The Ballets Russes, founded in 1909 by art critic and impresario Sergei Diaghilev, staged some truly revolutionary productions on the very edge of aesthetic newness. Diaghilev’s ballets coordinated set designs by artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Giorgio de Chirico, choreography by such masters as George Balanchine and Vaslav Nijinsky, and scores by such modern composers as Sergei Prokofiev and Erik Satie. But of course, when we think of Diaghilev’s Russian ballets, we surely think foremost of Igor Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring was so radical it famously incited a riot at its 1913 Parisian premiere and “would go on,” writes The Verge, “to leave an indelible mark on jazz, minimalism, and other contemporary movements.”
Just three years earlier, however, Stravinsky was mostly unknown. Still working under the shadow of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, he was given his first big break by Diaghilev only after several other composers refused the job. That commission turned out to be one of the works for which Stravinsky is best known—the score for The Firebird, a ballet based on a Russian folk tale about a prince who frees a magical bird held captive by a sorcerer. Fittingly, given the monstrous nature of the story’s antagonists, Stravinsky’s score turns on a very sinister-sounding musical interval, the tritone, whose dissonance caused earlier composers to dub it “the Devil’s Interval” and to avoid it entirely in religious music. Just above, you can see Stravinsky himself, at age 82, conduct “The Lullaby Suite” from the ballet.
Stravinsky’s score built on Claude Debussy’s use of the tritone twenty years earlier in the eerie Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun, and the net effect of the interval in these two pieces lead to its dark, moody sound becoming “the center of modern music.” So says Carnegie Hall’s Jeffrey Geffen in the short video introduction to Stravinsky’s Firebird. Geffen goes on to tell us that Debussy and Stravinsky “looked to what was considered the most dissonant interval of the past 200 years and turned it into into something that becomes exotic and perfumed.” Although The Firebird’s story and many of its musical themes are distinctly Russian in origin (as you can see in the Khan Academy video below), the music “would not have been possible,” says Carnegie Hall’s David Robertson, “without the influence of Debussy and that of his friend Maurice Ravel.”
Stravinsky’s music proved polarizing even before the riots of Rite of Spring. When legendary dancer Anna Pavlova heard the Firebird score, she declared it “noise” and refused to dance to it, forcing Diaghilev to cast Tamara Karsavina in the title role. But the producer believed in his new composer, remarking to Karsavina on the ballet’s premiere that Stravinsky was “a man on the eve of celebrity.” Even the forward-looking Diaghilev couldn’t have predicted how much influence Stravinsky would have on the next 100 years of modern music. Since its first incarnation in 1910, The Firebird has been restaged and rearranged several times. The suite Stravinsky conducts at the top of the post comes from the 1945 arrangement. Two years after this filmed performance, Stravinsky conducted his very last recording for Columbia Records. He again chose to return, for the last time, to the ballet that first made him famous, The Firebird.