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Work of the week – Igor Strawinsky: L’Oiseau de feu

Igor Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu (The Firebird) has enjoyed regular performances all over the world for more than 100 years, with the Orchestral Suite being a staple of the concert repertoire. This week alone, the piece will be performed in five different cities.

Sergei Diaghilev, manager of the Ballets Russe, originally commissioned Alexander Tscherepnin and Anatoli Ljadow to compose music for the ballet L’Oiseau de feu. However, when both of these collaborations proved unsuccessful, Diaghilew turned to a then unknown 27-year-old by the name of Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky finished the score for the ballet based on two Russian fairy tales within a few months.

Igor Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu – A model for modern film music

While hunting, Prince Ivan captures the Firebird, a powerful female spirit. As a token of thanks for releasing her, she gives him a feather that he can use to summon her when in need. In the forest, Ivan comes across 13 Princesses, all enchanted by the immortal King Koschei, who have slipped away from the palace to dance. Ivan joins in and falls in love with the beautiful Tsarevna. Despite their warnings, Ivan follows them back to the palace which is filled with stone statues. Koschei tries to turn Ivan into stone but the Firebird’s feather saves him. The Firebird then casts a spell over Koschei and his soldiers who begin to dance uncontrollably. Meanwhile, Ivan destroys the source of Koschei’s immortality, an egg hidden in a tree. The stone statues regain their human form and Ivan marries Tsarevna.

Stravinsky creates distinct musical identities for the main protagonists in L’Oiseau de feu. Chromatic scales are used to herald Koschei while the Firebird has chromatic, woodwind-driven orchestration. The Prince and Princesses’ music includes quotes from Russian folk songs.
Stravinsky later arranged his ballet music into several orchestral suites. The earliest, from 1911, is essentially a shortened version of the original ballet music. In the 1919 version, the composer reduced the orchestration from 100 musicians down to 60 in order to make the work accessible to smaller ensembles. In the 1945 version Stravinsky added another five movements to the version from 1919.

Remember this young composer; he is a man on the cusp of glory. – Sergei Diaghilev, during a rehearsal in preparation for the world premiere of L’Oiseau de feu.

The L’Oiseau de feu Suite (1919) will be played in Goiânia, Brazil, by the Goiânia Philharmonic Orchestra on 6 September, and in Coburg by the Philharmonische Orchester des Landestheaters on 9 September. The Schwäbische Youth Wind Orchestra will present a special arrangement for wind instruments by Randy Earles in Nördlingen, Germany on 9 September and in Füssen, Germany on 10 September. Herbert Schneider’s revised version of the ballet will be performed by with the Gewandhausorchester in Leipzig on 9 September.