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This Parisian Russian obsession can be largely credited to Diaghilev, who had brilliantly created a version of Russian art ‘for export’. A 1906 painting exhibition at the Petit Palais was followed in 1907 by a series of concerts which brought the big names of Russian music to Paris: Glazunov, Rimsky Korsakov, and Rachmaninov. The great Russian bass Chaliapin was the star of Diaghilev’s 1908 venture, an ambitious production of Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov, which created a vivid picture of sixteenth-century Russia on the Paris stage, with large crowd scenes, sumptuous costumes and sets by Russian painters Aleksandr Golovin and Ivan Bilibin.
The synthesis of the arts was an important element of the success of the 1908 Boris Godunov: top rank Russian visual artists working alongside musicians to make a scenic and musical spectacle. Ballet was the ultimate synthetic art form and Diaghilev, recognising a market for it, resolved to create a dance company and bring it to Paris in 1909. ‘I had already presented Russian painting, Russian music, Russian opera in Paris.’ he proclaimed. ‘Ballet contains all of these’. The idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, was associated with that hero of Diaghilev’s circle, Wagner. But Diaghilev managed to reinvent it as an essentially Russian idea and it became the guiding principle of his new company, the Ballets Russes.
The first Ballets Russes season in 1909 put a thrilling new generation of dancers, including Nijinsky and Karsavina, in front of the Paris audience, as well as sumptuous visual spectacle from leading contemporary Russian artists and vivid new choreography by Mikhail Fokine. But the music was all pre-existing: Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Glazunov, Chopin. For the 1910 season, The Firebird was to be the perfect modern Russian Gesamtkunstwerk, with newly composed Russian music to match the other aspects of the production. The scenario was a blending of several Russian folk tales brought together by the painter Aleksandr Benois. Choreography was by Fokine, the fantastical costumes by Leon Bakst, the rich and elaborately painted sets by Golovin and a newly commissioned musical score.
Diaghilev had several false starts in finding a composer to match these artists. Eventually, as his third choice, he took a risk on the 27 year old Igor Stravinsky, who had arranged a couple of Chopin piano pieces for the 1909 season’s Les Sylphides.
It was a bold move but Diaghilev, typically, hyped his new star, introducing him to the dancers by declaring ‘Mark him well. He is a man on the brink of celebrity’. He was right. The huge success of The Firebird made Stravinsky’s name overnight and completed the Ballets Russes vision of a dazzling, contemporary Russian art form which was to burn brightly for a few short years before war and revolution changed everything.
Suite from The Firebird
Who knows what would have happened to Stravinsky if he had not been commissioned to write The Firebird for Diaghilev’s company in Paris? His much-loved teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, had just died, and several of his master’s other pupils were enjoying greater success. Stravinsky’s latest pieces generated no great excitement in his home town of St Petersburg. Fortunately for him, he had accepted some routine tasks of orchestration from Diaghilev, which placed him just within the great impresario’s artistic circle.
Diaghilev had first tested the waters in Paris with a concert of Russian music covering a very broad spectrum of styles, and found that the polished surface of this music, together with the lure of the unfamiliar, was a winning combination. For the Parisian audience, Russian music was an exotic delicacy that could transport them to some distant, fairytale land in the Orient. Diaghilev then experimented with opera, but his 1908 production of Boris Godunov, though well received, was financially ruinous. Ballet offered a compromise. It had the attractions of staging, but there was no language barrier. The forces required were smaller, and he could recruit his own troupe of dancers. So far, Diaghilev had taken music well known in Russia but new to Parisian audiences. Now, he decided to commission a new piece for the 1910 season. He wanted something in the style of Rimsky-Korsakov’s colourful fairytale operas, but distilled into a one-act ballet.
Diaghilev’s initial choices for the job turned the commission down or failed to deliver, opening up a life-changing opportunity for the 27-year-old Stravinsky. He may have lacked experience, but was well equipped to write in Rimsky-Korsakov’s manner. The scenario for the new ballet stitched together several Russian fairy tales that featured the characters of the Firebird and Kashchei the Immortal (an evil sorcerer), and the resulting story pitted the two against each other, with the Firebird emerging as victor. The choreographer Mikhail Fokine led the team of artists (as was normal in ballet), and he initially gave Stravinsky detailed instructions for the score. When they met face to face, though, Fokine was impressed enough to take on Stravinsky as a collaborator rather than a subordinate, and some of the music and dance moves were improvised together. Stravinsky enjoyed the challenge of creating music closely correlated with stage action, characters and sets.
We are first introduced to the dark Kingdom of Kashchei, the muffled low strings and barely audible vibrations of the bass drum intimating danger and evil. Spasmodic dialogues between bassoons and clarinets hint at the kingdom’s monstrous inhabitants. We are then lifted out of the darkness by magical glissandos produced by harmonics in the high strings, leading us into the fairy tale that is about to unfold.
The next number opens with Prince Ivan chasing and catching the Firebird—imagine a prima ballerina in a fiery red dress. The score gives us a panicked beating of wings followed by a flighty waltz (the music of the Suite does not always follow the order of events in the ballet). The orchestration here sparkles and glitters, mixing Rimsky-Korsakov’s trademarks with the latest innovations of Debussy and Ravel. Having subdued the Firebird, Ivan dances a pas-de-deux with her, the languorous music containing elements of the Russian ‘oriental style’ which was also used more generally for any kind of dangerous sexual encounter. Caressing lines give way to livelier arabesques, then in even more gorgeous orchestral garb.
In a further moment of struggle, Ivan obtains a feather whose magical powers will assist him later. For now, the scene changes to reveal a group of beautiful princesses, imprisoned in Kashchei’s castle. They perform a dance with golden apples, a light-hearted scherzo sprinkled with orchestral magic from the piano and harp. A lyrical clarinet solo picks out the princess Ivan will fall for. When the dance is finished, Ivan is represented by a horn solo in the style of a Russian folk song. The clarinet and the horn melodies are then woven together: love at first sight on both sides. The other princesses begin a Russian round dance. The folk-derived lines are imbued with the warmth of human longing, in the very best manner of Rimsky-Korsakov, who would have been proud of his pupil.
But the Princess is still Kaschei’s prisoner, and Ivan can only take her as his bride by overcoming the evil sorcerer. The latter now turns up with his monstrous retinue in a wild Infernal Dance, which Fokine choreographed with weird and ugly movements and Stravinsky furnished with an array of jerky syncopated lines and powerful orchestral hits. In the midst of this revelry, we hear the Firebird’s music: summoned by the magic feather, she casts a spell on Kaschei and his retinue, making them dance until they drop. The orchestra whoops and vibrates in an unholy ecstasy until the participants fall asleep. The Firebird dances a Lullaby, alluding lightly to her earlier pas-de-deux with Ivan.
The Suite omits the music for Kaschei’s mysterious death and jumps straight to the glorious finale. The melody of Ivan’s horn solo (which Stravinsky lifted from the folksong collection Rimsky-Korsakov had compiled) grows and flourishes in a set of orchestral variations, until it finds its consummation in a triumphal hymn. Like many fairy tales, the story ends in a wedding, and the orchestra plays the role of the guests singing a chorus in honour of the Prince and Princess, who become the new rulers of the now liberated kingdom.
Although Stravinsky had inherited the ‘fantastic’, ‘oriental’ and ‘Russian’ musical styles from his teacher and other predecessors, Stravinsky’s score was perceived to be something new—especially by the ballet dancers, who had great trouble adjusting to the constant shifting of rhythms and orchestral textures. The composer’s presence was required throughout the rehearsals so that he could explain his music to the troupe. Diaghilev was much impressed. At the premiere, in June 1910, the music and dancing seemed to mesh together in a yet-unseen synthesis, and the richness of detail in the score, choreography and set design overwhelmed the senses. The audience, which included the cream of the Parisian artistic elite, were more delighted with each successive night of the ballet.
Suite from Petrushka
After the success of The Firebird, Diaghilev knew he needed to commission a follow-up from Stravinsky for the next season. This time, Stravinsky himself started to formulate an outline for the new ballet. He first proposed that in the music, there would be a kind of angry confrontation between piano and orchestra. The story was to be based on traditional Russian puppet shows, whose leading character Petrushka would also have the main role in the ballet. Diaghilev was delighted with the early musical sketches Stravinsky played to him, and he commissioned Alexandre Benois to write the full scenario and design the sets and costumes. Benois was only too happy to reawaken happy memories of his childhood, and chose the real-world setting of a Shrovetide Fair in St Petersburg. Stravinsky was again paired with the choreographer Fokine, but a fourth contributor should be credited: the title role was to be played by Vaslav Nijinsky, and it was he who invented the strange and awkward movements that conveyed a Petrushka controlled by strings.
One of Stravinsky’s great inventions was to create an aural picture of a fair, a montage of hawkers’ cries, snatches of popular songs, and the rudimentary chords of concertinas or mouth organs. The realism goes so far as to represent an organ grinder with a defective instrument that is missing a note (unexpected rests in one of the clarinet parts conveys this). Finally, we zoom in on the location of the main story: the puppet-theatre booth. The puppeteer plays his flute and the three puppets come to life: Petrushka, The Ballerina, and the Moor. They begin their ‘Russian Dance’ while still hanging on hooks, the twitching of their feet perfectly timed with Stravinsky’s fast notes—another striking detail of the close collaboration between the composer and choreographer.
In the second scene, we pass from the real world to the world of the puppets, where an unfortunate love triangle is developing. It is here that Stravinsky’s original idea of counterposing the piano to the orchestra found its place, and the lovesick and unhappy Petrushka is represented by virtuosic piano cadenzas. The main sonority here is the famous ‘Petrushka chord’, which combines two major triads in a shrill dissonance, perhaps inspired by the high and harsh voice of Petrushka (the puppeteer’s voice modified by a ‘swozzle’, as in Punch-and-Judy shows). After a sour little dance for Petrushka, the Moor appears, with momentary oriental colouring in the score. He chases his would-be love rival, Petrushka, whose cries of alarm are given to the muted trumpets (another reminder of the ‘swozzle’).
In the third scene, we see more of the Moor with an orientalist dance, and also the heartless Ballerina, represented by a rather militaristic solo trumpet and a side-drum. The trumpet mellows in the Ballerina’s waltz, and the Moor awkwardly joins in. Stravinsky takes the opportunity to develop some musical comedy from the mismatch in their music. Petrushka enters, and more chasing and fighting ensues.
For the fourth scene, we zoom back out into the real world of the milling crowd, now more frenetic, due to all the alcohol has been consumed. For the assorted dances we find here, Stravinsky appropriates popular material and subjects it to modernist distortion and defamiliarisation. The street songs he remembered from St Petersburg were the kind of music played on barrel organs or sung by drunks. The original Parisian audience would have been oblivious to the sources, but the low character of the music was still very clear. Stravinsky cuts his chosen tunes up into brief segments, adds or removes notes, shifts accents, and repeats the resulting phrases many times. The distorted tunes collide to produce a delightful cacophony. Stravinsky finds comic possibilities everywhere. In an episode with a dancing bear, for example, the shrill tune of the peasant’s pipe (played by the two clarinets in a high register) is approximated awkwardly by a solo tuba to represent the bear, but also giving the impression that the tuba player is oafishly trying to imitate the melodies of more agile instruments.
As the merriment of the crowd reaches its climax, shimmering in the inimitable colours of Stravinskian orchestra, the drama of the puppets spills out into the open. The fight between Petrushka and the Moor ends in defeat for Petrushka, who seemingly expires on stage. There is a further merging of the puppet world and real world when the ‘death’ attracts the attention of a policeman. In the onstage melée, the dancer is surreptitiously replaced by a puppet-like dummy, which is carried offstage, unceremoniously. The crowd loses interest, and Stravinsky even manages to register their indifference in the concertina-like chords. But there is another angry cry from Petrushka (two trumpets), who reappears on top of the booth, making defiant and threatening gestures. As if something has gone embarrassingly wrong on stage, the music peters out and the curtain falls—now the puppet world, the ‘real world’ of the ballet, and the actual real world of the theatre are all merging.
The Firebird, for all its freshness and invention, was still a homage to Russian music of the past two generations. Petrushka, however, was without precedent, and changed the course of music. The score was assembled from tiny scraps of popular songs and even some ‘found’ material (a couple of waltz tunes by Joseph Lanner in the Ballerina’s part), combined in a way that showed little or no respect for rules of harmony and counterpoint. In relation to the stage action, the music also broke new ground with a comical exactitude in matching every gesture of the pantomime (this came to be known later as ‘Mickey-Mousing’, when it became a normal musical procedure in animated film). Stravinsky and Picasso in the early 1910s are often compared, and indeed both had a huge influence on the emergence of modernism in the arts. The puppet story itself could be considered Romantic, with Petrushka as a lonely, misunderstood hero—except the music and choreography keep undermining any tendency of the audience to sympathise with his plight.
Oddly enough, Stravinsky himself became a kind of lonely, misunderstood hero at the premiere of his next Diaghilev ballet, The Rite of Spring, when the music was drowned out by the booing and shouting of the anti-modernist faction within the audience. For now, though, Petrushka raised both Stravinsky and Diaghilev’s company onto a new level of fame, and guaranteed them an honoured place in any musical or cultural history of the period.
Marina Frolova-Walker © 2024