Diaghilev already knew Stravinsky's work, in fact he had already commissioned orchestrations from him for the Les sylphides suite, so finally the attention turned his way. He began composition in October or November 1909, even before he received the official commission in December. Stravinsky's first sessions with Fokine consisted of the latter laying out his requirements for the various sections of the ballet--the choreographer was at the helm creatively. This was a bit of a throwback to the early days of ballet when the music was arranged to fit the dancing and not vice-versa. The one area in which Stravinsky prevailed was over Fokine's original idea for the apotheosis or finale in which banal "gay processional dances" were proposed.
The only technical description we have from Stravinsky of how he composed is regarding a core element of The Firebird, the element that is used to suggest all the fantastic elements relating to Kashchey:
|[quoted in Taruskin, op. cit. p. 589]|
This idea actually comes from an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov: Kaschey the Deathless!
(If you are familiar with Stravinsky's recollections published much later in his conversation books, you will notice that he had quite a different perspective on these events and his debts to Rimsky-Korsakov and others--in this respect I am going to go with Taruskin's account, supported with a plethora of evidence.)
Here is another example from Taruskin showing two "ladders of thirds," the one from Rimsky-Korsakov and the other from Stravinsky:
|[op. cit. p. 593]|
Stravinsky does develop the idea in various ways such as presenting two ladders a tritone apart, or alternating French sixths and diminished sevenths (one interesting thing about composing using the octatonic scale is that the only chords available are diminished!). Another interesting technique occurs in the "Dialogue de Kastchei avec Ivan-Tsarévich" where a pair of horns and a pair of trumpets each present a pentatonic scale, one "white keys" and one "black keys"--an early example of Stravinskian "polytonalism."
The motif heard in the basses at the very beginning of the ballet is actually an arpeggiation of the Kashchey ladder:
Taruskin has a lot more about the use of whole-tone chords, the appearance of the "Petruschka" chord, how the human characters are associated with diatonic harmony and the supernatural ones with chromatic harmony, the use of genuine folk tunes in the khorovod of the Princesses, the influence of Scriabin on the Firebird's Dance and the orientalisms of the Firebird's supplications. But I don't want to go over all that here as I want to finish with The Firebird so we can move on to Petrushka!
The Firebird achieved a smashing success at its première at the Paris Opera on 25 June, 1910. The French particularly admired the work's synthesism, its brilliant fusing of painting, dance and music. Stravinsky was particularly honored with the first article devoted to his music published in the international press. The author was Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi and it appeared in the Musical Times of 1 August 1911:
Russian born and Russian in spirit [Stravinsky] has no ambition but to assert his personality in the fullest and most independent way. He has eagerly drunk in the often misunderstood or forgotten message of Russia's greatest masters, and thereby learned to stand his own ground ... he stands apart among his colleagues for the abundance, boldness and vigour of his imagination as well as for his command of craftsmanshipReading Taruskin, who works very hard to uncover all the historical context and forerunners of Stravinsky's music, one can lose sight of just how spectacular his development was. Yes, based on music of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, but displaying a new energy and ingenuity that we will see expanded on in the next two ballets: Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
Let's end with one final version of The Firebird. This is the Royal Danish Ballet, choreography Glen Tetley, Royal Danish Orchestra, conductor Poul Jorgensen: