Bard Music Festival Rediscoveries Blog
Synthesizing Beauty: Rimsky-Korsakov's Music in the Context of Diaghilev's "Russian Seasons" in Paris
August 3, 2018By Oleg Minin
In turn-of-the-century Russia, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908) enjoyed popularity and critical acclaim as one of the principal members of a group of composers dubbed by Vladimir Stasov, a critic and ardent supporter of national tendencies in music and art, the Mighty Five (Moguchaia Kuchka). In no small measure this was due to the critical writings of Stasov himself. But in the West, the appreciation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music received a major boost when several of his compositions were chosen by Sergei Diaghilev for his productions that aimed to promote Russian culture abroad in the first decade of the 20th century.
By then, Diaghilev had emerged as a promoter of Russian art, music, and ballet and as the founder and director of the Ballets Russes(1909–29). In his youth, Diaghilev had briefly pursued a career in composing and at one point even sought to take instruction in music theory from Rimsky-Korsakov himself, presenting him with his first compositions for evaluation. Rimsky-Korsakov famously told the young man that his work was “absurd,” whereupon Diaghilev “became offended and, on leaving, declared arrogantly that nevertheless he believed in himself and his gifts; that he [would] never forget [that] day and that someday Rimsky-Korsakov’s opinion [would] occupy a shameful place in his [Rimsky-Korsakov’s] biography and make him regret his harsh words, but then it would be too late.”
His disappointment about Rimsky-Korsakov’s perhaps unjustifiably harsh judgment led Diaghilev to abandon his compositional aspirations but did not diminish his interest in and appreciation of music in general, or of the nationalist Russian composers, including Rimsky-Korsakov in particular. Among the Mighty Five, Modest Mussorgsky was Diaghilev’s favorite, but Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, especially compositions with a distinct national flavor, also appealed to his aesthetic sensibilities. At the same time, Diaghilev’s thorough grounding in music added a special dimension to his work as a producer. It also gave him the confidence to synthesize music with movement and stage design, a synthesis often achieved through selection and, at times, revision of compositions at the expense of their organic unity.
Diaghilev’s exportation of Russian culture began in earnest in 1907 and came in the wake of very successful projects in Russia itself. Working principally from St. Petersburg, Diaghilev’s accomplishments ranged from his leadership, together with Alexandre Benois, of the artist society the World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) and the publication, under the eponymous title, of one of Russia’s most illustrious art journals, to a series of pioneering exhibitions of Western art in Russia and of Russian art both domestically and in the West. A vast exhibition of Russian historical portrait paintings in the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg, which opened under the patronage of the tsar in February 1905, was a memorable accomplishment that paved the way to a survey of Russian art in Paris at the Salon d’Automne in 1906, and then, after a “trial” concert at the Grand Palais des Champs-Elysées, to a series of music and dance events across Europe.
Giving prominence to Russian composers and artists (especially those associated with the Mighty Five and Mir Iskusstva), this extraordinary series of performances was inaugurated in Paris with five concerts billed as “Russian Music Through the Ages.” In addition to Diaghilev and a cohort of influential Russian and French dignitaries, the concerts’ organizing committee included Rimsky-Korsakov as well as Sergei Taneyev, Alexander Glazunov, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The carefully crafted inaugural programs featured masterpieces of Russian music: Mikhail Glinka’s Russlan and Liudmila(overture and act 1) and his Kamarinskaya; Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Second and Fourth Symphonies and the arioso from The Witch (Charodeika); a generous selection of excepts from Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor; Mussorgsky’s Trepak, “Song of the Flea,” act 2 of Boris Godunov, and excerpts from Khovanshchina; Taneyev’s Second Symphony; Anatoly Liadov’s Eight Folk Songs, and Baba Yaga; Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Concerto and Second Symphony;Rachmaninoff’s Second Concerto and the cantata Spring; Mily Balakirev’s Thamar; Glazunov’s Second Symphony and “Symphonic Impression”; Sergei Lyapunov’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra; and César Cui’s “Romantic Piece” from the opera William Ratcliff. Rimsky-Korsakov was represented by his symphonic poem Christmas Eve, the introduction to act 1 and Liel’s two songs from The Snow Maiden (Snegourochka), the third scene from the opera-ballet Mlada (The Night on Triglav Mountain), the symphonic suite from Tsar Saltan, and the underwater scene from Sadko (1896).
The Paris concerts also introduced to French audiences, in person, some of the most celebrated figures in Russian music: conductors included Rimsky-Korsakov, Felix Blumenfeldt, Rachmaninoff, and Glazunov, and among the cohort of singers were the likes of Félia Litvinne, a Russian-born, Paris-based dramatic soprano already an international phenomenon, and Feodor Chaliapin, then an up-and-coming opera bass on the verge of international celebrity.
The program booklets prepared for the occasion included biographies of the featured composers, along with reproductions of their portraits painted by prominent Russian artists such as Ilya Repin, Léon Bakst, Nikolai Kuznetsov; analyses of compositions; and reproductions of sets from Russian operas and of singers in their costumes. Particularly numerous were depictions of Chaliapin in some of his roles, including Boris Godunov, the part that ultimately brought him critical acclaim.
Diaghilev’s Paris concerts were significant milestones in Rimsky-Korsakov’s professional career. At long last, his music was introduced to a much broader Western audience, while the opportunity to travel to Paris also provided him with a chance to return, after a lengthy hiatus, to conducting. However, Rimsky-Korsakov was at first reluctant to go to Paris, and only Diaghilev’s plea and a promise of excellent care convinced him.
The concerts, especially the compositions and orchestrations by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, and Borodin, made a deep impression on Parisian audiences, giving Diaghilev confidence to pursue new projects, one of which, a staging of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, presented in Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration, received much critical acclaim in 1908. This introduction of Russian opera, with sets created by Alexander Golovin, Konstantin Youn, and Benois, made it possible for Diaghilev to bring the Russian ballet to Paris in 1909.
Diaghilev’s first Saison Russe (Russian Season), at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1909, included, in addition to opera, several ballets. Indeed, Rimsky-Korsakov’s compositions were featured prominently in the season’s offerings. The first program on May 19 opened with Le festin, a dance-suite divertissement set to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka, Glazunov, Mussorgsky, and Tchaikovsky. It was choreographed by Marius Petipa, Michel Fokine, Alexander Gorsky, and Felix Kshessinsky, with sets by Konstantin Korovin, who, along with Bakst, Ivan Bilibin, and Benois, also designed the costumes. With principal dancers that included the rising stars of Russian ballet—Tamara Karsavina, Fokine, Vaclav Nijinsky, and Adolph Bolm—the production was received enthusiastically by public and critiques alike, some of whom described it as akin to a miracle.
With this and other productions presented in Paris as well as Berlin, London, and Monte Carlo in subsequent seasons, Diaghilev succeeded in creating a new type of ballet, in which music and dance were combined with stage design by professional artists who also frequently led the way in envisioning the often exotic ambiance of the performances that so enthralled Western audiences. Music played an important but perhaps auxiliary role, much to the chagrin of the composers (and their heirs). Rimsky-Korsakov, for example, believed that in operatic and dance productions music should be the principal and not a subsidiary element. Had he lived to witness the Ballets Russes productions, his conviction would inevitably have clashed with Diaghilev’s vision in which carefully selected and adapted music was but one of several constituent elements in a unified performance.
On May 24, Parisian audiences were treated to another Rimsky-Korsakov creation, his opera The Maid of Pskov (Pskovitianka). Written in 1872 and performed in Russia for the first time in January 1873, this opera, with scenario and libretto by the composer, did not stay in the repertory of the Mariinsky Theater for long, probably because of its controversial plot centering on the democratic Novgorod Veche, a subject presumably not fitting for the Imperial stage. In addition, Rimsky-Korsakov here was moving away from the traditional style of opera composition, using instead what Stasov called “the forms of a new Russian school.” His abandonment of traditional operatic forms and reliance on a more declamatory technique was not to the liking of the musical establishment. Stasov was incensed by the Russian public’s failure to notice the opera’s beauties, the dramatism of the “veche” scene, the incisive portrayal of Ivan the Terrible, the beauty and expressiveness of the nanny’s fairy tale, the comical characterization of Matuta, and the multiple folk choirs, which, he argued, only an exceptionally talented composer could have created. The unenthusiastic reception of the opera by contemporary audiences and critics was balanced by the positive reaction of Rimsky-Korsakov’s friends. Praising the veche scene for “its power, beauty, novelty and effect,” Borodin, for instance, deemed the music to be of “unbelievable beauty.”
Rimsky-Korsakov would refine the opera several times, ultimately creating a third and final version in 1892, which was extremely well received when it was performed by Savva Mamontov’s Private Opera Company in Moscow in 1896, with Chaliapin as Ivan the Terrible.
Period photograph, Chaliapin as Ivan the Terrible in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskov, 1896
Arguably, the intrinsic Russianness of The Maid of Pskov, and, as Boris Kokhno pointed out, “the tremendous impression Chaliapin . . . made” on Diaghilev, coupled with the sets by Golovin, compelled Diaghilev to present it in Paris. For the staging, Diaghilev relied on his experience of producing Boris Godunov the year before and he made some adjustments in accordance with his (and not necessarily Rimsky-Korsakov’s) vision of the piece. (For instance, the version of Boris presented in Paris included several of Mussorgsky’s original scenes, omitted in Rimsky-Korsakov’s redaction of his friend’s opera.)
By changing a few elements here and there in The Maid of Pskov, and fitting together others, and relying in these instances in no small measure on Chaliapin’s talent, Diaghilev sought to present a synthetic production that matched his aesthetic vision (and practical considerations), albeit at the expense of the integrity of the musical composition. The opera’s original title, for instance, was replaced with Ivan the Terrible. This change was made strategically and for promotional reasons: the name of the Russian tyrant was thought to resonate with French audiences. At the same time, the new title underscored more precisely the plot of the story, which is dominated by the character of Ivan the Terrible. The opera was enthusiastically received by the French public, who witnessed Chaliapin, now famous for his portrayal of Tsar Boris, appearing in the title role, with sets and costumes created by Nicholas Roerich and Dmitry Stelletsky, two artists whose work was steeped heavily in the aesthetics of Russia’s historical past.
In addition to excerpts from Glinka’s Ruslan and Liudmila and the one-act ballet Les sylphides, to music by Chopin, the second program of the 1909 season at the Théâtre du Châtelet (June 2) presented the one-act ballet Cléopâtre. A revised version of Nuits d’Égypte (Egyptian Nights), with music by Anton Arensky and choreography by Fokine, it had originally premiered as part of a benefit concert at the Mariinsky Theater in March 1908. For the Paris production, Fokine extended and revised the original ballet. Diaghilev again made additional adjustments: he commissioned Bakst to design the sets and costumes for the production and replaced the “happy ending” of Nuits d’Égypte with a more dramatic pantomime and, on Benois’s advice, added symphonic excerpts by several Russian composers, including from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “magical” 1890 opera-ballet Mlada, to Arensky’s score.
Set in ancient Egypt, Cléopâtre tells the story of two young lovers, Amoun and Ta-Hor. Amoun falls in love with the beauty of Queen Cleopatra, who resolves to spend a night with him. In return, Amoun must die the following morning. Ta-Hor falls short at trying to dissuade Amoun, whose passion for Cleopatra is too strong. The ballet concludes with Ta-Hor finding the dead body of her unfortunate lover.
In the Paris premiere, the part of Amoun was danced by Fokine and Ta-Hor by Anna Pavlova, while the part of Cleopatra was performed by Ida Rubinstein, an amateur dancer and a student of Fokine. As Cleopatra, Rubinstein appeared on stage in a sarcophagus from which, veiled and swathed in ribbons, she emerged to Rimsky-Korsakov’s music. One of the ballet’s most memorable moments, it was described by critics with considerable admiration. Jean Cocteau recorded his impressions of the scene and of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music:
Then a ritual cortege was seen to appear. There were musicians who plucked long, oval-shaped citharas, their tones richly resonant yet as soft as the breathing of serpents. Flutists, their arms raised in angular poses, blew from their sonorous pipes. . . . Finally, borne on the shoulders of six colossi, there appeared a kind of ebony and gold casket. . . . The bearers set the casket down in the middle of the temple, opened its double lid, and from within lifted a kind of mummy, a bundle of veils, which they placed upright on its ivory patterns. Then four slaves began the astonishing maneuver. They unwound the first veil. . . . The twelfth veil, dark blue, Mme. Rubinstein released herself, letting it fall with a sweeping . . . gesture. She was wearing a small blue wig, from which a short golden braid hung down on either side of her face. There she stood . . . unswathed, eyes vacant, cheeks pale, lips parted . . . and as she confronted the stunned audience she was too beautiful, like a too potent Oriental fragrance.
Cléopâtre was perhaps the most sumptuous Ballets Russes production of the 1909 season, which in no small measure was due to the exoticism of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music and, even more so, to Bakst’s revolutionary and daring costume designs, which created a sensation.
Léon Bakst Costume design for Cleopatra Worn by Ida Rubinstein, Cléopatre, 1909
This production inaugurated a series of oriental ballets, which “became the hallmark both of the Ballets Russes and of Rubinstein herself” (Edward Forman). The unqualified success of Cléopâtreencouraged Diaghilev to produce, as part of the 1910 Saison Russe, another exotic ballet. Choreographed by Fokine and premiering at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra on June 4, the new ballet was set to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schéhérazade: a symphonic suite inspired by themes from One Thousand and One Nights and composed in less than a month in the summer of 1888.
The ballet tells the story of Shah Shahriar, who suspects his favorite wife, Zobéide, of being unfaithful. He pretends to go hunting and as soon as he leaves, the ladies of the harem persuade the Great Eunuch to let the black slaves in. An orgy ensues, led by Zobéide and her favorite slave. The Shah suddenly returns and orders the transgressors to be executed. Seeing that he hesitates to punish her, Zobéide stabs herself and dies at the feet of her Shah. The Paris premiere showcased Rubinstein as Zobéide and Nijinsky dancing the part of Zobéide’s favorite slave.
Like Cléopâtre, Schéhérazade was received favorably by Parisian balletomanes. The success of the production was predicated as much on the combination of music and choreography as on the artistic vision of Léon Bakst, whose “décor and costumes turned theatrical concepts of the period upside down, and engendered the so-called ‘Ballets Russes style.’” In his account of the production, Boris Kokhno wrote that “the miming of Ida Rubinstein, Nijinsky’s dances, and the ensembles devised by Fokine aroused a degree of interest that was unusual for a dance performance; quite simply, they created a sensation.” At the same time, Lifar recalled that “it was largely Bakst to whom that success was due. With the very rising of the curtain [created by Valentin Serov and inspired by Persian miniatures] storms of thunderous applause rang out in recognition of the painter’s genius. Indeed, the public went quite mad about Bakst’s sets and costumes, and their success eclipsed everything Diaghilev had so far presented.”
The fervent reception of Schéhérazade in general and of Bakst’s designs in particular was, however, accompanied by a polemic surrounding the manner in which Diaghilev had used Rimsky-Korsakov’s score. Some critics found the procedure “entirely legitimate,” while others, echoing irate protests by none other than the composer’s widow, argued that Rimsky-Korsakov’s music was “maltreated and distorted” and attacked Diaghilev “for desecration, and for condoning a ‘criminal practice.’” Despite this indignation, even the most vociferous opponents could not but praise Diaghilev’s creation in the end, with one critic writing that notwithstanding how “ridiculous and shocking . . . this falsification of the meaning, the expression of the music may be, one almost forgets it when one sees Schéhérazade, so overwhelming is the magnificence, the originality of the spectacle presented to our eyes. . . . Schéhérazade is, without doubt, one of the loveliest, perhaps the loveliest, of all the productions the Russians have offered us yet.”
The success of Cléopâtre and Schéhérazade in the 1909–10 Saisons Russes, combined with difficulties in managing the dancers’ time commitment to Ballets Russes productions (many of them had standing contracts with Imperial Theaters and danced for Diaghilev during leaves of absence), prompted Diaghilev to establish a permanent dance company with headquarters in Monte Carlo. The impresario managed to enlist some of the most brilliant artists, who were willing to support his enterprise even if it meant severing ties with the Imperial Theaters. Among them were Adolph Bolm, the future star choreographer of American ballet, and Tamara Karsavina, the creator of the part of the Firebird.
With his new company in place, Diaghilev set about to develop the repertoire for the upcoming 1911 Saison Russe, in which Rimsky-Korsakov’s music would continue to play a prominent role, demonstrating Diaghilev’s steadfast commitment to the traditions of the Russian national school of music. In addition to a new ballet by Tcherepnin-Bakst-Fokine entitled Narcisse, an abridged version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and Nijinsky’s major vehicles—Vaudoyer-Weber-Bakst-Fokine’s Le spectre de la rose and Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka—the season included “The Underwater Kingdom” scene from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko. First presented by Diaghilev in 1907, Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition was now part of a production choreographed by Fokine with sets and costumes, beautiful in their ethereal Symbolist style, designed by Boris Anisfeld.
Although indubitably successful, the scene from Sadko, presented in Paris with the vocal parts, was received perhaps less enthusiastically than Le spectre de la rose and Petrouchka. This, however, did not prevent Diaghilev from returning to the piece and its magical theme in the future, and to present it in a revised version at the Metropolitan Opera during the 1916 Ballets Russes tour of the United States. The Metropolitan Opera production featured Bolm’s choreography with sets and costumes by Natalia Goncharova.
With this ballet—with the central parts danced by Bolm, a Russian, and Doris Faithfull, an English ballerina—Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, as well as the phenomenon of the Ballets Russes itself, were at long last appreciated by American audiences.
Ballets Russes European productions during the 1912–13 seasons increasingly relied on music by contemporary French composers—Reynaldo Hahn, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt—although Russian music by Balakirev, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky was also featured prominently, in productions such as Thamar and L’oiseau d’or (the pas de deux of Princess Florine and the Blue Bird from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty). In 1913, Diaghilev also produced two of Mussorgsky’s operas, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina, but the music of Rimsky-Korsakov was visibly absent from the repertoire of these two seasons. Even Khovanshchina, completed, revised, and scored by Rimsky-Korsakov after Mussorgsky’s death in 1881, was orchestrated at Diaghilev’s request by Stravinsky and Ravel. Allegedly, Diaghilev was dissatisfied with Rimsky-Korsakov’s treatment of Mussorgsky’s work. After careful study of the original manuscript, he wished to produce a new version, and “to orchestrate certain parts, to re-orchestrate certain others and to have a new chorus for the finale. Mussorgsky, in the case of the finale, had merely sketched in a theme, the melody of a Russian song.” Diaghilev did not like Rimsky-Korsakov’s solution for the final chorus.
Over the next three years (1914–16), however, Diaghilev returned several times to Rimsky-Korsakov’s compositions. In 1914 in Monte Carlo, Paris, and London, the impresario presented a host of new productions, which, in addition to the new ballets Les papillons, Le légende de Joseph, and Midas, and operas by Stravinsky and Borodin (Le rossignol and Prince Igor), included Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera La nuit de Mai (May Night) and, significantly, his opera-ballet The Golden Cockerel (Zolotoi Petushok), or Le coq d’or.
In 1915, music from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden was used in Le soleil de nuit (Midnight Sun), a new ballet based on a medley of Russian pastimes and dances. Choreographed by Léonide Massine, Diaghilev’s new star choreographer and dancer, with sets and costumes by Mikhail Larionov, one of the leaders of Russia’s nascent artistic avant-garde, this production was presented in December at the Geneva Opera. Eight days later, in Paris, Diaghilev once again produced Schéhérazade. In 1916, this was followed by the staging of the new version of Sadko at the Metropolitan Opera.
Among these productions, Le coq d’or is perhaps the most noteworthy. It was the last major work Rimsky-Korsakov completed before his death at the age of 64 on June 21, 1908. Le coq d’or stands out as much for its fascinating production history in Russia as for its remarkably innovative and successful Ballets Russes staging in Paris in 1914: its success, some claim, saved this otherwise colorless and dim season. Due to the opera’s (and Alexander Pushkin’s original story) satirical and anti-tsarist tone, approval by the Russian censors was complicated and performances were limited originally to private opera companies. The opera’s premiere thus took place only on October 7, 1909, at Moscow’s Solodovnikov Theater in a production by the private Zimin Opera Company. A month later, it was performed at the city’s Bolshoi Theater. Despite ill health, Rimsky-Korsakov had continued to work on the orchestration until the very end. Seeing no prospects for Le coq d’or in his native country, he contemplated the possibility of productions abroad. In his last letter to his friend and music publisher, Boris Jurgenson, Rimsky-Korsakov asked him to write to Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, French critic and ardent promoter of Russian music, to suggest a staging of the opera in Paris.
Diaghilev, perhaps unaware of the composer’s wish, adopted the opera (no doubt because of its tangible national qualities) to be presented as a hybrid opera-ballet performance during the 1914 Ballets Russes season. The design of sets and costumes for this production was entrusted (at Benois’s suggestion) to Natalia Goncharova, a young artist who hitherto had not worked for Diaghilev and who represented Russia’s cutting-edge artistic practices. Her neoprimitive and intensely colorful décor, designed and painted on location (with the help of her artist-partner, Mikhail Larionov), captured the imagination of Parisian audiences. This ensured both Goncharova’s own reputation as a theatrical designer and the enormous success of Le coq d’or. As Sjeng Scheijen pointed out, the appeal of this opera-ballet was predicated to a certain extent on innovative dramaturgy, in which dance and mime on stage superseded the role of the singers, who were relegated to performing from the wings. But it was Goncharova’s designs, which were inspired by Russia’s historical past and folk art and featured “bright combinations of red, orange and yellow, blending primitive and naïve patterns of flowers and leaves with abstract motifs and decorations,” that stole the show.
By recognizing Goncharova’s artistic potential (a skill that distinguished him as a promoter of arts) and by expertly fusing her designs with Rimsky-Korsakov’s music and with Fokine’s innovative choreography and direction, Diaghilev once again created a production of exceptional artistic merit, a potential classic of the Ballets Russes’ repertoire for years. Unfortunately, this was not going to be the case due to Diaghilev’s “ongoing feud with the Rimsky-Korsakov family following the cuts he made to Schéhérazadeand Khovanshchina.” Though the family’s “attempts to prevent Coq d’or from being performed in Paris failed, . . . the impresario was ordered to pay them 3,000 francs in compensation.” After the ballet’s unqualified success in Paris in 1914, it “was permanently shelved,” never again to be performed by the Ballet Russes. This no doubt reflected negatively on Rimsky-Korsakov’s reputation as a composer of opera and, more broadly, on his artistic legacy.
Despite this controversy and its effects, Rimsky-Korsakov’s music played a crucial role in the triumphs of the Saisons Russes. Although the composer did not live to witness these successes, appreciation of his compositions in the West, then and now, is due to a significant degree to the efforts of the Russian impresario, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s unsuccessful student, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev.
Oleg Minin is a visiting assistant professor at Bard where he teaches Russian modern art, literature, and language. He is editor at large of Brill’s Companions to the Slavic World, author of numerous articles on the visual and literary culture of the Russian Silver Age and the avant-garde, and co-editor (with Marcus Levitt) of the 19th volume of the journal Experiment (2013) devoted to the study of the satirical press of the 1905 Revolution. Minin is the co-author (with John E. Bowlt and Graham Howe) of One Hundred and One Photographs: Emil Otto Hoppé and the Ballets Russes. (Art-21 Century). Published as a bilingual English and Russian edition, this book examines artistic legacies of Sergei Diaghilev, who founded the Ballets Russes more than a century ago, and Emil Otto Hoppé, who photographed the stars of that illustrious company between 1911 and 1921.