The Diaghilev enterprise really came into its own when it renounced the verbal altogether. Ballet represented in its purest form the synthetic ideal to which the World of Art aspired. It was through ballet that the Diaghilev enterprise would have its shattering, transforming impact on European culture. And it was through his contribution to this transforming impact that Igor Stravinsky would unexpectedly emerge as a major force in twentieth-century music.Oh yes, looking at Stravinsky in his pre-Firebird incarnation, it is hard to see how he might impact twentieth-century music in any significant way. The obviously important figures were people like Arnold Schoenberg who had already composed his revolutionary String Quartet no. 2 in 1908 and 1910 would bring his influential Harmonielehre and in 1912 Pierrot Lunaire. Plainly, this was the main path to the future.
Prior to the Ballets Russes' reinvention of the ballet, it had, like the royal courts that had been its natural environment, been in decline:
In sum, as of the turn of the century, the Russian Imperial Ballet was an antiquated French entertainment preserved in amber, or, in Benois's words, "in a state of mummification." [op. cit. pp. 537-8]Taruskin likens it to a sleeping maiden in the woods, shielded from outside disturbances until awakened by the World of Art. It was uncorrupted by realism and didactic and social concerns, so ripe for the kind of untrammeled creativity that was the specialty of the World of Art circle.
Benois was, of course, the creator of the scenario for the Ballets Russes' first venture into ballet, Le pavillon d'Armide with music by Cherepnin, that we have already mentioned. This was premiered in the late spring 1909 season. Also involved was the choreographer Mikhail Fokine, associated with the Imperial Theater School, and one of the dancers was a teen-aged Nijinsky. One costume element, the egret plume worn by Nijinsky in his role as Armida's slave, even made it into literary immortality as it was mentioned in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (vol. 2, p. 770). The one fly in the ointment was the music, whose quality, according to the French critics, did not live up to the splendor of the dance and sets. Time to bring to the table some fresh young Russian composer. Wonder who that might be?
According to Benois' account, written within a year of the conceiving of The Firebird, the aim was to create a definitive neonationalist Gesamtkunstwerk using characteristically Russian mythology:
As an embodiment of pure, heartless, unattainable beauty, the Firebird enjoyed a renewed celebrity among the Symbolists and Miriskusniki. She was one of a whole array of magic birds that inhabited Russian and European folklore and, with the nineteenth century, professional art as well ... She was traditionally aloof from, even hostile toward, men ... Gorgeous yet enigmatic, a thing of preternatural, elemental freedom, she personified the indifference of beauty to the desires and cares of mankind. In this she was the very symbol of art-for-art's-sake; for, as the saying goes, "Life is fettered; Art is free." [op. cit. p. 557]Incidentally, what they fashioned out of the rag-bag of individual tales, resembles quite well the classic structure of Greek comedy as analyzed by Northrop Frye: a young couple consisting of the Russian "Prince Charming," Ivan-Tsarevich, and the captive Princess are opposed by a blocking older character or "senex," in this case, Kashchey the Deathless. The immediate inspiration, which included the Firebird itself as the "magical helper" who helps the hero in his quests, was these lines by Yakov Polonsky:
And in my dreams I see myself on a wolf's back
Riding along a forest path
To do battle with a sorcerer-tsar (Koschei)
In that land where a princess sits under lock and key,
Pining behind massive walls.
There gardens surround a palace all of glass;
There Firebirds sing by night
And peck at golden fruit.The Firebird is the embodiment of the ancient sun-god of the Slavs, the Yariko to whom the sacrifice is made in the Rite. She is light and warmth, eternal youth and beauty.
Sooner or later we will get to the music itself, but it won't be today! Instead, let's listen and watch another production. This is a film of a re-creation of the original 1910 Ballets Russes production directed by Andris Liepa. The Bolshoi State Academic Theatre Orchestra with conductor Andréy Chistiakov: