Thursday 9 April

Stravinsky Ballets

'I haven't understood a bar of music in my life, but I have felt it.'
Igor Stravinsky

Igor Stravinsky
The Firebird

1. Introduction

First Tableau
2. The Enchanted Garden of Kashchei
3. Appearance of the Firebird, pursued by Prince Ivan
4. Dance of the Firebird
5. Capture of the Firebird by Prince Ivan
6. Supplication of the Firebird –
Appearance of the Thirteen Enchanted Princesses
7. The Princesses' Game with the Golden Apples
8. Sudden Appearance of Prince Ivan
9. Round Dance of the Princesses
10. Daybreak – Prince Ivan Penetrates Kashchei's Palace
11. Magic Carillon, Appearance of Kashchei's Monster Guardians, and Capture of Prince Ivan – Arrival of Kashchei the Immortal – Dialogue of Kashchei and Prince Ivan – Intercession of the Princesses – Appearance of the Firebird
12. Dance of Kashchei's Retinue, enchanted by the Firebird
13. Infernal Dance of All Kashchei's Subjects – Lullaby – Kashchei's Awakening – Kashchei's Death – Profound Darkness

Second Tableau
14. Disappearance of Kashchei's Palace and Magical Creations, Return to Life of the Petrified Knights, General Rejoicing

‘Well,’ said Debussy to the young composer who thus burst into Paris and into history, ‘you have to start somewhere.’

For all its dry wit, the above comment was apropos. Stravinsky was 28 when The Firebird had its first performance – in Paris on 25 June 1910 – and had written quite a lot of music before, but in many respects this was indeed where he began. It was the first of his works to be played outside Russia, and has remained the earliest in regular performance. Also it was – like the imperial realm in which it was written, and whose richly varied musical culture it commemorated – a place to move on from. Thus, while it certainly marks an arrival of a composer who is brilliant and alert, immediately identifiable, it is also an adieu to the late Romantic Russia in which that composer had been raised as a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov (whose later music, still very recent, was a potent influence). The Firebird – or phoenix, born from flames, a symbol of regeneration – was altogether a fitting subject. Rimsky-Korsakov is there in the fire and the feathers, the highly chromatic harmony and the sumptuous orchestration. But the figure wearing his musical clothes, and moving with a quickened, edgier pulse, is Stravinsky.

It might, though, never have happened. The impresario Serge Diaghilev had his own reasons for wanting to present his company under the banner of rebirth: this was his second Ballets Russes season in Paris, and he was determined to have a new work. (His 1909 season had been of ballets already in the repertory of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg or adapted from it.) Michel Fokine, his company choreographer, was the obvious person to create the dance. But who should write the music? Diaghilev was certainly aware of Stravinsky, who had contributed two arrangements for Les Sylphides in the first Ballets Russes season. However, he seems to have gone first to Alexander Tcherepnine, then to Anatoly Lyadov, and only towards the end of 1909, with the opening night little more than six months away, to Stravinsky.

Stravinsky seized his opportunity, producing a 45-minute score of sensational magnificence. Fokine – with the help of Léon Bakst, who designed the Firebird’s vibrant costume – offered the Parisian public a dazzling spectacle, featuring himself as Prince Ivan, his wife Vera Fokina as the leading princess and Tamara Karsavina as the Firebird. But Debussy was by no means the only observer to notice, besides the wonder onstage, the music. Soon it leapt out of the theatre pit. Before the year was out, Stravinsky had created a concert suite, which he was to revise in 1919 and again in 1945. This, however, omits some extraordinary passages, besides missing the grand sweep of the complete score, which unfolds as follows.

Image: Firebird Ballerina, 1910, by Léon Bakst


A short orchestral introduction contrasts Russian with exotic harmonic worlds, night with brilliance (featuring string harmonics), in a depiction of the enchanted garden of the ogre Kashchei. The Firebird enters, pursued by a prince, Ivan; she performs a solo dance, music of shimmering and lustre appropriate to a fantastic and flighty creature. Ivan gives chase and captures her, and she begs for release in a passionate slow waltz.

He lets her go, and they both slip aside as 13 princesses come delicately into the garden and, in a scherzo, toss golden apples to one another. The game comes to a sudden stop when Prince Ivan steps forward, his presence nobly intoned by a horn. But the princesses recover to execute a khorovod, or round dance: like the Prince, they prove their Russian blood in their music, which is based on traditional dances and folksongs, very much in the tradition of Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky.

As dawn comes, with trumpet calls, Ivan enters Kashchei’s palace. But he is not unnoticed. Magic bells start to sound and Kashchei’s guardian monsters hobble forward, followed by Kashchei himself, with a brassy outburst that leaves the stillness of unease. Kashchei roars at his uninvited guest, and silences the princesses, who try briefly to intercede, with the charms of their khorovod. It is time for the Firebird to return, and she does so, leading Kashchei and all his retinue into an Infernal Dance, quick and various and weird. Stamping rhythms suggest the approach of The Rite of Spring, which the composer was soon to begin.

Having danced themselves into exhaustion, the forces of evil are caused to sleep by the Firebird’s lullaby, again in a distinctly Russian tone. Very soon, though, Kashchei is awake again, and it is the prince’s turn to save the day by smashing the magic egg that had given him life. Quietly the scene changes. Kashchei’s palace disappears, and the previous heroes who had ventured in, all turned to stone, come back to life. Bell sounds ring out in jubilation, and time slows into a swinging pattern to create the first of the composer’s concluding apotheoses – a musical type that would echo through his output and still be there 55 years later at the end of his Requiem Canticles.

Image: Prince Ivan captures the Firebird, 1915, by Léon Bakst


The Ballet Russes was a ballet company originally conceived by Serge Diaghilev based in Paris that performed between 1909 and 1929 throughout Europe and on tour, though the company never performed in Russia.

The company is widely regarded as the most influential of the 20th century, in part because it promoted ground-breaking artistic collaborations among young choreographers, composers, designers, and dancers, all at the forefront of their fields.

Diaghilev commissioned music from Stravinsky, Debussy and Prokofiev, artwork from Vasily Kandinsky, Alexandre Benois, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and costume from Léon Bakst and Coco Chanel.

Igor Stravinsky
1910–11, rev 1947

1. The Shrovetide Fair
2. In Petrushka's Cell
3. In the Blackamoor's Cell
4. The Shrovetide Fair (Evening)

Once he had arrived in Paris with The Firebird, Stravinsky stayed. The success of his first score for Diaghilev meant there would have to be another, and he immediately started work on what would emerge as The Rite of Spring. But then, according to his own account, he got sidetracked:

‘I wanted to refresh myself by composing an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the most important part … In composing the music, I had in mind a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life.’
Igor Stravinsky

Continuing this story, he tells how he was visited by Diaghilev – both of them were living on the Swiss riviera, around Lake Geneva – and the great impresario smelt a show in the air: the music his young composer was playing him would have to be a ballet, not some kind of piano concerto. A puppet, did he say? Well then, that was it: Petrushka, the story from the Russian fairs, about a thing of wood and string that does indeed gain human feelings, with tragic consequences.

However unlikely this narrative may be in terms of chronology, it serves to show the weight Stravinsky wanted his ballet scores to have as self-sufficient music. It also shows how the drama on stage was equalled for him, if not surpassed, by a drama happening within the score – the drama of a piano playing tricks on the orchestra, of figures and instruments in liaison and combat. The puppet-piano in the second scene he saw as ‘exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios. The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. The outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet’.

Other dramas here have to do with the treatment of what, in his later conversations with Robert Craft, he called the ‘Russian export style’. The Firebird had been an unashamed instance, as had most of the other scores Diaghilev had brought to Paris so far, including Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. But Petrushka looks at that style with ironic detachment. The fanfare-like gesture at the start of the second scene is a speeded-up version of a theme that had been luscious in Scheherazade. In the first scene, when Petrushka and his fellow puppets perform a Russian Dance, the music offers a machine-made portrait of national style. Again in the last scene, the different dances interlock like cogwheels in a piece of machinery, so that the human spectators at the fair seem more artificial than the painted dolls in the Showman’s booth.

By the time he was composing this, Stravinsky was full of enthusiasm. In January 1911, following a Christmas visit to St Petersburg, he wrote to a friend:

‘My last visit to Petersburg did me much good, and the final scene is shaping up excitingly … quick tempos, concertinas, major keys … smells of Russian food – shchi [cabbage soup] – and of sweat and glistening leather boots.
Igor Stravinsky

Image: The Shrovetide Fair, 1911, by Alexandre Benois


The quick tempos, the concertinas and the major keys are all easy to hear; the cabbage soup, the sweat and the boots might need a little bit of imagination. The first scene features mechanical rhythms, sharp cuts from one kind of music to another, and textures built from accumulations of rotating motifs. Tunes are spliced together, or placed with accompanying figures that are just spinning on the spot. Almost anything can happen, provided it happens on time.

Events in the first scene turn from the general to the specific. At first the musical activity is that of the excited crowd at the St Petersburg Shrovetide Fair, with instruments (a hurdy-gurdy, two musical boxes) and dancers among the throng. Attention focuses cinematically on the Showman and his three puppets: Petrushka, the Ballerina and the Blackamoor. In a magical passage the Showman charms them into life, and they step down from their stage as they give their Russian Dance.

The second scene conveys Petrushka’s bitterness and despair, which he feels at his dependence on the Showman and at his unrequited love for the Ballerina. She visits him, but flees at the violence of his advances.

In the third scene she goes to his rival, the magnificent Blackamoor. Their love-making is witnessed by Petrushka, who rushes in and is promptly ejected.

The last scene returns to the world outside, now to observe individuals and groups, each defined by characterful, folksy music. Everything comes to a stop when the puppets burst out. With his scimitar the Blackamoor kills Petrushka, but the Showman reassures everyone that these are only puppets, and the crowd disperses in the evening snow. The Showman goes to drag the ‘corpse’ away, stopping in amazement when he sees Petrushka’s ghost sneering at him.

Where Stravinsky had written The Firebird as a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, now he was part of a new entourage, Diaghilev’s, working with colleagues whose talents sharpened his own: Alexandre Benois, who created the scenario and the designs, Michel Fokine, who did the choreography, and the dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina, who were in the starring roles when the ballet was first presented, in Paris on 13 June 1911. The musical magic, though, is all his own, made more streamlined in his 1947 revision.

Image: The Moor's Room, early 1900s, by Alexandre Benoit

Igor Stravinsky
The Rite of Spring

Part One: The Adoration of the Earth
1. The Introduction
2. Auguries of Spring
3. Game of Capture
4. Round-Dances of Spring
5. Games of the Rival Tribes
6. Procession of the Sage
7. The Sage
8. Dance of the Earth

Part Two: The Sacrifice
9. Introduction
10. Mysterious Circles of the Young Girls
11. Glorification of the Chosen One
12. Evocation of the Ancestors
13. Ritual Action of the Ancestors
14. Sacrificial Dance

Stravinsky’s third project for Diaghilev loomed even before the first, The Firebird, was finished: it was to be an enactment on the modern stage of the spring rituals of the ancestral peoples of north east Europe. The guiding spirit was Nicolas Roerich, a Russian artist-archaeologist-ethnologist-seer then in his mid-thirties, who planned the scenario and, in due course, designed the sets and costumes for what was finally called, in Russian, Vesna svyashchennaya (Holy Spring), and entered history as Le Sacre du printemps, or The Rite of Spring.

Roerich and Stravinsky started work in the spring (fittingly) of 1910, but by autumn the composer had set aside his sketches to concentrate on Petrushka, and he did not return to the project until the summer of 1911, after Petrushka had reached the stage as the star item of Diaghilev’s third Paris season. By the end of September – writing from his home in Clarens, on Lake Geneva, where most of the composition was done – he was able to report good progress to Roerich, and to remark how ‘the music is coming out very fresh and new’. In the spring of the following year he played through what he had composed, which included the whole of the first part, to Diaghilev and Nijinsky. All seemed set for a premiere the coming summer. However, Michel Fokine, Diaghilev’s choreographer, was fully occupied with preparing Daphnis et Chloé (to Ravel’s music), so Stravinsky’s new score would have to remain silent another year.

By the time rehearsals began in January 1913, Diaghilev had given the task of choreographing ancient rites – and modern rhythms – to Nijinsky, who had made his debut as a dance inventor with L’après-midi d’un faune (to Debussy’s Prélude) the year before. In March Pierre Monteux, who was to conduct, began rehearsals in Paris, and wrote to the composer, in Switzerland:

'What a pity that you could not … be present for the explosion of The Rite.'

But Stravinsky was certainly there two months later, for the premiere on 29 May 1913, when the explosion of the music from the pit of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées was answered by an outburst from the auditorium. By all accounts – and there were many – the performance was accompanied by shouts, catcalls, derisory comments, angered ripostes and even fistfights.

But then, how should people have sat calmly while the world was changing?

Image: Study of scene decoration for The Rite of Spring, 1944,
by Nicholas Roerich

Though set in prehistory, The Rite was the first music of the machine age, and its energy and din have resounded on. This insistent, repetitive noise was meant to be provocative. Stravinsky had passed through a belated musical adolescence; he was ready both to kick over his Russian traces (no more exotic colour and folklore à la Rimsky-Korsakov and Borodin) and to prove himself to his new Parisian friends, who included Debussy and Ravel. For three centuries music had been based on the regular rhythmic patterns of civilised dance. The Rite of Spring changed all that. The unit now was not the orderly bar but the eruptive beat. Bar lengths could alter from moment to moment, creating a turmoil of syncopations. Beats could be grouped to create themes whose identities are principally rhythmic. A musical work could not only sound like a machine but be one, rotating on cogwheels of rhythm, chopping up lengths of time.

The Rite of Spring is machine-like, too, in its form, being made of bits and pieces, with abrupt cuts from one thing to another. To that extent it is one of the first pieces of music made like a film. There are no developing themes; instead sections are related at the most fundamental levels of their musical scale (often one of the old scales of eastern European folksong), rhythmic unit and tempo. The climax in each of the two parts comes when pulsation becomes rampant, in the ‘Dance of the Earth’ and the ‘Sacrificial Dance’. Ritual is recreated as arithmetic. We know that spring is brought about not by human sacrifice but by the rotation of our planet – by, indeed, the ‘dance of the earth’, a dance of force and distance and angle. But spring’s creation of new life does indeed entail death, the death of what was. So it is here, as musical ideas are beaten to death in these great culminations of sound, and as the late Romantic orchestra, the orchestra of Mahler and Richard Strauss, discovers unsuspected powers.

Stravinsky realised that The Rite was unrepeatable. However, the work’s most essential and radical qualities – pulsing rhythm, repetition, the use of rhythmic shape as theme, the creation of continuity through breaks, the evocation of antiquity by modern means – stayed with him right through the half century and more of his composing life to come. More than that, they are with us still, for composers in every generation have gone on living in the long summer this spring ushered in.

Image: Dancers in Roerich's original costumes


The first of the ballet’s two parts, ‘Adoration of the Earth’, begins with a slow and supple ‘Introduction’ scored largely for woodwind instruments. A lone bassoon calls out over the sleeping orchestra and is eventually answered by a cor anglais; then other groups stir themselves, already in conflicting metres. Activity stops. The bassoon’s call is heard again, and this time elicits a pounding rhythm of massed strings mimicking drums with heavy offbeat accents from horns – the music of ‘The Augurs of Spring: Dances of the Young Girls’. With no change to its insistent pulse, this section accumulates layers of tune and repeated figure, then breaks into a racing speed for the ‘Ritual of Abduction’, with excited horn calls and fizzing strings.

Calm is restored by a melody for clarinets linked together two octaves apart, against trills from flutes. This opens ‘Spring Rounds’, a dance continuing at a heavy rhythm and soon moving to a threatening climax, from which the music bursts off again rapidly only to lead to a return of the calm episode, slightly differently scored. Now the outcome is the exuberant ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’, with hurtling gestures and stand-offs. An awesome, menacing march is started by trombones, who keep going amid the throng, and introduce ‘The Procession of the Sage’. There is a pause. Four quiet bars – ‘The Sage’ – suggest a moment of anticipation and a crucial act, to a chord for string soloists playing harmonics. This unleashes the mighty ‘Dance of the Earth’.

An ‘Introduction’ also opens the second part, ‘The Sacrifice’, this time with wafting harmonies from different groups, altogether suggesting a forest of colour. Trumpets sound a warning note, and horns announce the folksong-like theme of the ‘Mystic Circles of the Young Girls’, a theme taken up by strings and passed around the orchestra. But the peaceful atmosphere is interrupted again by brass warnings, and a steady barrage of drumming leads into the quick slicing movements and rushes of ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’. The end is being prepared.

Almost all the wind instruments lift their voices together in ‘Evocation of the Ancestors’, followed by ‘Ritual Action of the Ancestors’, which begins ominously and develops immense power. Its energy is left swilling around a few low woodwind instruments, then slips away into the ‘Sacrificial Dance’. Unprecedented, even within this score, for its rhythmic savagery, driven by a pulse that refuses to stay still, here the music ends – indeed, forcibly ends itself.

Discord, darkness, defiance.

For the announcement of our 2020/21 London concert season at the Barbican, we released a new film set to the last moments of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

He was filmed conducing in concert and his baton movement was captured and used to choreograph a dance sequence following his movement.

Dancer and choreographer Ella Robson Guilfoyle was filmed dancing with fabric, flares, chalk and smoke. These layers of footage were combined to create this film.

Visual Identity and Concept: Superunion
Feature artwork and photography: Found
Choreography and dance: Ella Robson Guilfoyle

Sir Simon Rattle conducts Stravinsky's ballets at the Barbican on Thursday 22 April 2021.
Click here for more information.

Igor Stravinsky

Third in a family of four sons, Stravinsky had a comfortable upbringing in St Petersburg, where his father was a Principal Bass at the Mariinsky Theatre. In 1902 he started lessons with Rimsky-Korsakov, but he was a slow developer, and hardly a safe bet when Diaghilev commissioned The Firebird. The success of that work encouraged him to remain in western Europe, writing scores almost annually for Diaghilev.

'Art is the opposite of chaos.
Art is organised chaos.'
Igor Stravinsky

The October Revolution of 1917 sealed him off from his homeland; his response was to create a rural Russia of the mind, in such works as the peasant-wedding ballet Les Noces (1914–23).

Before that was completed, a ballet based on 18th-century music, Pulcinella (1919–20), opened the door to a whole neo-classical period, which was to last three decades and more. He also began spending much of his time in Paris and on tour with his mistress Vera Sudeikina, while his wife, mother and children lived elsewhere in France. Up to the end of the 1920s, his big works were nearly all for the theatre (including the nine he wrote for Diaghilev). By contrast, large-scale abstract works began to dominate his output after 1930, including three symphonies, of which the first, Symphony of Psalms (1930), marks also his reawakened religious observance.

In 1939, soon after the deaths of his wife and mother, he sailed to New York with Vera, whom he married, and with whom he settled in Los Angeles. Following his opera The Rake’s Progress (1947–51) he began to interest himself in Schoenberg and Webern, and within three years had worked out a new serial style. Sacred works became more and more important, to end with Requiem Canticles (1965–66), which was performed at his funeral, in Venice.

Notes & composer profile by Paul Griffiths
Paul Griffiths has been a critic for nearly 40 years, including for The Times and The New Yorker, and is an authority on 20th and 21st-century music. Among his books are studies of Boulez, Ligeti and Stravinsky. He also writes novels and librettos.

Sir Simon Rattle

Sir Simon Rattle was born in Liverpool and studied at the Royal Academy of Music. From 1980 to 1998, he was Principal Conductor and Artistic Adviser of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and was appointed Music Director in 1990. In 2002, he took up the position of Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic where he remained until the end of the 2017/18 season. He became Music Director of the London Symphony Orchestra in September 2017.

Sir Simon regularly tours within Europe, North America and Asia, and has long- standing relationships with the world’s leading orchestras. Initially working closely with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestras, Simon has also recently worked with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. Sir Simon is also a Principal Artist of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Founding Patron of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Sir Simon Rattle was knighted in 1994. In the New Year’s Honours of 2014 he received the Order of Merit from Her Majesty the Queen.

Image: Ranald Mackechnie

The LSO was established in 1904 and has a unique ethos. As a musical collective, it is built on artistic ownership and partnership. With an inimitable signature sound, the LSO’s mission is to bring the greatest music to the greatest number of people.

The LSO has been the only Resident Orchestra at the Barbican Centre in the City of London since it opened in 1982, giving 70 symphonic concerts there every year. The Orchestra works with a family of artists that includes some of the world’s greatest conductors – Sir Simon Rattle as Music Director, Principal Guest Conductors Gianandrea Noseda and François-Xavier Roth, and Michael Tilson Thomas as Conductor Laureate.

Through LSO Discovery, it is a pioneer of music education, offering musical experiences to 60,000 people every year at its music education centre LSO St Luke’s on Old Street, across East London and further afield.

The LSO strives to embrace new digital technologies in order to broaden its reach, and with the formation of its own record label LSO Live in 1999 it pioneered a revolution in recording live orchestral music. With a discography spanning many genres and including some of the most iconic recordings ever made the LSO is now the most recorded and listened to orchestra in the world, regularly reaching over 3,500,000 people worldwide each month on Spotify and beyond. The Orchestra continues to innovate through partnerships with market-leading tech companies, as well as initiatives such as LSO Play. The LSO is a highly successful creative enterprise, with 80% of all funding self-generated.

Image: Ranald Mackechnie

Always Playing

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Join us online for a programme of full-length concerts twice a week, artist interviews, playlists to keep you motivated at home, activities to keep young music fans busy and much much more! 

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In the mean time: 

Join us for our next full-length concert

Sunday 12 April 7pm BST
Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 2
Balakirev Islamey
Shostakovich Symphony No 1

Gianandrea Noseda conductor
Seong Jin-Cho piano