Concert Notes

Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” Suite

Notes by TŌN horn player Stefan Williams

A New Collaboration
In 1909, Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev was reeling from the success of the Ballet Russes in Paris and was in search of a wholly new production as a climax for the season. In February of that year, he attended a concert featuring the music of a new and, at the time, unknown composer: Igor Stravinsky, a student of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. After hearing Stravinsky’s orchestral Fireworks and Scherzo fantastique, Diaghilev was highly impressed with this young composer and commissioned him to arrange some works by Chopin for the Ballet Russes. The following year, Diaghilev commissioned Stravinsky to write the score for a new ballet, The Firebird. It was a massive success that propelled Stravinsky’s composing career and began a long-term collaboration between Stravinsky and Diaghilev. Many of Stravinsky’s most famous works—including Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and The Wedding—were composed for Diaghilev’s company.

From Ballet to Suite
After the completion of the ballet, Stravinsky went on composing concert versions of the music; these included a piano reduction of the whole ballet and suites from 1910, 1919, and 1945. Today the suite from 1919 will be performed. In this version, Stravinsky used less than half of the original material from the ballet, and significantly simplified its orchestration. It was originally made for Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, who conducted several premieres of Stravinsky’s other works. It was noted by American conductor Robert Craft, who worked closely with Stravinsky in his late years, that this version was riddled with errors; Stravinsky concurred with this assessment, writing in 1952 that “the parts of the 1919 version were full of mistakes.” In spite of that, the 1919 version continues to be the most-performed version of The Firebird.