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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Richard Taruskin

Four composers—all pupils of Rimsky-Korsakov who had possibly inherited his prejudices—refused before Diaghilev found his volunteer: Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), also a Rimsky-Korsakov pupil, but an ambitious member of a younger generation who had yet to make a name for himself and who therefore had everything to gain from the international exposure Diaghilev promised. In a couple of brightly colored orchestral scherzos the fledgling composer had shown a flair for féerie, the chief necessity for a “Miriskusnik” composer—that is, a composer in the spirit of Mir iskusstva and its aristocratic, decorative values. Stravinsky was invited to join the team.

For like all ballets, this one would be very much a team effort. As was traditional, the plot and scenario were largely the work of the choreographer, Mikhail Fokine (1880–1942), a brilliant young dancer who had trained under Petipa and Ivanov. The title, Firebird (Zhar-ptitsa, or L’oiseau de feu, as it was called at the Paris premiere), was symbolic: the Firebird, a Slavic mythological creature of gorgeous beauty whose feathers were treasures of incalculable value, had been adopted by the Mir iskusstva circle as the trademark of art-for-art’s-sake. Fokine patched together a story line from several well-known skazki or folk tales, a preposterous farrago as any Russian child could see, but calculated to cater to Parisian preconceptions of what was du vrai russe, “truly Russian.” It told of how Ivan Tsarevich, the Prince Charming character in Russian fairy tales, with the aid of the Firebird, won the hand of the Princess Nenaglyadnaya-Krasa (Unearthly beauty) by freeing her from a spell cast by the sorcerer Kashchey-Bessmertnïy (Deathless Kashchey).

True to the history of the genre, Stravinsky was only called in when all of this was ready. Here is how Fokine described their traditional, very unequal process of collaboration:

Stravinsky visited me with his first sketches and basic ideas. He played them for me, I demonstrated the scenes to him. At my request, he broke up his national themes into short phrases corresponding to the separate moments of a scene, separate gestures and poses.

I remember how he brought me a beautiful Russian melody for the entrance of Ivan-Tsarevich. I suggested not presenting the complete melody all at once, but just a hint of it, by means of separate notes, at the moments when Ivan appears at the wall, when he observes the wonders of Kashchey’s enchanted garden, and when he leaps over the wall. Stravinsky played, and I interpreted the role of the Tsarevich, the piano substituting for the wall. I climbed over it, jumped down from it, and crawled, fearstruck, looking around—my living room. Stravinsky, watching, accompanied me with patches of the Tsarevich melodies, playing mysterious tremolos as background to depict the garden of the sinister Deathless Kashchey. Later on I played the role of the Princess and hesitantly took the golden apple from the hands of the imaginary Tsarevich. Then I became Kashchey, his evil entourage—and so on. All this found most colorful interpretation in the sounds that came from the piano, flowing freely from the fingers of Stravinsky, who was also carried away with his work.18

The music Stravinsky came up with under these conditions fell into two broad categories. One was the folkloric, reserved for the human characters, the Prince and Princess. The other was the fantastic or féerique, associated with the supernatural characters, the Firebird and Kashchey. This dual or bifurcated style had been Rimsky-Korsakov’s specialty, brought to what seemed a peak of perfection in his late “fantastic” or fairy-tale operas, of which the last two were composed during Stravinsky’s period of apprenticeship. Typically, Rimsky-Korsakov would mine the music for the human characters from his own published collection of 1877, One Hundred Russian Folk Songs, and mine the music from the supernatural characters, as we have seen (Chapter 2), from the resources of the octatonic (or tone-semitone) scale.

Encouraged by Diaghilev, whose celebrated creative byword was Étonne-moi!19—“Astonish me!” (i.e., astonish the Parisians)—Stravinsky strove to maximalize the work of his teacher, just as Mahler and Strauss had been maximalizing the work of Wagner. For folk songs, like the one that brings the ballet to its brilliant conclusion, he remained faithful to his teacher’s anthology, and in one or two instances, most notably in the “Infernal Dance” for Kashchey’s monstrous retinue, he unconsciously plagiarized his teacher’s actual compositions. For representing the supernatural, however, he found a way toward unheard-of effects by building directly and deliberately on Rimsky’s work.

Just how directly and deliberately can be seen from Stravinsky’s starting point, a one-act opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, almost too neatly called Kashchey the Deathless, in which Rimsky had taken his own octatonic explorations to their furthest point. In Ex. 3-8, a passage from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, the harmony is governed by a “stable tritone” like the one governing the bell-ringing progressions in Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov, and every note is referable to a single octatonic scale as indicated by the numbered degrees.

What attracted Stravinsky’s attention was the sequence of thirds in the upper staff of the accompaniment in Ex. 3-8, played by a pair of clarinets in the orchestral original. By the simple expedient of regularly alternating major and minor thirds and further regularizing the progression so that the lower note of each successive third in the series stood a semitone below the upper note of its predecessor, Stravinsky hit upon a sort of universal harmonic solvent: an exhaustive cycle of twenty-four thirds in which no member of the series could recur until all of the others have intervened—an “omnibus progression” indeed! In Ex. 3-9 each “rung” in Stravinsky’s exhaustive “ladder of thirds” is given a reference number so that examples of its actual use in the ballet score can be easily compared with the full series.

The ladder’s most nearly complete appearance in the score comes in the “Dawn” passage that links the ballet’s two scenes (Ex. 3-10); it goes through sixteen progressions. In the example, the harmonies are presented in a notation that emphasizes their derivation from the ladder of thirds. In the actual score, the voice leading is conventional, producing a series of harmonies with what seems to be a bafflingly arbitrary root progression. (Magicians, including harmonic magicians, always do well to conceal their tricks.) The ladder of thirds is set out in Ex. 3-9 beginning with the minor third D/F because that is the interval Stravinsky himself used at the beginning of a musical example that half-explained his procedure (Ex. 3-11) to purchasers of a player-piano roll on which he recorded the score in 1929. As he put it there,

All that relates to the evil spirit, Kashchey, all that belongs to his kingdom—the enchanted garden, the ogres and monsters of all kinds who are his subjects, and in general all that is magical, mysterious or supernatural—is characterized musically by what one might call a leit-harmonie. It is made up of alternating major and minor thirds, so that a minor third is always followed by a major third, and vice versa.20


ex. 3-8 Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Kashchey the Deathless, scene 2, mm. 171–75


ex. 3-9 Igor Stravinsky, Firebird, “ladder of thirds”

Stravinsky’s “explanation” actually explains little. Indeed, it rather obfuscates matters by exchanging the positions of the two voices in the second illustrated third. That is one way in which modernists made their reputations: by issuing challenges to analysts, some of which went unmet for decades. But now that Stravinsky’s code, as it were, has been broken, some further demonstrations of the ways in which he derived his “magical” harmonies (and melodies) from the ladder of thirds can only enhance our appreciation of the extraordinary ingenuity with which the score of Firebird was constructed, even if we now also see how thoroughly rationalized (which means how easily learned and imitated) Stravinsky’s maximalizing methods were.

Ex. 3-12a, the very beginning of the ballet, is the passage illustrated in Stravinsky’s misleading example. (Now we can see why he spelled the second third the way he did, as F♭-A♭ rather than E-G♯.) Exx. 3-12b through 3-12e are labeled according to notations on the piano roll to show the action they accompany. Ex. 3-12d shows two segments from the ladder of thirds in counterpoint, while 3-12e shows how harmonic progressions can be constructed by juxtaposing segments in block formation. Finally, Ex. 3-12f, the leitmotif of Kashchey’s enchanted princesses, constructs “human” (because desire-filled) harmonies, dominant sevenths and Tristan-chords, over a pair of rungs from the ladder, as if to illustrate the plight of sentient human beings constrained by a supernatural force.


fig. 3-3 Piano roll of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet, issued by the Aeolian Company, London, in 1929.


ex. 3-10 Igor Stravinsky, Firebird, “Dawn”


ex. 3-11 Igor Stravinsky’s analytical example from piano roll notes


ex. 3-12a Igor Stravinsky, Firebird, Kashchey music, opening theme


ex. 3-12b Igor Stravinsky, Firebird, Kashchey music, “In the Darkness, Kashchey Watches for Victim s”


ex. 3-12c Igor Stravinsky, Firebird, Kashchey music, “Arrival of Kashchey the Deathless”


ex. 3-12d Igor Stravinsky, Firebird, Kashchey music, “Dialogue of Kashchey and Ivan Tsarevich”


ex. 3-12e Igor Stravinsky, Firebird, Kashchey music, “Death of Kashchey”

Ex. 3-12a also reveals the source of the ballet’s main leitmotif, namely the Firebird’s. The first four notes of the ostinato melody, consisting of the A♭-F♭ third (the second rung of Stravinsky’s ladder), the D (the ladder’s bottom, seemingly its generating pitch), and a passing tone to connect the two ladder components, are extracted and subjected to a wealth of separate manipulation to accompany the Firebird’s appearances. These manipulations are of an age-old academic sort that every counterpoint student learns: as illustrated in Ex. 3-13 (from a section titled “Apparition de l’Oiseau de feu”), the four-note motif is inverted (I), reversed (R), and reversed in its inverted form (RI).


ex. 3-12f Igor Stravinsky, Firebird, Kashchey music, end


ex. 3-13 Igor Stravinsky, Firebird, “Apparition de l’Oiseau de feu”

All of these motivically saturated passages accompany mime, and one of the special features of Firebird is its heavy emphasis on mime in addition to virtuoso dancing, as if to dramatize the ballet’s similarity (i.e., its superiority) to opera. The dances, musically more conventional, were fashioned into a suite that immediately became a popular concert work. Thus Stravinsky managed in this wildly successful score to appeal both to the broad concert and theater audience and to the composing and critical fraternity, a feat he would duplicate many times over the course of his long career, in the process gaining an eminence (indeed, many would claim, a preeminence) among twentieth-century composers, and a prestige, that would last to the end of his life, more than sixty years later.

What was absolutely unprecedented was that such an eminence and prestige could come to a composer by way of ballet, formerly that most despised of genres. It could never have happened were it not a Russian ballet. The triumph of ballet was thus also the triumph of Russia. Both would enjoy in the twentieth century a hitherto unknown musical distinction, and Stravinsky became the chief protagonist and beneficiary of the intersecting trajectories of conquest that Diaghilev and his “Ballets Russes” had engineered.


(18) Mikhail Fokine, Memories of a Ballet Master, trans. Vitale Fokine, ed. Anatole Chujoy (Boston: Little, Brown, 1961), p. 161.

(19) Cf. Jean Cocteau, “La Difficulté d’être” (Monaco: Éditions du Rocher, 1947), p. 45.

(20) Typescript, dated 1927, in the Igor Stravinsky archive, Paul Sacher Stiftung, Basel, Switzerland.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 10 Apr. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003007.xml