“The world is full of magical things,
For our senses to grow sharper”
– W.B Yeats
Another ancient myth that appears in many cultures deals with a magical Firebird. One of the earliest versions may be the story of the Egyptian Benu bird. The Heliopolis creation myth says the Benu bird created itself from a fire which burned at the top of the sacred Persea tree, and brought life and light to the world. The Greeks may have appropriated aspects of this story for the Bird of Phoenix in Greek mythology.
Here, the Phoenix is a symbol of rebirth, consecration, renewal and resurrection as it rises from the fire and ashes of its predecessor, to be born anew. There are analogues of these tales in Persia, China, Japan, India, Turkey, Tibet and I’m sure elsewhere.
The Russian legend of the Firebird is what Igor Stravinsky was asked to use as inspiration for ballet music for the Ballets Russes. Diaghilev called upon the then unknown composer, to create something new for his dance troupe. Igor delivered, and the collaboration of Stravinsky, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes was to continue and give us such masterpieces of modern music as Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps.
The storyline of the ballet is actually a bit of a mashup of the mythical Firebird story and a Russian legend of an evil, immortal, magician named Kashchei. In the ballet, a prince named Ivan goes to a magical land of Kashchei the Immortal, where he finds all sorts of magical creatures. In the gardens, he temporarily captures the magical Firebird, releasing it in exchange for a promise of its help. (This is a very important point. Do not try to hold on to a Firebird, or keep it rooted or caged. All birds, Firebirds included, need to be free to soar to the heights of their potential. Plus, you may get burned.)
Prince Ivan proceeds to have some conflicts with Kashchei, and things get very tense in the magical realm. Kashchei sends his magical creatures to dispatch with Ivan, but the Firebird comes to help as promised, and bewitches the creatures to do an Infernal Dance. Stravinsky writes some great music for this.
The Firebird tells Ivan that the secret to Kashchei’s immortality is that his soul is contained in some magic egg. Armed with this knowledge, Ivan defeats his rival by breaking the egg, and all the creatures, real and magical, trapped in Kashchei’s mystical land are set free. Which is what they wanted in the first place.
Although this Russian version that Stravinsky was assigned doesn’t have the overt themes of rebirth that most Phoenix legends have, I think the final hymn of the ballet was written with conscious thought to the resurrection theme. Take a listen and see what you think.
An interesting note about trying to study the music to the Firebird. The score itself has gone through several versions and rebirths of its own. First, there is the original ballet score, from which Stravinsky extracted a concert suite. Years later, he reorchestrated much of the music into another concert suite. Part of this had to do with the fact that it was written before the 1923 copyright laws, and was originally published in Russia, where those laws were not enforced. Several times in his career, Stravinsky would revise works and republish them in countries that respected copyrights. When listening to the Firebird and trying to follow the written score, you have to be careful to know you have the correct rebirth in hand.
There you have it. Keep your senses sharp and be on the lookout for magical things. Above all, if you run into a Bird of Phoenix be sure to let it be free.