Sergei Diaghilev, the great impresario of the Ballet Russe, sat forward, his eyes glowing. Could this be the composer he was searching for to write a new ballet? The orchestration was brilliant, and the handling of the orchestra remarkably mature for a man of twenty-six years. What was the piece and who was the composer? Fireworks, by Igor Stravinsky. The commission came, the first for Stravinsky, and uncertain of his ability to complete such a large project in a short time, he nevertheless accepted. After all, who would possibly refuse such an opportunity? Stravinsky immediately set to work on the Firebird, based on a Russian fairy tale.
The following is a synopsis of the story from Edwin Evans' Stravinsky. Kastchei, the green-taloned ogre, is the embodiment of evil. His soul does not dwell in his misshapen body, but is carefully preserved beyond reach of harm in a precious casket. So long as it remains intact Kastchei is immortal and retains his power for mischief, holding maidens captive and turning their male defenders to stone. Their redemption can be effected only by gaining access to the casket and destroying the ogre's soul.
One day, Prince Ivan, whilst hunting, sees a bird whose plumage shines with the brilliance of flame. He follows it, and it leads him to Kastchei's magic garden, where he succeeds in capturing it. But the Firebird pleads for its freedom, and when Ivan eventually relents, it presents him with one of its flame-colored feathers in token that it will fly to his aid in case of need. After the bird has flown away Kastchei's captive maidens repair to the garden, as is their wont, to play with the golden apples that grow there. Here Ivan comes upon them and, after some hesitation, is allowed to join in their game. But at the approach of dawn they return to the ogre's palace, warning him not to attempt to follow. Undeterred he tears open the gates whereupon, to the sound of a magic carillon, there issues from them the whole monstrous retinue of Kastchei, followed by the ogre himself. Ivan is captured and about to be turned to stone when he remembers the feather, and calls the Firebird to his aid. It answers the summons and charms the monsters into a frenzied dance until they fall exhausted. Then it lulls them to sleep, and directs Ivan to the casket. He finds it, takes out Kastchei's soul and dashed it to pieces. Immediately Kastchei, his magic garden and his monsters, vanish. The captive maidens are free, and the stones resume human form. Amid rejoicings Ivan weds the captive Princess, with whom he is to reign over the Kingdom, henceforth free from evil.
To contrast the human world from the supernatural, Stravinsky looked to a model by his orchestration teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. The human world is portrayed with diatonic music while the supernatural is chromatic, specifically by use of the tritone. The human music also contains folk tunes, giving it a more "earthy" flavor. While this work established Stravinsky's fame, it is not a work that broke new ground the way Petroushka, and especially The Rite of Spring did. This is instead a synthesis of the music and training Stravinsky had. Written in the mold of late Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, and orchestrated with brilliance in the style of Rimsky- Korsakov, this work sought not to challenge the audience, but to excite it with the brilliance of the orchestral effects and the colors of the orchestra.
The Firebird opens with the dark, brooding chromatic music of King Kastchei. The brilliant effect of the glissando harmonics in the strings was Stravinsky's attempt to outdo Rimsky-Korsakov in orchestral effects. At the arrival of the Firebird, the tempo picks up. This is immediately followed by the Variations of the Firebird, a brilliant dance and orchestral tour-de-force. Next we see the Princesses in the Round Dance of the Golden Apples. The music is clearly diatonic, and somewhat plain, particularly in comparison to the preceding dance. The infamous Infernal Dance of King Kastchei is next. The strong rhythmic pulse of the music and the ferocious orchestral hits give this a particularly demonic quality. Next, the Berceuse features the bassoon and very delicate accompaniment in the strings and harp. Following a series of descending chords, the Finale is heralded by the horn. The orchestra joins in to build to a great climax, leading into a mixed-meter dance that concludes the suite.