Vital Signs

Igor Stravinsky

Virginia Woolf once wrote that human nature suddenly changed in the year 1910.  Certainly, the accepted idea of what popular entertainment could look and sound like underwent a rude shock on June 25 of that year, when the ballet The Firebird, by 28-year-old Igor Stravinsky, received its premiere at the Paris Opera.  From the small and brooding chromatic notes that open the piece, through the martial flourishes and swooping glissando harmonics (among a host of other constantly changing patterns that distinguish its “Infernal Dance”), to its climactic melee, this was music that both acknowledged the past and signaled, quite often frantically, to the future.  It could be said that Stravinsky’s Firebird score was like experiencing Debussy heard down the wrong end of the megaphone—swelling, late-Romantic textures refined into Russian folk music, with strategically placed bursts of noise to subvert the mood and disconcert the audience.

The ballet has historic significance not only as an artistic tour de force but as the beginning of a collaboration between Stravinsky and the impresario Sergei Dia­ghilev that would also produce Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).  Of the last named, little remains to be said except that its intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario, in which Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography forsook classical fluidity for that of the pagan fertility...

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