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

Video transcript
Gerard: The story of the Firebird involves just a few characters, the firebird; Ivan, the prince: Kastchei, the monster; 13 princesses and some other monsters that the Kastchei 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 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 returned to the castle and then the next day Ivan goes to this monster, this Kastchei 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 fall asleep because they're all so tired. This is a chance for Ivan to get away. Kastchei wakes up, she gets him once again to engage in a dance, tells Ivan how to go about breaking the spell and how to kill this monster. He does. Marries the princess. All the petrified people become normal and everybody is 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 arriving in front of this castle. Gerard: The mood is set by muted strings, viole, cellos playing 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 pizzicato, plucking the string. You can also notice that the bass drum is the only other instrument playing a roll underneath, again, to create the 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 in 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 gesture, the sound of 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. 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. Again, it's repeated, it's very clear, it's short and it's the first solo for the firebird, these variations. Gerard: Next comes the round dance of the princesses. This has a introduction in the woodwinds. Beautiful oboe solo accompanied by the harp. Gerard: It's not really part of the main body of the movement yet. That comes when the strings play this folk like tune. That's clearly where the body of the dance begins. Gerard: As Stravinsky develops this, that material that he had just used now in the strings he does in the woodwinds. This is a 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 and we call that a different color. Gerard: Eventually, this movement comes to an end and abruptly there's this loud chord sounded by the whole orchestra and the percussion. 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 to fall asleep at the end, which of course they do. It's interesting because what he does is he has that chord and startles one. If you're not expecting it you'll jump out of your sit and then the bases 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 pam-pam-pam-pam-pam-pam. Instead it's, pam-pam-pam-pam-pam-pam. It's all off the beat, we call that syncopated. It adds to the tension that this whole beginning creates. Gerard: This is the infernal dance, evil dance, it's wild and it's fun. When it comes to an end, Stravinsky has just a few chord sound by the muted trumpets, by the harp, by the piano and uses that material as a transition. 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 violos as a transition into the [bersus], this beautiful lullaby. Gerard: The lullabies played by the bassoon and in a way to think that if you were doing a lullaby you'd have a theme played by the flute or by the clarinet or violins, but Stravinsky rises absolutely exquisite solo for the solo bassoon, one of the most famous solos in all the literature for the bassoon. Gerard: 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 decrescendo. "Emphasize this note, emphasize that note." He just writes the notes. If you think of singing a lullaby you certainly wouldn't sing it in a mono tone or in a single level. 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 the 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. Gerard: With a little glissando in the harp we have the violin section play the same melody quite softly. Gerard: Eventually, this beautiful melody develops, more instruments are added. The brass are added and we have a glorious moment for the ... Now, in fact you could end it here. You could, just at this big great moment you could end it. No, 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 going to marry the princesses. He takes the same melody that the horn played and he makes it significantly faster played by the brass. Instead of a slow melody it becomes a fast melody. Gerard: Everyone joins in. It has its own rhythmic propulsions being pushed forward in a very unusual way. Again, in his genius he doesn't wanted to end in this aggressive way. He does want to bring back the solemnity of that finale. 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. Gerard: It ends that way with a big brass chorale. Gerard: 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 happen for stage changes, for dramatic purposes that really have no musical reason or no musical value at that moment. When someone like Stravinsky takes the essence of a great ballet and makes it into a suite, musically it just stands on its own. If you knew nothing of the story, there's no question you would enjoy this music because 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.