Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971) became well-known because of his ballet music (though he certainly wrote much more than that). This kickstart to his career is not surprising, as he was exposed to Russian ballet greats while growing up (Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballets, dancers Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina, etc.) (Joseph 2011, 16). He worked on three significant productions with the company Ballets Russes: The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913) (Schouvaloff and Borovsky 1982, 9).
The Ballets Russes revitalized ballet in Paris and set the standard for other productions (Joseph 2011, 28-29). This was a company founded by Sergei Diaghilev in 1909. He recruited designers, choreographers, and composers to create original content (as much as he was able to, at least) to do each ballet’s story justice (Harris-Warrick, Goodwin, and Percival 2001). This was an expensive but artistically strategic endeavor. The interdisciplinary, collaborative nature of this company was important, resulting in spectacles of carefully designed dance, elaborate music, imaginative staging, and detailed costumes. In his role as composer, Stravinsky had to work closely with the choreographer to coordinate the music and dancing.
The first two Diaghilev-Stravinsky ballets included choreographer Mikhail Fokine (Walsh 2001). The Firebird premiered on June 25, 1910 (Joseph 2011, 1). Once the Ballets Russes became known from The Firebird, they went on to have a successful premiere of Petrushka on June 13, 1911 (Walsh 2001). The third major Stravinsky-Diaghilev collaboration was the Rite of Spring, which premiered on May 29, 1913 (Walsh 2001). This time the choreography was done by Vaslav Nijinsky. This ballet was initially not well-received because of the jarring nature of Nijinsky’s choreography. One of the misconceptions about this ballet is that there was a riot at the premiere (perhaps it should have been called The “Riot” of Spring); however, while there was indeed great dissatisfaction at the premiere, it is unlikely that a riot occurred.
There are two general themes that can be seen in these three ballets. First, all three of these ballets used larger orchestras and more elaborate music than normal. Usually ballet music is straightforward and subservient to the choreography. While this is somewhat the case for these three ballets, the music is more complex and almost equal to the dancers on stage. That is why these three Stravinsky pieces, despite being originally for ballet, can be successfully performed as suites (i.e., just the music, no dance or costumes).
Second, all three of these evoke a sense of Russian nationalism since they draw upon the region’s folklore (folk songs, dress, stories, etc.). This was an interesting choice on their part, as Russia itself was going through a political identity crisis at the time, transitioning from a Tsarist system through revolution and government reforms. However, these nationalistic, folkloric aspects cannot be as easily discerned in the suite versions of these pieces, apart from melodies.
Because of these embedded meanings, it is important to understand that Stravinsky’s music for The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring was originally written for a multimodal experience, not just the orchestral concert hall. For example, you’ve likely already experienced two of these in an audio-visual context: Disney’s Fantasia incorporates part of Rite of Spring, and Fantasia 2000 uses some of The Firebird. You’ll notice that both scenes use fire, a fitting visual representation of the energetic, powerful nature of Stravinsky’s scores for these ballets.
It was these three ballets that helped Stravinsky go on to write music for other productions like Pulcinella. Before you listen to the Pulcinella suite at our Masterworks II concert, read the program notes carefully. Can you pick up on how the music was written in conjunction with the plot?
Written by Emily Ruth Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in Musicology (Florida State University)
Harris-Warrick, Rebecca, Noël Goodwin, and John Percival. 2001. “Ballet.” Oxford Music Online.
Walsh, Stephen. 2001. “Stravinsky, Igor (Fyodorovich).” Oxford Music Online.