horns, the bassoon, tuba come in with this syncopated melody. Syncopated simply means it's not on the beat. So, if you'd expect it to be bom-bom-bom-bom-bom-bom, instead, it's bom-bom-bom-bom-bombom. So, off the beat, we call that syncopated. And it adds to the tension that this whole beginning creates. (dark, dramatic melody) This is the Infernal Dance, evil dance. It's wild, and it's fun. And when it comes to an end, Stravinsky has just a few chords sound by the muted trumpets, by the harp, by the piano, and he uses that material as a transition. So, from this loud, aggressive material, very colorful, percussion, and bass drum, and everybody beating and blaring away, and it just stops, and again, it's suspended. Suspended with just a little harmonic movement done by the oboes, eventually the violas as a transition into the Berceuse, this beautiful lullaby. (gentle, sleepy melody) And a lullaby is played by the bassoon. And in a way, you'd kinda think that if you were doing a lullaby, you'd have it being played by the flute, or by the clarinet, or violins, but Stravinsky writes this absolutely exquisite solo for the solo bassoon, one of the most famous solos in all the literature for the bassoon. (gentle, ponderous melody) If anyone ever takes an audition for an orchestra, this solo is inevitably on it, because it shows sound and the depth of understanding. Stravinsky himself does not write any dynamics. He doesn't say, make a crescendo, make a deep crescendo, emphasize this note, emphasize that note. He just writes the notes, and if you think of singing a lullaby, you certainly wouldn't sing it in a monotone, a single level. And so, the bassoon player has to create something special with this gorgeous melody. This, of course, puts the monsters to sleep. The melody gets developed, and it leads to the finale. What Stravinsky does is he has these strings play this tremolo, just back and forth on single notes, which create a harmony. Again, it's very suspended, which brings us to this song of deliverance. It's a song sung by the horn. Again, among the most famous horn solos ever written. And it's soft, and it's beautiful. (tranquil melody) And with a little glissando on the harp, you have the violin section play the same melody quite softly. (tranquil melody) And eventually, this beautiful melody develops. More instruments are added, the brass are added, and we have a glorious moment for the swing out. In fact, you could end it here. You could just have this big, great moment. You could end it, but Stravinsky, what a brilliant composer he was, and he wanted to have a more exciting ending. Not an ending of deliverance, but an ending of success that we have killed the monster! We have made all these stone people into human beings again, and the prince is gonna marry the princess. So, he takes the same melody that the horn played, and he makes it significantly faster, played by the brass. So, instead of a slow melody, it becomes a fast melody. (joyous, triumphant melody) Everyone joins in. It has its own rhythmic propulsion, it's being pushed forward in a very unusual way. Again, in his genius, he doesn't want it to end in this aggressive way. He does wanna bring back the solemnity of that finale. So, at one point, after repeating the theme a number of times, and again, increasing the orchestration, doublings of the strings and the winds, he once again brings it back to a slower tempo. (slow, triumphant melody) And it ends that way, with a big brass chorale. (victorious closing melody) The complete Firebird is about 50 minutes. Each suite that he created from this, he created three of them, are about 20, 25 minutes each. I believe that they stand up, musically. Now, I would say it'd be more difficult to have the whole ballet stand up musically, because you have great music, but then those moments where things happened for stage changes, for dramatic purposes, you really have no musical reason, or no musical value at that moment. But when someone like Stravinsky takes the essence of a great ballet and makes it into a suite, musically, it just stands on its own. And if you knew nothing of the story, there's no question you would enjoy this music, 'cause it is magnificent. Certainly, Stravinsky was one of the great geniuses of all time. And you can really see that, not only in hearing the complete Firebird, but seeing how he distilled it and made it into this gorgeous little suite.