One hundred years ago, on June 18, 1912, London audiences experienced The Firebird for the first time. Performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, for whom the work was conceived, with choreography by Mikhail Fokine and music by Igor Stravinsky, the Covent Garden production was hailed for its ‘riot of rich colour and fantastic movement’, while Stravinsky himself was praised for his ‘extraordinary command of the bizarre’.
And yet Stravinsky very nearly didn’t write the music at all. Having studied first with two of Rimsky-Korsakov’s students and then with Rimsky-Korsakov himself, Stravinsky was, from the early 1900s, honing his craft while at the same time studying law. Ballet didn’t enter into the equation – Rimsky-Korsakov and his circle detested it – and in fact his first major task for Rimsky-Korsakov was a four-movement Piano Sonata in F sharp minor in the manner of Glazunov, another of Rimsky’s students, in the summer of 1903. He continued to be coached by Rimsky-Korsakov until his teacher’s death in 1908 - the young Igor was devastated.
In the latter half of 1909, Stravinsky was working on an opera The Nightingale – Rimsky-Korsakov had previously set him orchestration exercises based on his own recently completed opera Pan Voyevoda - when a telegram arrived that would change everything. It was from the great impresario Diaghilev, tentatively asking if he might be interested in writing music for the exotic Russian fairytale ballet he was planning for the Russian season at the Opéra de Paris. He had in fact already approached his resident composer, Nikolai Tcherepnin, and also Anatoly Lyadov but for reasons still largely unknown, they both declined. Diaghilev obviously saw something he liked in this largely untried composer – in fact, he had already invited Stravinsky to contribute a couple of orchestrations to Fokine’s ballet Chopiniana (renamed Les Sylphides) for the Paris premiere in June of that year. A 45-minute ballet was admittedly another challenge altogether, but it was one that Stravinsky was happy to accept. Between December 1909 and May 1910, he completed the bulk of the music, and the ballet received its first performance in Paris on June 25, 1910.
Although Stravinsky himself was reported to be unhappy with the score, it is widely celebrated for its inventive, colourful orchestration. ‘It’s one of Stravinsky’s most lyrical scores,’ says Barry Wordsworth, director of music of the Royal Ballet, which is resurrecting the ballet in 2012/13 to celebrate the work’s London centenary. ‘You can hear, more than you would expect, the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov even…but I love the fact that there are hints of Scriabin. Yes it’s an early work but it’s an amazing work. It has a lot of melodies – two of them are Russian folksongs that were collected by Rimsky-Korsakov – and some people have said that the only time it sounds like Stravinsky is in the ‘Infernal Dance’. But already in this early work he’s showing the most incredible grasp and ability to get colour and theatrical drama from the orchestra.’
Wordsworth is not merely a conductor who conducts ballet – he’s a ballet conductor (and yes, there’s a difference). ‘With The Firebird, this was the first time that Diaghilev had managed to bring together the three protagonists – music, choreography and design – on one occasion,' he says. ‘If you’re going to make a success of conducting it, you have to be right inside the choreography, the designs, the story, so that you’re not just conducting a concert but giving the audience the complete package.’
Wordsworth is particularly excited that the version being performed by the Royal Ballet is ‘as close as you probably get anywhere to seeing what Diaghilev and Stravinsky concocted’. Although the designs are from 1926 rather than from the original production (they were adapted after the 1910 premiere for touring purposes), what audiences will see at Covent Garden is the version first brought to the Royal Ballet by its founder Ninette de Valois in 1954, and mounted by Sergey Grigoriev and his wife Lubov Tchernicheva. ‘Sergey was Diaghilev’s ballet master, so there’s a direct link. Tamara Karsavina, the first Firebird, coached Margot Fonteyn, who coached Monica Mason, who is coaching the new Firebirds for this production. I go tingly just thinking about it.’
Respecting this venerated tradition of choreography means that compromises sometimes need to be made when interpreting Stravinsky’s score. Tempi cannot be set in stone - the technical requirements of the dancers must be taken into consideration. ‘At Figure 55 [The Princesses’ Game with the Golden Apples], for example, Stravinsky’s marking is Allegretto with a metronome speed of 84, but we never get faster than 76,’ says Wordsworth. ‘This is slower than you would do it in the concert hall, but the tempo is enshrined in the choreography. It’s awkward for the strings to play spiccato at this slower speed but if I tried to do it at the speed I’d like, as I have done in the studio, it would look ridiculous. The girls are meant to look poised but all that happens is that they drop the apples on the floor.’
It’s interesting that Wordsworth positively embraces this sort of collaboration with the dancers – he works with them, the ballet master and the répétiteur from the outset - and in no way views necessary alterations to the score as sacrificing the composer’s intentions. ‘The successful ballet conductor takes all the ingredients of a ballet production and moulds them into his conception of the piece,’ he says. ‘By the time you come to the performance you’re not conducting wishing you could do this bit or that bit faster. You’ve got to have convinced yourself – and worked with the dancers in the studio enough – that your interpretation actually works.’
Wordsworth finds that his musicians – who, incidentally, also play for the Royal Opera – are extremely receptive to any changes in the score once they understand the reasons behind them. With opera, the pit musicians can at least hear what’s happening on stage but with ballet their only stimulus – the visual – is hidden from them. And that’s where the conductor comes in. ‘It’s my responsibility to motivate the orchestra, to explain what the choreography is about and what we’re trying to achieve,’ says Wordsworth. ‘Once musicians are inspired in that way, they will respond and do the right thing.’ When he works with the Southbank Sinfonia, whose young players are mentored by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Wordsworth even encourages the orchestra to see the entire choreography of a production with piano accompaniment. ‘You wouldn’t believe the difference it makes to how they play afterwards,’ he says. ‘I’ve had really experienced players come up to me afterwards and say, “Barry, I always wondered why you did that rallentando – and now I see!”’
And yet, for all his positive views on collaboration, Wordsworth cannot help but return to Stravinsky’s score. ‘Those extraordinary woodwind interpolations, the string ornamentation, the textures…There is virtuoso writing for every instrument, and of course that’s why musicians love playing it.’
As for the centenary production at the Royal Opera House, Wordsworth is at pains to enforce just how significant a ballet The Firebird is. ‘Historically, it has to be seen in its own right as a wonderful piece of Russian theatre,’ he says, ‘but we can also see it for what it led to. After all, Stravinsky is one of the most significant composers to ever take ballet seriously, and the revolution he was to create with Petrushka and ultimately The Rite of Spring starts here. It starts with Diaghilev and the idea of working with dancers, of using those body rhythms to infect the music. But,’ continues Wordsworth, ‘The Firebird has an importance beyond all that. On this approach of bringing music, dance and design together hangs probably all the most successful ballets that have been done since.’
The Firebird runs at the Royal Opera House from December 22, 2012, to January 11, 2013, and will be staged in a mixed bill alongside Jerome Robbins’s In the Night and Rudolf Nureyev’s Raymonda Act 3. All performances are sold out although returns may be available, as will be a limited number of day seats.