Stravinsky’s 1970 Firebird and the Ghoulliard Quartet

Music, cartoons, and language play, plus Slavic folklore, Seiji Ozawa and his expressive hair, pony cars, symphony trumpeters, NPR, and Frankenstein’s monster. It starts with this wonderful cartoon by Jeffrey Curnow from the NPR site (hat tip to Virginia Transue):


A man and a car. If you know nothing whatsoever about the man or about Stravinsky, you’ll assume that the man is named Stravinsky (this isn’t guaranteed; the man could be someone associated with this Stravinsky person — in fact, the man could be Stravinsky’s firebird, whatever that means — or the car could be named Stravinsky, etc.); you’ll assume that the car belongs to the man (this too isn’t guaranteed; the car could be a meaningless prop, and the firebird could be those glasses the man is holding up; etc. again); and given all that, if you know nothing whatsoever about this particular car, you’ll assume that it’s a firebird, or a Firebird. You reason this way by assuming that the parts of the scene hang together and that the title “Stravinsky’s Firebird” applies directly to them; and then by looking for a maximally simple interpretation of the scene, one that involves positing no further entities or relationships beyond those provided by the culture, given the two participants.

You might then posit that the man is named Stravinsky, the car is a type called a Firebird, and the Firebird belongs to Stravinsky. But how does that add up to a cartoon? What’s funny?

You might recognize the name Firebird as belonging to a particular cool Pontiac car from the late 20th century, and further recognize that the car in the cartoon is indeed a Pontiac Firebird (from roughly 1970), but that doesn’t help.

You might recognize the name Stravinsky as  that of a  composer, and you might even recall that he flourished during the first half of the 20th century (his dates are 1882-1971), and that he grew up in Russia and then lived and worked in (in order) Russia, Switzerland, France, and the United States. You might even dredge up the fact that his first major successes were scores for three ballets for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company in Paris. None of this helps.

… unless you recall that the first of these was the score for the ballet L’Oiseau de feuThe Firebird (from which Stravinsky carved out a Firebird Suite for orchestra). Aha! Mes amis, we have a delightful pun, uniting a hot Pontiac car and, from about 60 years before it, one of the masterpieces of 20th-century music — which, in addition, drags in the Russian folktale of Жар-птица (Zhar-ptitsa), about a fabulous Firebird. (Finally, a bird, with feathers.)

Curnow’s cartoon is minimalist, just the car and the man — he could have had a version of the Firebird perched on the hood of the car, or flying above it, for example, or a character from the ballet at the wheel of the car (Zippy‘s Bill Griffith would have packed the frame with automotive, folkloric, and balletic items) — and also meticulous: the car in the cartoon is something very close to a specific Pontiac Firebird —

(#2) 1970 Pontiac Firebird Formula 400 in Lucerne Blue (lovingly restored)

and the Stravinsky in the cartoon is a line drawing of a well-known photo of the composer —

(#3) Le Maître, looking masterful

I’ll get back to the artist, Jeffrey Curnow, in a while — he’s a resident cartoonist at NPR, but his regular job is as a trumpeter for the Philadelphia Orchestra — but first, more on the car, the music, and the folktale.

Firebird the car. From Wikipedia:

The Pontiac Firebird is an American automobile built by Pontiac from the 1967 to the 2002 model years. Designed as a pony car to compete with the Ford Mustang, it was introduced February 23, 1967, the same model year as GM’s Chevrolet division platform-sharing Camaro. This also coincided with the release of the 1967 Mercury Cougar, Ford’s upscale, platform-sharing version of the Mustang.

Why Firebird? you ask. Some of the story, from the Ate Up With Motor site, in its model history of the 1967 Pontiac Firebird, “The Summer of John Z: John DeLorean and the Pontiac Firebird” by Aaron Severson on 4/8/08:

There’s one remaining hitch: what to call the car. At first you figure you’ll call it Banshee, after the XP-833 show car, and why not? It sounds menacing and menacing is exactly what you want in a sporty car. Then some spoilsport at the ad agency looks it up and sees that according to legend, the banshee’s wail means a family member is about to die. The skittish souls on the 14th Floor don’t like the sound of that, so the name is unceremoniously axed. After a bit of ferocious brainstorming, you end up with the name Firebird, borrowed from a series of turbine-powered GM show cars from the early fifties.

That drives it back to the GM Firebird. From Wikipedia, probably more than you wanted to hear, but I found it entertaining:

The General Motors Firebird comprises a quartet of prototype cars that General Motors engineered for the 1953, 1956, and 1959 Motorama auto shows. The cars’ designer, Harley Earl, took his inspiration from the innovations in fighter aircraft design at the time. General Motors never intended the cars for production, but rather to showcase the extremes in technology and design that the company was able to achieve.

… General Motors had done research on the feasibility of gas turbine engines in cars as early as the 1940s. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that the company began building an actual engine, with Emmett Conklin leading the project. The fanciful and top speed of all four concept cars is “200 MPH.”

By 1953, the research team had produced the Firebird XP-21, later referred to as the Firebird I, which was essentially a jet airplane on wheels. It was the first gas turbine-powered car tested in the United States. The design is entirely impractical

Apparently, Firebird was just a name the GM designers were familiar with (quite probably from the Russian folktale), a name that was “in the air, suggesting aggression, flight, and flames — other car models have been named Thunderbird, Spitfire, and Lightning — and so falling in with aggressive car names like Raptor, Stingray, Venom, Cobra, Viper, Hornet, Talon, Hammer, Cutlass, and Javelin.

Firebird the ballet and suite. From Wikipedia:

The Firebird (French: L’Oiseau de feu; Russian: Жар-птица) is a ballet and orchestral concert work by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. It was written for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company; the original choreography was by Michel Fokine, with a scenario by Alexandre Benois and Fokine based on the Russian fairy tales of the Firebird and the blessing and curse it possesses for its owner. When first performed at the Opéra de Paris on 25 June 1910, the work was an instant success with both audience and critics.

The ballet has historic significance not only as Stravinsky’s breakthrough piece, but also as the beginning of the collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky that would also produce the acclaimed ballets Petrushka (1911) and The Rite of Spring (1913).

Here’s the suite, in a tremendous performance by the Berlin Philharmonic under Seiji Ozawa, from one of their summer festival Waldbühne (‘forest stage’) concerts, a 1993 “Russian Night” (watch as Ozawa’s face remains largely impassive, while his hair becomes more and more wildly expressive):


(#4) The full ballet, danced by the Royal Danish Ballet, can be viewed here in an unorthodox production choreographed by Glen Tetley

Firebird the folktale. From Wikipedia:

(#5) Illustration by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin for a 1899 fairy tale book

In Russian folklore and fairytales the Firebird … is a magical glowing bird from a faraway land, which is both a blessing and a bringer of doom to its captor. Some believe it can see the future. The Firebird has its origins in the Slavic mythology.

The Firebird is described as a large bird with majestic plumage that glows brightly emitting red, orange, and yellow light, like a bonfire that is just past the turbulent flame. The feathers do not cease glowing if removed, and one feather can light a large room if not concealed. In later iconography, the form of the Firebird is usually that of a smallish fire-colored falcon, complete with a crest on its head and tail feathers with glowing “eyes”. It is beautiful but dangerous, showing no sign of friendliness.

The Firebird has been represented in art in a huge number of ways, many a great deal more flamboyant than Bilibin’s vision.

No more Firebirds: Jeffrey Curnow. From the NPR site on 10/30/15, “A Teasing Trumpeter: Jeffrey Curnow’s Cartoons” by Tom Huizenga:

(#6) Curnow’s portmanteau/pun Julliard / Ghoulliard, with ghouls Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s monster (Frankenstein for short)

In the Philadelphia Orchestra trumpeter’s slightly twisted world, bears play bass trombones, Liszt has a brother named Bukhett and snowblowers can be filed as musical instrument deductions.

… Watch for Curnow’s off-kilter perspectives on NPR Classical’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. He joins our cartoonist emeritus, Pablo Helguera, in our longstanding tradition of posting a little something to make us smile each Friday.

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