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I had a friend of Russian extraction who adored the music of Stravinsky. He was Stravinsky mad. One time he went so far as to organize a “Rights of Man” event in 1960s Manchester, which was sadly wrecked by an uninvited a pack of Rockers; mistaking Stravinsky’s music for a Mod’s party. For those readers born after 1980, the Mods and Rockers were conflicting British working-class subcultures. The Mods were scooter riders, wearing suits and clean-cut attire. The Rockers were motorcyclists with a fondness for leatherwear.
This same friend was apt anywhere; be it a bar, restaurant or public library; without need of encouragement to perform a Tour en l’air, pirouette and even a Grande Jeté, to demonstrate some finer point of a Stravinsky ballet. Apart from the occasional embarrassment caused by his unconventional behaviour, I remain grateful to him for introducing me Stravinsky’s works; Renard, Petrushka, and the Firebird amongst others.
My favourite, The Firebird, was written as a ballet, “L’Oiseau de Feu”, produced for the first time at the Opéra, Paris, and directed by the impresario, Serge Diaghilev. The story of the ballet, which was arranged for Stravinsky by Michel Fokice was adapted from Russian folklore.
Ivan Tsarevich, wandering through the night discovers the Firebird plucking golden apples from a silver tree. He captures her and only agrees to release her when she gives him one of her feathers. At dawn, he espies thirteen maidens emerging from an ancient castle. They pick the golden apples and play with them. The castle is the home of the monstrous Kastchei, who turns to stone anyone who approaches his domain.
Ivan endeavours to enter the stronghold but is confronted by a horde of monsters. Kastchei attempts to petrify him but suddenly the Firebird appears and wards off the ogre’s magic. The horde break into an infernal dance but the charms of the Firebird prevail and Kastchei is killed. The castle vanishes and its prisoners freed. One of them, the lovely Tsarevna, marries Ivan.
My eccentric friend (sadly, he later committed suicide) would have loved the 25.June 1910 opening night in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It would have been right up his street when a riot broke out in the audience. According to some of those famous who were there that night – Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy – it was more than just the sound of the sound of scornful laughter. The reviews were heartless. “The work of a madman … sheer cacophony” wrote the composer Puccini. “A laborious and puerile barbarity,” added Le Figaro’s critic, Henri Quittard.” During the performance, as in my friend’s Manchester event fifty years later, a large number of people had to be ejected.
Igor Stravinsky had been a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov who was definitely not in favour of Stravinsky’s ultra-modernistic tendencies, which were just emerging. On first hearing the Firebird performed by Stravinsky, the Maestro was said to have ordered him to stop playing the piece, “in case I get used to it.”
Thanks to my friend of Russian extraction, I also listened and I got used to it – and I love it.
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