Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird

My older brother, Ken, had a girlfriend back in grade school, named Donna. She went on to marry Ken’s best friend, and then Ken married Donna’s best friend Carolyn. Donna major in English, because she loved to read. Whenever she found an author who appealed to her, she would methodically read every one of his or her books. She worked her way through all of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner.

I respected her approach, but being a Gemini myself, I have been unable to follow that route either with authors or composers. I’m much too easily distracted by the latest sight, sound, taste and have spent my life, jumping from one interest to another. This is the way of the dilettante, and though it’s too late to change my ways, I wouldn’t if I could. It has served me well.

My one exception to dilettantism in the world of music, however, has been Igor Stravinsky. After I discovered Rite of Spring and Petrushka I started to check out and buy anything by Stravinsky that I could. I still listened to other composers, of course, but I always returned–and still do, by the way–to Igor’s music.  It’s worth doing.  Everyone knows his big ballet works, but once I heard a snippet from his opera, A Rake’s Progress, which I had never hear before, that was so lovely that it almost melted my heart.

The third piece of Stravinsky, that I devoted some time to was his probably most well-known piece,The Firebird. This was his first ballet for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in Paris. Since it predates Rite of Spring and Petrushka it lies closer to the Russian school out of which Stravinsky came.  (He studied under Rimsky-Korsakov.) In The Firebird for example, you can hear echoes of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Great Gate of Kiev” from Pictures at an Exhibition. At the same time, it is much more melodic, owing to the influence of Tchaikowsky. Finally, the lush and shimmering orchestration reminds me of the Impressionists, Debussy and Ravel, Stravinsky’s near immediate elders in Paris.

This piece makes me think of a quote by Stravinsky: “all great composers steal.” Now I don’t know whether I’d call this work plagiarism. Rather, I’d say he was such a genius that he had completely mastered the artistic techniques and traditions of Western music until his time. The Firebird shows his attempt to synthesize everything he knew, or at least demonstrate his mastery of them, perhaps before finding his own unique voice, which burst on the scene and turned the music world upside down with the Rite of Spring.

I find it puzzling that no one in the 20th century was able to touch him. Why did so many composers who came after him get lost in the world of 12 tone, atonality, minimalism and serialism, some of which Stravinsky himself explored, instead of standing on his shoulders? The philosopher, T.E. Hulme, of course, wrote a book on how artistic movements become more abstract when a civilization is undergoing chaos–for example Byzantine art became progressively two dimensional as the empire collapsed. And in prosperous times, Hulme noted that art became increasingly naturalistic and representative as happened in Renaissance Florence. So maybe that is what happened in 20th century music as well. As European civilization collapsed under two world wars and then the cold war’s threat of annihilation, perhaps our music represented that angst. After the Vietnam War ened and until the economic meltdown of 2008, tastes ran toward the more lush and stimulating music of the neo-romanticists like Aarvo Paart and Henryk Gorecki. Thank god. If I hear another monotonous piece by Phillip Glass, I think I’ll stick knitting needles in my ears.

The youtube video above is the Suite he composed in 1919.  Below is a longer version with Stravisnky conducting.  It seems to be from Japanese TV.

Download MP# or Buy CD of Stravinsky Conducting Firebird

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About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

7 Responses to Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird

  1. Diana says:

    I love the minimalists, have been studying them a bit this year. Know hardly anything about Stravinsky, but working on that. 🙂

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  2. This was a really interesting read, I don’t know a great deal about Stravinsky, but I’ve listened to his Rite Of Spring and it’s definitely a favourite of mine. I’m studying music composition myself and have spent a bit of time studying some of Philip Glass’ music. Admittedly some of it is extremely simple, but I also think that it’s simplicity can be extremely moving when done right. The simplicity has served as a great introduction for me to understanding how the language of music works. I’m now starting to apply these skills to my own music, but I’d love to further develop them and one day be able to write music as challenging and interesting as the likes of Stravinsky.

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    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks for the compliment. I didn’t mean to totally dis Glass. I have a copy of Einstein on the Beach. I just found a repetition that didn’t go anywhere in subsequent pieces. Maybe he was influenced by Beckett. I do love Steven Reich, a contemporary of Glass’. I think they were in the same group once. This piece is superb and the incremental building of themes always stuns me.

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      • kvennarad says:

        I have just spent a wonderful 1 hour 7 mins 43 secs!

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      • kurtnemes says:

        Kvennarad–glad you liked the Reich. Was it the first time you’ve heard it? It’s one of my all time favorites. Look other versions of it up on Youtube. There are some live performances which are fantastic to watch when you realize it’s all accoustic.

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      • kvennarad says:

        No, I have heard quite a lot of Reich, including an excerpt of this piece, but this is the first time I have listened to it all the way through.

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  3. kvennarad says:

    I’m not sure I buy T E Hulme’s idea, because in the 20c one also has the Nazi regime’s obsession with a soul-less fusion of classicism and giganticism in architecture and sculpture, romanticism in representational art and music, and a kind of folksy naïveté in popular culture; also the Stalinist realist school in the USSR. Neither of these is purely abstract. We have also had, in ‘Western’ music, the 20c English Romantics, and a remarkable corpus of film music. The 20c is also the century of Norman Rockwell in the USA. I see abstract forms (and even continuing movements in art, literature, music, etc.) as being a logical extension or ‘ars gratia artis’, which is, after all, a relatively new (or newly-recognised) movement in the arts, and as being confined to a minority. Okay, the ‘minority’ for most of the 20c, included influential musicians and music academics, and they did govern important aspects of the philosophy of, and study of, and public performance of ‘serious’ music; but they did not represent music as a whole.

    Having said that, I have actually greatly appreciated the 20c willingness to explore in art… y’know, I don’t know why I’m continuing to say 20c, because the movement away from mainstream representational art was well under way by the end of the 19c. I think it has something to do with my total lack of training in any art whatsoever. I can listen to Boulez or Stockhausen, and they can speak to me – somehow I seem to ‘get’ what’s going on, and if a particular piece is difficult for me to take, that doesn’t seem to matter, because that’s not what’s beautiful about it.

    Incidentally, I greatly enjoyed listening to ‘Firebird’ this morning. I must say I also love Isao Tomita’s electronic interpretation.

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