“Oiseau de feu” (“Bird of Fire”)
One of the large number of scores called into being by Serge Diaghileff and his Ballet Russe, a score which introduced a new genius to the modern musical world, was Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “Oiseau de feu” (“Bird of Fire”), the scenario based upon a tale of Russian folklore. This ballet was first performed in Paris in 1910 It is the first of the astonishing trio of compositions which placed Stravinsky, within a period of five years, in the position of the leading composer of his day. The other two were “Petrouchka” and “Sacre du printemps.”
Two suites have been made f rom the music of “Oiseau de feu.” The one mentioned here, the first,
has six parts, but only three separate movements. The 1 music in its original form accompanies dance and pantomime on the stage. The Prince Ivan, hunting, and wandering far, comes into the domain of an en-chanter. The introductory measures of the suite consist in sinuous passages for the lower strings, chortlings of clarinets and bassoons, whispering arpeggios of harmonics by the violins, silver notes of the celesta scattered like delicate spray over the harmonies of the orchestra. Such is the musical depicting of the enchanted domain. The pace quickens, with capricious rhythms and curious instrumental effects, as the astonished prince observes from his hiding-place a marvelous `bird, with wings of flame, which enters the garden and begins to peck at golden apples that grow on a silver tree. In sport the prince captures the bird, but, heeding its entreaties, releases it, retaining only a feather, which later proves a talisman in tune of greatest need.
In the garden of the enchanted dwell captive princesses. The prince watches them dance. The dance of the princesses is gentle and grave. It is a “Korovode,” or Russian round dance, preluded by a naive little phrase on the flutes. The dance begins to the melody, of an oboe accompanied by sweeps of the harp. Later the strings enter, warmly, tenderlyan adorable piece, made of the material of Russian peasant song. That is the second movement of the suite.
The sinister magician, Kastchei the Deathless, who captured the princesses and turned rescuing knights to stone, appears on the scene. Warned by his diabolical instincts of the presence of an intruder, surrounded by his evil crew of monsters, freaks, Bobolochki, Kikimoras, and what not, lie instigates a nightmare dance. I can say that I saw that dance, done by Diaghileff’s superb interpreters: I saw it! I was there! You will infer the antics of the monsters by the wild shriek of the orchestra, and the savage, grotesque measures of the dance. In time, the Fire-Bird returns, to cast her spell of slumber on Kastchea and his hosts, and rescue Ivan and his beloved. There-after veil-like harmonies descend upon the instruments. The harp commences a rhythmic accompaniment. The bassoonan inspired tone-color in this place sings the magic lullaby, a hypnotic song, enveloped in weaving harmonies of the upper voices of the orchestra.
The lullaby leads into the final movement of the suite. It is a transition of exquisite device. This finale celebrates the breaking of the magician’s evil power, and the nuptials of the royal pair. The knights’ images come to life, the princesses are free. Ivan and his beloved gaze into each other’s eyes. A horn winds from far off over hills of dream. Its burden is an ancient Russian folk-tune. On the stage there are solemn preparations for the nuptials. The horn melody, repeated and variously transformed, takes on more splendor, the orchestra piling sonority upon sonority. The glorification of the song occurs when Ivan and his Princess, her white ermine robes extending the depth of the stage behind her, advance side by side to their happiness. The folk-melody is heard now in an odd rhythm and with clashing harmonies of the brass which suggest archaic pomp and the ringing of bells. There stand the pair, as beautiful as the dawn. The final chords are like gates that swing open to receive and protect them from evil.