Stravinsky composed The Firebird (L'Oiseau de feu) in 1909 - 1910 for the Ballets Russes, which introduced it at Paris on June 25, 1910. Sergey Diaghilev, founder and guiding genius of the Ballets Russes, which took Paris by storm in 1909, remained a catalytic force until his death 20 years later. The scion of St. Petersburg gentry, he recruited dancer-choreographer Mikhail Fokine to "liberate" Russian ballet from inherited French conventions and purely decorative dancing. Later on, by sponsoring other, younger choreographers, and by commissioning cutting-edge composers, painters, and scenarists, he revolutionized the ballet worldwide. After the first Paris season, Diaghilev asked for a new work based on the fable of a fiery bird and a wicked sorcerer. Since Rimsky-Korsakov, his first choice of composer, had recently died, he commissioned a pupil, Anatol Lyadov. The latter, gifted but dilatory, had only purchased music paper by deadline. Thus, the score was assigned to another, younger Rimsky pupil, whose Scherzo fantastique and Fireworks Diaghilev had heard at a St. Petersburg concert. If Igor Stravinsky at 27 had been slow to develop, he was ready for Destiny's kiss.
In November 1909, to a scenario by Fokine, he began composing the work that premiered in June 1910 with glittering success. Aleksandr Golovin designed scenery, Leonid Bakst the costumes. Gabriel Pierné conducted a huge orchestra with quadrupled winds et al. When the storied Anna Pavlova couldn't master Stravinsky's intricate rhythms, Tamara Karsavina replaced her in the title role. Fokine himself danced Prince Ivan, who captures the Firebird while hunting in the garden of evil sorcerer Katschei. When he frees her, she gives him a magic feather, whereupon 13 princesses appear, prisoners of the sorcerer. Ivan falls in love with the prettiest, who begs him to leave -- Katschei literally petrifies any who trespass. When the latter materializes (an sfff blast by the full orchestra), Ivan uses the feather to summon Firebird. She dances the sorcerer and his retinue to sleep, enabling Ivan to destroy them, break the spell, and claim his princess.
Stravinsky extracted three concert suites. The first one used original orchestration and ended with Katschei's "Infernal Dance." A second one, in 1919, created in Switzerland for conductor Ernest Ansermet, for standard-size orchestra -- still the most popular -- has the "Infernal Dance" midway, followed by "Lullaby" and the original finale. In 1946, Stravinsky fashioned a third suite with additional materials from the ballet, to renew his copyright, but it never caught on.
The 1919 suite begins with the Firebird's capture. "Khorovod" follows -- a round-dance by the princesses -- then Katschei's arrival and wild dance. Firebird's seduction of him in "Berceuse" sets up the sonorous, pageant-like final tableau.