“The Firebird was Stravinsky’s first major success, the first of his ballets to be premiered by Sergei Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes. Its fantasy-like story tells of Prince Ivan, who befriends the Firebird and later summons the magical creature to aid him in defeating the evil magician Kastchei and his fiendish monsters” (Cummings).
“Cast in two scenes and having 22 dance numbers, the ballet opens with the Introduction, which is dominated by an ominous, searching ostinato, initially heard in the bass strings. The mood remains dark and mysterious in the ensuing Kastchei’s Enchanted Garden, but things brighten in the glittering instrumentation that depicts the appearance of the Firebird and in the Dance of the Firebird, where you can almost see the creature flit and flutter. This music corresponds to the second movement in the 1919 Suite No. 2, the most popular of the three the composer extracted from the ballet” (Cummings).
“After the Firebird’s capture, the music turns dark and fills with yearning as the creature desperately pleads to Prince Ivan for its release, which he grants, thus gaining its favor. The music in the next four numbers deals with the enchanted princesses and is light and playful in the first two, reflective and sentimental in the latter pair” (Cummings).
“Daybreak is vigorous and colorful, but conveys an ominous sense, a sense that continues when the Prince enters Kastchei’s palace. The next several numbers deal with Kastchei and his retinue of monsters, and with the capture of the Prince. In these the music becomes threatening and dark, but without ever losing its fantasy-like character” (Cummings).
“The music depicting the Firebird’s reappearance to save the Prince again features a colorful, busy character. The dance of Kastchei’s court and the famous Infernal dance follow, the latter a grotesque, rhythmic piece that many listeners will recognize as comprising the seventh movement of the Suite No. 2” (Cummings).
“The Lullaby follows, featuring an exotic, lonely theme on bassoon. This section serves as the source music for the eighth movement. The brief Kastchei Awakens precedes the most famous music in the ballet – Kastchei's Death – which also comprises the Suite No. 2’s finale. It features a soaring, stately melody – probably the most familiar theme in any Stravinsky work – that grows grander and louder as it proceeds, crowning the ballet with an absolute sense of triumph” (Cummings).