Most audiences in the twentieth century, especially in America, would likely have heard this work for the first time in its 1919 suite version. In this form, The Firebird embarked a sort of world-tour. It became a constant refrain that when Stravinsky visited a city for the first time, The Firebird would have made its way there first. But those familiar with Stravinsky’s oeuvre will know that most of his later compositions sound quite different from The Firebird. As a result, unless Stravinsky himself was conducting a concert, one would generally not find The Firebird and other Stravinsky works on the same program. It thus also became a constant that audience’s expectations for his music were subverted when they would hear new works by the composer.
The Firebird was plagued by issues surrounding its copyright and whether Stravinsky would receive royalties for performances of the work. In the chaos following the First World War and the October Revolution in Russia (1917), there was confusion as to who could print and perform Stravinsky’s works that had initially been published in the now-extinct Russian Empire. Part of Stravinsky’s rationale for arranging the 1919 suite was to reassert his rights over the work, though a dispute between the new publisher and the old led to a significant loss—Stravinsky retained no rights to the work, and was embroiled . While orchestras would often pay him to use his work out of respect, many felt they had no legal obligation to do so, and suing infringers often seemed not worth the hassle. For example, Stravinsky sued Warner Bros. over the 1934 film The Firebird, a murder mystery in which a recording of the work is a key element, and which the studio had not asked permission to use. The court ruled in favor of Stravinsky, though only awarded him one frank in damages, as the film was a critical and commercial flop and the only “damage” done to Stravinsky was the proximity of one of his melodies to a Viennese Aria in the film.
When Stravinsky emigrated to the United States (he became a US citizen in 1945), he once again arranged a new suite from The Firebird for publication. Despite this new suite, he found himself less financially well-off than he had hoped. The United States would neither begin to normalize relations with the Soviet Union, nor sign the Berne convention (an agreement which governs international copyright law) until after Stravinsky’s death. This gave the (mistaken) impression to many that Stravinsky’s earlier works, especially The Firebird, were fair game for performing without worrying about copyright issues. It was not the 1945 suite, but the 1919 suite, rife with minor errors in its initial publication, that continued to be the most performed version of the work. In addition, the publisher of the new version, Leeds, went on to authorize the publication—without Stravinsky’s blessing—of a foxtrot (“Summer Moon,” 1947) based on a melody from The Firebird. Stravinsky sued the publisher but lost in court.
Despite all this, it is difficult to pin down Stravinsky’s exact feelings on this matter. On the one hand, he was clearly embittered regarding The Firebird’s legal issues—in his personal correspondence, he would often denigrate the publishers who caused him so much trouble regarding the 1919 suite. On the other, he seems to have appreciated that because of this issue, his early music had disseminated in such a way that he became one of the most widely performed and well-respected composers of his own lifetime, often remarking in his correspondence about how often it was being performed. Indeed, had smaller, more local orchestras been concerned with whether they could afford the fees to perform Stravinsky’s music, The Firebird may never have reached the vast global audience that it did. This is not a call for orchestras to ignore copyright and issues of performance rights to grant exposure to newer composers, but rather an acknowledgment that concert culture in the twentieth often flourished in part because the application of copyright law was for a time much more relaxed in America than it is today. Today, in whatever version of it is played, The Firebird continues to entertain audiences, and has come to represent a certain triumph of the soul. Its quick explosion across the globe, in performances both authorized and unauthorized, guaranteed that this ambitious work of a then-fledgling composer would continue to convey the spirit of the young Stravinsky to this day.
– Marc Lombardino
PhD Candidate, Musicology, UC Santa Barbara
About the Annotator
Marc Lombardino is a PhD candidate in Musicology at UC Santa Barbara, whose research focuses on the relationship between music, dancing, and etiquette in France in the late seventeenth century. He is also a collaborative pianist and piano teacher working in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas. As a pianist, he accompanies ballet classes at Lauridsen Ballet Centre in Torrance, California State University Long Beach, and the Orange County School of the Arts among other locations.