Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravinsky Conduct The Firebird, the Ballet Masterpiece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear 46 Ver­sions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 3 Min­utes: A Clas­sic Mashup

Stravinsky’s “Ille­gal” Arrange­ment of “The Star Span­gled Ban­ner” (1944)

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visu­al­ized in a Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion for Its 100th Anniver­sary

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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