Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was one of the most cosmopolitan composers of the 20th century, yet he drew heavily from Russian traditions. Born near St. Petersburg, where he was educated, he later lived in Switzerland, Paris, Los Angeles and New York, and is widely recognized as the most outstanding composer for ballet in his time, especially because of his scores for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and subsequently because of all the settings of his music that George Balanchine did for New York City Ballet.
Even though Igor’s father was an outstanding basso singer with the Imperial Opera and his mother an accomplished pianist, his parents did not want him to become a musician. So Stravinsky studied law. However, he also studied composition and orchestration privately with the famous Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov and did have some performances in Russia, one of which was attended by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who invited the young composer to write a ballet to be produced in Paris. Years later, Stravinsky became a French citizen in 1934 and subsequently an American citizen in 1945. His work done in the United States will be highlighted in the essay on Apollo to Agon. Right now, there are four ballets to consider from his early time with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
Sergei Diaghilev can be credited with getting Stravinsky started in composing music for ballets that drew from folk traditions of their shared homeland of Russia. The impresario commissioned the composer to produce a score for The Firebird, which was both conceived and choreographed by Mikhail Fokine and premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1910 with the outstanding ballerina Tamara Karsavina in the lead role and the choreographer himself portraying Prince Ivan. The composer/conductor Gabriel Pierné led the orchestra. With its lush scenery by Alexander Golovine and costumes by Léon Bakst, in combination with the colorful music, the ballet was an instant success and propelled the young Stravinsky’s name to headlines in the artistic world.
instruments help tell the story
For images of how the original Firebird was costumed, see link in the notes. In recent productions she has been presented in a tutu. In any case, she is a magical fluttering bird/human character. She does not appear right away, but the opening music immediately sets a mysterious scene. The initial very low-pitched eerie melody for cellos and basses is marked “con sord,” which means “with mutes.” Soon along come the entrances of bassoons and horns. And then the violins with fast arpeggios, also “con sord” but with swooping arpeggios that are supposed to be played on harmonics, contributing to the almost ghostly sounds.
The first tableau is titled “The Enchanted Garden of Kastchei” and the first sounds heard are horns, the solo part indicated to be played with a mute, echoed by the English horn, but first with the sparkly sound of the celesta intervening. Then comes an unusual bassoon solo, and then all the strings playing pp = pianissimo¸ very soft, with tremolos (back and forth fast to get a quivering sound) marked “sul ponticello,” which means that the hairs of the bow should be “on the bridge” (actually right next to the bridge). So all these various instrumental techniques contribute to a very mysterious overall effect.
Next as indicated in the score comes the “Appearance of the Firebird, Pursued by Prince Ivan,” introduced by figures in clarinet and oboe which are picked up in the strings.
All that is just to give a quick sample of how Stravinsky’s orchestration helps the drama when it comes to evoking a scene or mood. In all his Russian story ballets, timbre (or tone color) is an extremely important component—at moments, just as important as melody or rhythm. Sometimes even more important. It is noteworthy that Stravinsky’s mentor, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, was himself a master of orchestration and wrote a book on the subject that still serves as a fine textbook, available in English translation.
Going back to the score and the story: there is a wonderful solo dance by the Firebird, who picks a golden apple off a tree. The prince catches her, but lets her go when she gives him a feather and promises that if he is ever in danger, he can wave the feather and she will come to his aid.
The drama continues with young princesses playing with the golden apples. Then the evil enchanter Kastchei comes on scene with lots of monsters. In this section, Stravinsky proves an especially skillful composer of a dramatic soundtrack, and Fokine the choreographer at moments had the dancers exactly syncronized with the music. (For instance, when the evil enchanter shakes his long fingernails in a threatening way, complementary jabbing sounds are heard.)
Ivan is taken prisoner, but saved when he remembers to wave the Firebird’s feather. She appears, and there follows a rather lengthy episode in which she prepares the way for princes previously turned to stones to regain their human shapes, and for Ivan to retrieve a giant egg, which he smashes to finally do away with the magician.
The ballet ends with a grand “General Rejoicing.” As shown in the recommended Royal Ballet DVD, the grandeur is evoked by a backdrop painted by the artist Natalia Goncharova, depicting the spires and buildings of old Russia. And musically, all the instruments of the orchestra are playing the same rhythm together ff = fortissimo = very loud also marked “Molto pesante” which means very heavy, and the dynamic marking fff = really really loud! The strings are playing tremolos furiously to contribute their exciting sounds. “Curtain.” The end!
To explore the instrumentation further, see the program by the All Star Orchestra and conductor Gerard Schwartz, who introduces the Firebird suite with a visual score, musical excerpts, and a telling of the story (link in endnotes).
the creative collaboration
In regard to how Stravinsky’s career was changed forever by The Firebird, the musical scholar Richard Taruskin wrote:
There would be no keeping this former protégé down on the farm, that was clear; from now on Stravinsky would operate on the world stage.
And for a while, the more cosmopolitan the career, the more Russian the music, as Stravinsky came to terms with the radically new, neonationalist attitude toward the folk heritage that his new circle of friends and mentors espoused.
Now the central irony—that as Stravinsky’s career became more European, his music became more Russian—had a reverse side. The Firebird with the single exception of the Balmont songs, was the last Stravinsky composition to be written wholly in Russia, and it was the first original work of his to have its premiere performance abroad.
In his riveting memoir, the choreographer Michel Fokine gave a sense of what the collaboration with the composer was like:
I have staged many ballets since “The Firebird,” but never again, either with Stravinsky or any other composer, did I work so closely as on this occasion….The ballet took shape quickly….I did not wait for the composer to give me the finished music. Stravinsky visited me with his first sketches and basic ideas, he played them for me, I demonstrated the scenes to him. At my request, he broke up his national themes into short phrases corresponding to the separate moments of a scene, separate gestures and poses.
…Stravinsky played, and I interpreted the role of the Tsarevich, the piano substituting for the wall. I climbed over it, jumped down from it, and crawled, fear-struck, looking around—my living room. Stravinsky, watching, accompanied me with patches of the Tsarevich melodies, playing mysterious tremolos as background to depict the garden of the sinister Immortal Kostchei. Later on I played the role of the Tsarevna (Princess) and hesitantly took the golden apple from the hands of the imaginary Tsarevich. Then I became Kostchei, his evil entourage—and so on.
Michel Fokine went on to write about some of the different ways he worked with the music and musicians for his various ballets. Sometimes he would use extant music and take hints from the concert program notes; sometimes he would fit a story to abstract music such as a symphony; with the tone-poem Schéhérazade he adapted the music to fit a new story.
Sometimes I would give the composer a fully developed libretto and wait for him completely to finish the music to suit my story, as in the case of “Daphnis and Chloe” by Maurice Ravel. At another time I would receive a ballet with a complete scenario. In such a case, in addition to composing the dances, I had to devise the details of the scenes, trying to find the dramatic representation of each musical phrase. “Petrouchka” is an example of this.
…I do not mean to suggest that a ballet must be choreographed precisely, as was done in our work with Stravinsky on “The Firebird.” But I can state that the most absorbing system of creating a ballet is that of close collaboration between the choreographer and the composer, when the two artists work out the content of each musical moment together. For this, full co-operation is essential and conditions must exist whereby one can be inspired by the other.
The choreographer lamented many unauthorized changes in revivals (particularly what he called “rhythmomania,” by which a movement would be allocated to every musical note). Yet Michel Fokine could still regard The Firebird (for which he had conceived not only the choreography, but also the original libretto) with fondness:
Summing up, now, the first thirty years of “The Firebird”: I feel that this ballet has never been given in the form in which I originally conceived it, and with time has reached such a stage that it has become painful for me to watch this favorite child of mine. Still, it remains a success, and has lasted for over thirty years. If I ever had a chance to produce it once more, not merely “restore” it but really produce it in the original manner I conceived it, I am sure that “The Firebird” would live again brilliantly.
Stravinsky wrote many ballets, but none of them so great as “The Firebird.” In “Petrouchka” there is power, expression, character, and originality. In “The Firebird” there is poetry and beauty.
notes and explorations:
The full orchestral score of The Firebird (original 1910 version) is available from Dover Publications.
One filmed performance that can be seen on an Opus Arte DVD is by the Royal Ballet, which was coached by Russian artists in 1954, including Karsavina passing on her knowledge of the Firebird role to Margot Fonteyn. By turns this was passed down to Leanne Benjamin for the 2002 film. John Carewe conducting.The DVD also has a performance of Les Noces.
The Kirov Celebrates Nijinsky DVD is available from Kultur; includes Firebird. It was filmed in Paris in 2002. The lead role was danced by Diana Vishneva. Conductor was Mikhail Agrest. Reconstruction was by Isabelle Fokine and Andris Liepa.
The Kirov Firebird online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0MpwTEkzqQ
One viewer wrote: “This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life. For once I’m happy to be alive!”
There is another—quite different–Russian 2002 DVD titled Return of the Firebird, on Decca label/Universal with modern film techniques of smoke, wind, flames, a giant spider, and more, starting with masked Night on a horse coming through the fog, continuing with the Firebird’s arrival as a twinkling star in the sky, later showing princes emerging from enchanted webs, and at the end, a white horse carrying a white-clad Day towards the group celebration. But this also follows the Fokine choreography. The production is credited to the Maris Liepa Charity Foundation. The prince is portrayed by Andris Liepa, a star formerly of the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets, who also directed the three films on this DVD and portrays the prince in Firebird and the puppet in Petrouchka. Nina Ananiashvili dances the challenging role of the Firebird in a most impressive performance with “Les Saisons Russes” dancers. The sound was recorded by the Bolshoi State Academic Theatre Orchestra conducted by Andrey Chistiakov. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_WJnRF5o0g A You Tube mounting of the above.
George Balanchine choreographed The Firebird for New York City Ballet in 1949 with Maria Tallchief in the lead role. An excerpt can be seen on the DVD Dancing for Mr. B on Kultur. For the company, Balanchine and his colleague Jerome Robbins made a revision in 1970 with the special feature of designs by Marc Chagall.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUKATBkwuso Conductor Gerard Schwarz gives introduction to Firebird, suite. Story, analysis of the music interspersed with orchestral clips, also showing parts of the orchestral score and the instruments playing. Recorded 2012 with the “All Star Orchestra.” Very unusual and accessible! Schwarz suggests that the suites do hold up musically alone, whereas he agrees that the entire score, less so.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrMGqAmjbug This is a b&w You Tube film of Stravinsky himself conducting New York Philharmonic in last three parts of Firebird. Leonard Bernstein does the introduction.
An exciting production of Firebird was mounted by the Dance Theatre of Harlem, choreographed by John Taras and with stunning costumes designed by Geoffrey Holder. Their 1982 performance at the Kennedy Center was filmed, but this is not commercially available. https://www.nytimes.com/1982/01/13/arts/ballet-harlem-dance-theater-presents-firebird.html Review by Anna Kisselgoff, of New York performance.
A version that was not welcomed by critics was by Maurice Béjart. Clement Crisp, in The Financial Times, likened “Béjart and Stravinsky to Romeo and Goneril, or bacon and strawberries.” (Goneril being one of the evil sisters in Shakespeare’s King Lear.)
Stravinsky conducting all of his ballets is a 6-CD set on the SONY label, compiled in 2003. The original recordings date 1957 to 1965. Naxos released a boxed set of 6 CDs of all the ballets conducted by Robert Craft, 2009. He also recorded the complete works of Stravinsky (see Music Masters series Stravinsky: the Composer).
The 2008 reconstruction by the Maryinsky Theatre Ballet and Orchestra is on Bel Air Classiques CD with Valery Gergiev conducting, titled Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes.
There are many other recordings of The Firebird. Especially for musicians it can be very interesting to compare different performances, for instance: Andrew Litton and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra offer the complete ballet. Bernard Haitink and Igor Markevitch conduct Firebird and Petrouchka with the London Philharmonic, on Philips 2-CD set, along with Apollo and Le Sacre du Printemps. These are remasterings of older recordings—as is another 2-disc compilation by the London Symphony, conducted by Claudio Abbado and including not only Firebird but also Sacre, Petrouchka, Jeu de cartes, and Pulcinella.
A Decca CD is a remastering of Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet conducting the complete ballet plus some of the rehearsals. Ansermet, although he did not conduct the premiere of The Firebird, nevertheless was one of the very few top orchestral conductors who also excelled for performances with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes 1915-23. For a bio of the conductor: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Ansermet
In addition to recordings of the complete ballets, there are CDs available of suites that Stravinsky himself arranged—the highlights—from both Firebird and Petrouchka.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Treatise on Orchestration translated by Edward Agate is available from Dover Publications (reprint of original 1922 book).
It has always seemed to me that Stravinsky’s narrative ballet scores make sense only when one sees the theatrical ballet—despite their popularity with some concert audiences. So I was pleased to come across this opinion from the experienced British ballet composer-conductor Constant Lambert:
Petrouchka is meaningless in the concert-hall unless one knows the ballet. L’Oiseau de Feu is only possible when reduced to suite form and even then loses half its effect. [from his essay “Music and Action” in Carly Brahms, Footnotes to The Ballet (London: Peter Davies Ltd., 1936) p. 168.]
https://www.nytimes.com/1982/01/13/arts/ballet-harlem-dance-theater-presents-firebird.html Article by Anna Kisselgoff reporting on John Taras choreography for Firebird, performed by Dance Theater of Harlem, designs by Geoffrey Holder.
Highly recommended is Volume One of Richard Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Tradition (Berkeley CA: University of California, 1996), pp. 555-651. Because of his fluency in the Russian language, this musical scholar was able to present many sources (letters, reviews) and even pages of Stravinsky’s own sketchbooks. He chronicles in detail the “committee” work to develop the libretto for The Firebird, as well as the collaboration that took place between the composer and the choreographer Fokine. The author then proceeds to present his own analysis of Stravinsky’s harmonic structures and gives some examples (see p. 628 for a striking one of the Ronde des princesses) of how Russian tunes were transformed and incorporated into the ballet score. The quotation in this section is from Taruskin, pp. 649-50.
While the Taruskin study may seem rather daunting for non-musicologists, yet when the two volumes were published, they were greeted with exceptional praise from critics who could follow the musical analyses. Here are two articles that offer overviews of Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions:
https://www.jstor.org/stable/899519?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents by Lynne Rogers, Music Library Association Notes.
Review by Paul Griffiths from The New York Times.
An excellent study: Charles M. Joseph, Stravinsky’s Ballets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). Introduces traditions of ballet and composition in Russia as well as information about Stravinsky’s beginning composition and orchestration studies with Rimsky-Korsakov as a young adult, then bursting onto the Paris scene with Firebird.Subsequent chapters offer historical and detailed analytic coverage of Stravinsky scores written for ballet. The author was formerly professor of music at Skidmore College. Particularly of interest to musicians. Good notes, for example p. 253 n. 40 about octatonic scales in Firebird; p. 254 n. 46 about Stravinsky’s “compositional segmenting.”
For the unique first-hand account about Firebird by the choreographer himself, see Fokine: Memoirs of a Ballet Master, translated by his son Vitale Fokine, edited by Anatole Chujoy. (Boston: Little Brown, 1961). Chapter 8, pp. 158-79. Details one might not otherwise know: such as that Fokine deplored the replacement of the Firebird’s costume that evoked Russian folktale, by a ballet tutu. See the photograph opposite p. 256 with Tamara Karsavina as the Firebird and the choreographer himself as Prince Ivan. The choreographer laments other unauthorized departures in various revivals.
Fokine also describes how he and Diaghilev went together to hear Stravinsky’s concert with Feux d’Artifice, plus the close collaboration that he and Stravinsky had. The excerpts in my essay above are from pp. 161-62 and p. 179.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJIXobO94Jo Robert Craft interviews Stravinsky, 1957. Includes talk about work with Diaghilev, on Firebird etc. Posted by John Randolph.
https://www.google.com/search?q=images+Karsavina+as+Firebird&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiCnJS72arfAhWcFTQIHcl7BrQQsAR6BAgFEAE&biw=1363&bih=602 Interesting pictures of Karsavina as Firebird.
https://www.google.com/search?q=Bakst+Firebird+costumes&tbm=isch&source=univ&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiP56WPgfniAhXHrlQKHfAbCzIQsAR6BAgDEAE&biw=1692&bih=804&dpr=1.25Images of Bakst’s designs for Firebird.
In his book Ballet Music, pp. 62-63, Roger Fiske offers notation and documentation of the folk tune that Stravinsky drew on for the Rond Dance of the Princesses.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FjWk-H7x-xU Brief talk by conductor Rob Kapilow.
This is the ballet that musician-author Minna Lederman called “Fokine’s masterpiece…the supreme short-story ballet.” As with Firebird, the ballet Petrouchka was choreographed by Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes—but in this case, both Stravinsky’s music and the libretto (by Stravinsky and artist Alexandre Benois) came before the dance settings were made. Benois also designed both the scenery and costumes. Petrouchka was premiered in 1911 in Paris, with Vaslav Nijinsky portraying the puppet; Tamara Karsavina the doll; Alexander Orlov the Moor; and Enrico Cecchetti the showman.
Subsequently, the score to this ballet is one that probably thousands of orchestration students have studied intently to see how Stravinsky notated the sounds that he wanted to hear. The orchestral score reveals how idiomatic his writing was for each instrument (probably partly a result of his tutorial lessons from Rimsky-Korsakov). But all the while, with Petrouchka (sometimes spelled Petrushka), the intent was to stir up excitement with the impression of a Russian folk gathering and engage us emotionally with a sad clown puppet. It all works. We cannot help but feel empathy for Petrouchka, even as it is fascinating to witness the crowd of interesting people at the outdoor fair.
* * *
Stravinsky’s original intent with Petrouchka was to compose a sort of Konzertstuck—concert piece—for piano and orchestra. As chronicled by Geoffrey Ashton’s book, Stravinsky explained that he had gone to Switzerland:
Before getting down to Le Sacre du Printemps, which I knew would be a long and laborious task, I wanted to amuse myself with an orchestral piece in which the piano would play the principal part….In composing this music, I had a clear vision of a puppet, suddenly brought to life, and who also tries the patience of the orchestra with cascades of diabolical arpeggios. The orchestra, in return, replies with menacing fanfares. Finally, there is a terrible din which, reaching a climax, ends in the sad and plaintive collapse of the poor puppet.
When Diaghilev learned what the composer was up to, he commissioned Stravinsky to make a full-length score for the ballet about puppets and one in particular who has a very sweet soul. So in the work that resulted, listeners will hear the piano used playing solo melodies, but also colorfully playing rapid passages that Stravinsky had referred to as “cascades” of fast notes. The dramatic sections are very clear, and a propelling beat keeps the dancers moving when called for.
The story line for Petrouchka was worked up by both Stravinsky and the designer Alexandre Benois—whose talents as an artist contributed enormously to the overall impression made by the ballet itself. It was Benois who suggested a specific scene for the opening: Admiralty Square in St. Petersburg during the 1830 “Butter Week Fair” that took place before Lent.
In his evocative memoirs written in his late 80s, Benois recalled how as a child of six he was fascinated with marionettes, Punch and Judy performances (which he refers to as “Petrushka shows”) toy theaters, music, décor and costumes, and miniature sets which he built himself. He went on to comment: “and this is how my career as a theatrical artist first began.” The artist’s vivid description of the 1874 fair in St. Petersburg conjures up a magical scene which he, Stravinsky, and Fokine were able to reinvent theatrically in Petrouchka.
To evoke the atmosphere, Stravinsky immediately offers shimmering sounds to which a bustling crowd can move and interesting street entertainers can be introduced: a dancer rolling out a small rug upon which to perform; a contortionist giving her competition; men performing Russian trepak-style folk dances in which they squat then thrust their feet out ever so quickly side to side. The music that conjures up sounds of hurdy gurdys and concertina is brought to a sudden halt as a drumroll demands silence for the showman to play a beautiful tune on his flute and lure the crowd to a little stage, where he introduces his three puppets: Petrouchka the sensitive but shy clown; a ballerina who is beautiful but yet has a frozen unemotional look; and a Moor (who as portrayed by Alexander Orlov in the original production did not have golliwog makeup). Magically indeed they seem to come alive and dance. Each has a musical theme to accompany their characteristics.
Next poor Petrouchka is thrown into an unadorned room by the showman, his sadness amplified for us by the mournful music played by clarinet and oboe. He desperately wants to get out, and there are stabs of sound that underscore his urgency as he beats on the wall and looks accusingly at the portrait of the showman. The ballerina enters briefly, and after she leaves, he wants to get out even more badly.
The Moor in his more lush setting with palm trees is playing with a coconut to the accompaniment of bass clarinet, English horn, and percussion. In a little while the ballerina enters, ostensibly playing the trumpet tune that is so memorable. The two puppets do a waltz duet—he clumsily stepping to the bass eighth-note accompaniment in the bassoon and she rather mechanically doing dainty pointe work to the trumpet and flute melody, which actually is a waltz by the Viennese composer Josef Lanner.
Diaghilev’s Paris audiences at the time probably recognized this and other melodies in Petrouchka.Apparently Stravinsky borrowed several that were popular at the time, and in one case when the other composer’s tune was still in copyright, Stravinsky had to pay royalties for this use even up into the 1950s!
But back to the ballet: enter Petrouchka, quivering, with his hands together and his mouth in unchanging worried poker-faced position. The Moor confronts him, and Petrouchka rolls out of the room.
The scene returns now to outside in the fair, where there are a merry-go-round, a group of women doing gracious folk dances, and men doing more vigorous dancing. Horns introduce a cheerful melody taken up soon by the full orchestra, shimmering. Some people are drinking, others just enjoying visiting or flirting. But all stops when a bear enters on a leash accompanied by lumbering music. Next, strings introduce a new melody with strong bass-offbeat patterns. Masked dancers arrive, and in the midst of all this hustle and bustle, there is the distinctive “laughing” shrill trumpet as Petrouchka is chased by the Moor, who kills his rival.
The crowd is curious and concerned. The showman picks up the lifeless form of Petrouchka to convince everybody that the puppet was just a puppet indeed. The crowd starts to disperse, but as the showman nears his little stage, carrying the lifeless form, there is a return of that trumpet laugh as the soul of Petrouchka, perched on top of the little theater, taunts the showman. Petrouchka then collapses, hanging over from his waist. The ballet ends abruptly with a couple of chords plucked by the strings—and the drama is over.
Once more emphasizing Stravinsky’s skill as an orchestrator, Richard Taruskin had this to say:
Although based on musical echoes of everyday life, the “human” scenes in Petrushka are transformed into something far removed from everyday reality by Stravinsky’s magical orchestration….
However varied and inventive, the orchestration of the outer tableaux is rarely without some overlay suggestive of street music. Add to that the extraordinary and unrelieved simplicity of the crowd music—quite the boldest and most subversive stroke of all….For pages at a time the music proceeds with an absolutely unvarying pulse, with absolutely flat dynamics, and (almost unbelievably) without a single sharp or flat. To achieve such freshness with such simplified means, and with no hint either of monotony or of unsophistication—this was surely Stravinsky’s most startling achievement….
It is easy to agree with the author Geoffrey Ashton, who wrote:
There is evidently a general and tacit belief in Petrushka as the perfect ballet….
In Petrushka Fokine combined the elements of mime and choreography in such a way that the two are indistinguishable. It was the culmination of his work as a choreographer and is the first major step in the history of twentieth-century ballet.
Mikhail (Michel) Fokine (1880-1942), choreographer of this “perfect” ballet, began his dance career first as a student at the Imperial Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, then became a member of the professional company at the Maryinsky Theatre in 1898, performing first as a substitute, then as one of their soloists and then being promoted to premier danseur. It wasn’t long before he began choreographing (for charity events, among other venues) and also formulating his ideas about what the future of classical ballet should be like. Although he did mount some admirable dance works in Russia (including his first versions of Les Sylphides as well as The Dying Swan), Fokine’s extraordinary changes in style were first applauded by audiences for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris—including his setting of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin’s Prince Igor, Schéhérazade to Rimsky-Korsakov’s tone-poem, and his work with Stravinsky: Firebird in 1910 followed by the “perfect” Petrouchka in 1911.
Diaghilev had enlisted Fokine as his chief choreographer from the start of the Ballets Russes, but when the impresario began promoting his lover and lead dancer Vaslav Nijinsky additionally as a choreographer in 1912, Fokine left the Ballets Russes—but not before creating two more noteworthy ballets: Le Spectre de la Rose (to existing music by Carl Maria von Weber) and Daphnis and Chloé (to newly commissioned music by the French composer Maurice Ravel). He did return to Ballets Russes briefly in 1914 to stage Rimsky-Korsakov’s Coq d’Or as an opera-ballet, plus The Legend of Joseph (to music of Richard Strauss). After that, he returned to Russia and the Maryinsky until the revolution—when he left Russia for good.
Next the choreographer went to work first in Scandinavia for a few years, and then from 1923, in America with New York as home base for himself and his family. By the end of his life, he had created around 80 works.
Michel Fokine had married Vera Antonova, a dancer with the Maryinsky, in 1905. Subsequently the two of them also performed together, including for their first appearance in the United States—at the stellar location of the Metropolitan Opera, in 1919. The program included two of Fokine’s outstanding dances: Le Spectre de la Rose and The Dying Swan. For the rest of their careers, Fokine and Fokina traveled a great deal—performing and staging ballets as well as dances for musicals, revues, and plays. In New York, both of them taught. For a time, along with their son, they gave occasional performances with a group of 60 dancers (all his students) called the Fokine American Ballet Company. In the 1930s the Fokines worked abroad a great deal. However, in 1939 Michel Fokine became the first choreographer for Ballet Theatre and staged works for the company until his death in 1942.
In his memoirs, Michel Fokine gives an account of how his family shared their love of the theater and other interests in life; how as a boy he would lean over a railing to watch adult ballroom dancing (with its formal manners of men guiding the women); and how—at a tender age—he was accepted into the Imperial Ballet School, where on top of classical ballet training he also started learning to paint, and to play the violin, piano, balalaika and other instruments.
The choreographer recalled his teachers and the school directors Marius Petipa and Christian Johansson with admiration and love, and his memoir offers wonderful details about the classes and such events as Tsar Alexander III attending the examination performances and talking and eating with the students afterward. There are also some telling retrospective observations about Fokine’s feelings concerning classical ballet in general. He loved his studies and his extra-curricular time spent painting in museums, copying the old masters. But when he compared the traditional unnatural poses plus the costumes of theatrical ballet with the more natural flowing postures caught in paintings, he began to have doubts, especially concerning the way stories were presented by dancers.
As the young dancer matured, he soon enough was cast in lead roles of student performances—for instance as Colas in the older ballet La Fille mal gardée, with increasingly difficult technical variations. But even as he concentrated on his physical training and performances, Fokine was becoming more aware of the other aspects of theatrical ballet: the overall effect of costumes, scenery, pantomime, classical poses and steps themselves, and the portrayal of character, emotion, and dramatic stories by means of mute dance. Times were changing, reflected Fokine. So even as he studied with the famous Nicholas Legat:
It was a coincidence that, at the time when my mind was beginning to be filled with accumulated doubts about the invulnerability of ballet traditions, my guide was none other than an admirer of these traditions, who accepted them blindly and who was totally unable to understand my doubts: doubt that in the ballet everything was absolute, that the dance which I was taught was built on foundations of unforgettable and unchangeable laws; doubt about the canons and dogmas of the old ballet. These were implanted in me when I began comparing the form of ballet positions and movements with their counterparts in other arts—while I was engrossed in painting, and was copying pictures in the Hermitage Museum or the Museum of Alexander III.
…The idea did not strike me at that time that a future dancer as well as artist must familiarize himself with the art of painting and with all other forms of the graphic arts. I did not realize then how beneficial it was, as a supplement to the education received at the Theater School, to surround myself with works of art. But I was attracted to such things as if by a magnet.
…Sitting in front of pictures and bas-reliefs I would compare what I was seeing with what I had been taught in the ballet class….At times I would pose a question to myself: What would happen if all these people in the pictures had their legs turned out en dehors as I was being taught in class? The answer was obvious: it would be ridiculous. If all the participants in the scene in this Gobelin tapestry held their backs erect? It would be repulsive. Or suppose the marble deities corrected their errors of posture from the point of view of ballet esthetics, and curved their arms or held them en couronne over their heads? This would look very silly.
Nevertheless, in his work as a dancer and teacher, Fokine felt that he was very much a guardian of classic ballet traditions, and he came to understand how they had developed and what reasons there were for their continuation. Meditating on his attitude towards teaching and the opinion of others, Fokine wrote:
From the memoirs of my pupils and other witnesses who recorded impressions of my work…it is evident that my system of teaching created the effect of bold innovation.
What was really new in my teaching? I tried to give a meaning to the movements and poses; I tried not to make the dance resemble gymnastics. I endeavored to make the student aware of the music so he would not treat it as a mere accompaniment. I tried to make the student not content with having just a superficial connection between the movement or a measure of the music, or part of a measure, but seek to interpret the phrases, the accents, the musical nuances and whole phrases.
…I lectured in my classes about beauty and esthetics. This was a daring, unheard-of innovation: to talk about beauty during a dance class—what impudence! Everything was expected to be correct, and nothing more.
But I saw, much too often, that things were correct but ugly, and believed that everything should be both correct and beautiful. Through rules of correctness alone, beauty is not created; one must feel it.
If there were departures in Fokine’s teaching, that was only the beginning. Respected as one of the great reformers in the history of ballet, he early on had laid down some very clear basic principles which he followed in his own choreographic work:
For every new ballet, there should be a new form of movement related to the subject matter, the time, and the character of the music—instead of simply using traditional fixed steps and phrases of movement;
Dance and mime have meaning in ballet only if they become an expression of a dramatic situation;
Conventional gestures should be used only if necessitated by the style of the new ballet; otherwise, hand gestures should be replaced by movement of the whole body, making the dance expressive from head to foot;
The group of dancers is not just an “ornament.” Not only does a dance begin with expressiveness of the face and hands of a single body; the expressiveness extends to the collective dance of the entire group;
In its relationship to the other arts, the new ballet should not be a slave of music or decor, but rather strive for equality with the other contributing arts.
It became clear that Fokine followed his own advice. In his choreography, classical technique was not exploited for itself as a way for the dancers to show off; the moves always seem to be related to the dramatic intent. However, Fokine did continue to respect the classical traditions.
Trying to sum up Fokine’s impact upon ballet, the noted dance historian Cyril W. Beaumont wrote this in 1935 while the choreographer was still alive:
Fokine’s contribution to the art of choreography has been of immense service in elevating the art of ballet to new heights, and in both leading and pointing out the way to new experiments. The amount of work accomplished by Fokine has probably never been equaled except by Marius Petipa….
Fokine has exerted a profound and beneficial influence on every branch of the art of ballet. He has instituted important reforms in ballet costume; he has made mime in ballet expressive in place of the former conventional gestures; he has proved the importance of using good music; he has stressed the necessity for a dance to conform to the theme; he has insisted on correct style-atmosphere. To glance at this list of his achievements is to be reminded of Noverre. The analogy is not inapposite, for Fokine has every right to be termed the Noverre of the twentieth century.
notes and explorations:
The VHS tape Nureyev and the Joffrey Ballet in Tribute to Nijinsky on Nonesuch was a production of Channel Thirteen/WNET, recorded 1980 in Nashville. Terence Kern conducted the orchestra, and the main roles were Rudolf Nureyev as Petrouchka, Denise Jackson as the Ballerina, and Christian Holder as the Moor, plus Gary Chryst as the Showman. The tape also includes memorable performances of Le Spectre de la Rose and L’Apres midi d’un Faune—in which Nureyev danced both lead roles.
Good news: the Dance in America Nureyev performance is on You Tube for the time being: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Uj592AqDd0 The program includes a documentary of Nureyev talking about the ballet, and information about Stravinsky.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBaKgjmGxbU A full 40-minute film of Petrouchka performed by the Paris Opera Ballet, 1976, with Rudolf Nureyev, Noëlla Pontios, Charles Jude, and Serge Pereti. Conducted by Manuel Rosenthal.
On the same DVD by Les Saisons Russes listed for Firebird is an excellent performance of Petrushka featuring particularly nice Russian costumes and folk dances. (Universal DVD titled Return of the Firebird, 2002). Directed by Andris Liepa, who admirably portrays Petrouchka. For information on the Maris Liepa Foundation: http://www.liepa.ru/en/about-us/
Though the original recording dates to 1969, a nice remastered CD of the music for Petrouchka was performed by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. There is an extra track in which Bernstein gives a non-technical talk about the ballet and its music—interspersing his comments with examples from the orchestral recording. Included among his remarks is a demonstration of the “Petrouchka chord,” namely a C major triad played simultaneously with an F-sharp triad. SONY Classical. Individual tracks of the music available online—but not of the talk.
the piano suite
Upon being commissioned by the pianist Artur Rubinstein, Stravinsky made a piano transcription of three pieces from Petrouchka, which have turned out to be popular among pianists for their concert performances.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ff0Fu1pPoe0 Audio only of Rubinstein performing the section of Petrouchka in his cell, from the piano suite, followed by the Shrove-Tide Fair. Recorded live in Carnegie Hall in 1961. SONY. Extraordinary! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQ5-80WX8UI the first movement
https://www.amazon.com/New-Highlights-Rubinstein-Carnegie-Hall/dp/B01ETY6ALA All three scenes available only on MP3 download, by track.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btNfXh1ybeM Another remarkable piano rendition, by Won Kim in 2019, but also showing piano score. Worth reading perceptive opening remarks by Ashish Xiangyi Kumar.
A particularly virtuosic rendition is by Maurizio Pollini—and this can be heard either on a CD or via MP3 download.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqwDDseeeGs Daniil Trifonov performing the piano suite from Petrouchka in Carnegie Hall, 2016.
The opening quotation is from Minna Lederman, Stravinsky in the Theatre (New York: Da Capo Press, 1975 reprint of the work originally published in 1949 by Straus & Giroux.) p. 6. The book is a collection of brief essays by Stravinsky, his collaborators, and other artists and musicians who were contemporaries.
A stunning oversized photograph book is Nijinsky Dancing, with commentary by Lincoln Kirstein (New York: Knopf, 1975).
A photograph of the original Moor dancer, Alexander Orlov, is seen on p. 136 of Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp, Ballet: an Illustrated History. They make the point that the makeup did not include golliwog eyes, but only dark skin.
Highly recommended: Alexandre Benois, Memoirs translated by Moura Windus, (Volume 1, London: Chatto & Windus, 1960). Writing in his late 80s, the artist (who lived 1870-1960) conjures up a vivid sense of what life was like in the middle of St. Petersburg when he was a small child (the son of one of the leading architects in Russia at the time). The brief quotation is from p. 117. His description of the 1874 Shrove fair is on pp. 117-128. He laments the “onset of nationalism” from 1880 and the disappearance of light-hearted entertainments (many based on foreign theatrical characters such as Harlequin) in favor of heavy Russian dramas. Benois observed:
This genuine popular entertainment died and with it vanished its own peculiar culture, its customs and traditions. To the next generation the words that had given me a thrill of excitement had already become a dead sound, an old wives’ tale.
In chapter VI Benois paints a verbal picture of his introduction to the theater (and on p. 112 introduces Punch and Judy shows as “Petrushka shows”). In subsequent chapters, the artist chronicles what happened to just one family, his, after the Bolshevik Revolution, when formerly comfortable and artistic and kindly homes would be forced to accept complete strangers into their apartments as part of the new communal life, sometimes leaving an original owner living only in his kitchen. The entire memoir is extraordinary in its details of everyday life within cultural changes, and provides insights into the inspirations that resulted in the artist’s substantial career designing sets and costumes for theatrical ballet.
A lovely little book in the Barrons series on Stories of the Ballets is Geoffrey Ashton, Petrushka (New York: Barrons 1985 and London: Aurum Press, 1985). The quotation from Stravinsky talking about his composing for piano is from p. 24. The other brief quotes in this essay are from pp. 42 and 45.
A scholarly book with information about all the Stravinsky Russian ballet scores is Richard Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996). Volume One, Chapter 10 p. 661ff has information about Petrouchka. See especially pp. 695-737 where the author discusses sources, with musical examples of folk songs collected by Rimsky-Korsakov and notated passages from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. He makes reference to “street songs that any turn-of-century Russian would have known instantly.” The quotation in this essay about Petrouchka is from Taruskin, pp.735-36.
Fokine: Memoirs of a Ballet Master, translated by Vitale Fokine, edited by Anatole Chujoy (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1961) is highly recommended for both dancers and musicians. His recollection of Ivanov and Drigo in rehearsals is from pp. 30-31.The excerpts about his doubts and his painting are taken from pp. 33-34. His comments about teaching are taken from pp. 69-70. And as an indication of Michel Fokine’s irritation with posturing by some modern dancers in the United States, see chapter 14, “The Fight Against Modern Dance,” pp. 247-59, which includes a Q & A session between Fokine and Martha Graham.
The paraphrases of Fokine’s principles are based on the letter that was written earlier but published in the London Times in 1914.
A lengthy biographical entry is in the IED, written by Suzanne Carbonneau.
Another source of information is Cyril W. Beaumont, Michel Fokine and his Ballets (London: Dance Books republication of the work first published in 1935). The quotation ending the above essay is taken from pp. 129,131.
http://www.michelfokine.com/id4.html This is a link to the Michel Fokine Estate Archive. It includes a biography, complete list of ballets with information about the premieres, translation of his five principles for new ballet, information about archival materials, contact links regarding copyrights of the ballets.
http://dancetabs.com/2014/07/the-work-of-mikhail-fokine-qa-with-isabelle-fokine/ Q&A session with the choreographer’s granddaughter concerning what is possible and accurate for revivals.
In Ballet Music, Roger Fiske notates and points out some of existing tunes used by Stravinsky for Petrouchka. pp. 64, 66, 68, 69.
The Rite of Spring (Le Sacre du Printemps)
No theatre spectacle of the century has stirred up such a fury of excitement. None today is less known to us in its visual detail.
—Minna Lederman, 1949
This now-famous/infamous ballet with a score by Igor Stravinsky was first choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky and performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris on May 29, 1913, with Pierre Monteux conducting. The scenery and costumes were by Nicholas Roerich (who also developed the book with the composer), and Marie Piltz danced the solo role of the “Chosen One.”
Nijinsky’s assistant, Marie Rambert, recalled the ballet years later in her 1972 memoir Quicksilver:
It was the painter Roerich who first suggested the subject of Sacre du Printemps. He then worked on the theme with Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Nijinsky. It was to be prehistoric Russia and represent the rites of spring. Stravinsky had finished his magnificent score by 1912 and we started the rehearsals with the company that same year.
Nijinsky again first of all established the basic position: feet very turned in, knees slightly bent, arms held in reverse of the classical position, a primitive, prehistoric posture. The steps were very simple: walking smoothly or stamping, jumps mostly off both feet, landing heavily. There was only one a little more complicated, the dance for the maidens in the first scene. It was mostly done in groups, and each group has its own precise rhythm to follow. In the dance (if one can call it that) of the Wisest Elder, he walked two steps against every three steps of the ensemble. In the second scene the dance of the sacrifice of the Chosen Virgin was powerful and deeply moving. I watched Nijinsky again and again teaching it to Maria Piltz. Her reproduction was very pale by comparison with his ecstatic performance, which was the greatest tragic dance I have ever seen.
Going on to speak about the unspeakably bad behavior of the audience who had come to see this new work that had probably been so difficult for the dancers to learn (because of its departure from classical techniques and poses as well as because of the unfamiliar music), Rambert reported:
The first night of that ballet was the most astonishing event….at the first sounds of the music, shouts and hissing started in the audience, and it was very difficult onstage to hear the music, the more so as part of the audience began to applaud in an attempt to drown out the hissing. We all desperately tried to keep time without being able to hear the rhythm clearly. In the wings Nijinsky counted the bars to guide us. Pierre Monteux conducted undeterred, Diaghilev having told him to continue to play at all costs.
But after the interlude things became even worse, and during the sacrificial dance real pandemonium broke out. That scene began with Maria Piltz, the Chosen Virgin, standing on the spot trembling for many bars, her folded hands under her right cheek, her feet turned in, a truly prehistoric and beautiful pose. But to the audience of the time it appeared ugly and comical.
A shout went up in the gallery: “Un docteur!”
Somebody else shouted louder: “Un dentiste!”
Then someone else screamed: “Deux dentistes!”
And so it went on. One elegant lady leaned out of her box and slapped a man who was clapping. But the performance went on to the end.
And yet now there is no doubt that, musically and choreographically, a masterpiece had been created that night. The only ballet that could compare with it in power was Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, created in 1923. She, like her brother, produced a truly epic ballet—so far unexcelled anywhere.
* * *
So what on earth was all that uproar about? That was just before World War I when of course there were things to come a lot more barbaric than a new ballet or stomping rhythms played by strings in dissonant harmonies. Or was it the audience that was barbaric? (See the notes below for a reference to Lynn Garafola’s book with its chapter on audiences.)
Years later, without any film to document the specific dance steps and positions, what were people to make of Nijinsky’s choreography for his setting of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? Ballerina Margot Fonteyn shared her speculations:
All we know is that The Rite of Spring was created before modern dance saw the light of day; that its movements were totally in opposition to ballet; and that Isadora Duncan was doing a few simple skips and steps for which she is credited with inspiring modern dance, while Nijinsky, the brilliant innovator whose masterpiece is unrecorded, suffers the irony of going down in history as the spirit of a perfumed rose. His famous leap through the window in Le Spectre de la Rose will always overshadow his leap ahead of other choreographers into an unexplored area of movement.
For decades, it seemed there was no possibility of our ever seeing some sort of revival of this choreography so pivotal in the history of theatrical dance. Then, miraculously and courageously, Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer embarked with Robert Joffrey and the Joffrey Ballet to produce as close a reconstruction as possible. During a seminar presented at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, these modern collaborators shared the results of their years of research. Additionally, the conductor Robert Craft (who had worked so closely with Stravinsky during the composer’s lifetime), gave a slide presentation and lecture about the rehearsal score itself, and all the surprising clues it gave as to what was supposed to be happening onstage.
Millicent Hodson’s book Nijinsky’s Crime Against Grace is an impressive document, with dance movement and poses indicated on excerpts from the piano rehearsal score, sketches done during the first performance by artist Valentine Gross, the author’s own drawings, and much more. She also made the observation that Stravinsky’s calligraphy was so visual that even if you don’t read music, you can “see” the sounds—which in this case are coordinated by small sections with the drawings and information in words. There is a complete performance of the reconstructed dance itself, online. (See link in notes below.)
Contrary to some critical opinions about Nijinsky’s patterns being too hand-in-glove with the rhythm of the music, while watching the film viewers might keep in mind the fact that Nijinsky had been getting acquainted with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze approaches to music education, termed “eurhythmics.” The exercises this teacher developed were not intended to be “dance.” Rather, they were considered a way of involving music students’ entire bodies to help them more fully understand basic concepts such as dynamics, or meter. One of his trained assistants was Marie Rambert, who was enlisted to work with Nijinsky on the difficult rhythms in the Stravinsky score. Nijinsky put the principles to artistic use, and over the years, agreement does seem to have mounted about the question of whether the dancer-choreographer knew what he was doing in relation to the music. The dance was new; it was different; but the movement rhythms were likely done very much on purpose to convey a scene of communal tribal life. To many eyes now, the reconstruction by Millicent Hodson looks believable in its theatrical evocation of prehistoric ritual.
scenario and score
In the translated foreword to the Dover score of Le Sacre du Printemps, the Russian writer Boris Mikhailovich Yarustovsky gives a description of the thirteen episodes. In summary, he observes:
The large-scale symphonic cycle of The Rite is a monumental suite, a series of group dance scenes (essentially, there is only one solo dance) developing, so to speak, in the form of two grandiose, dynamic growth-sequences that emerge successively. In the first part, dynamic focal points are provided by the men’s scenes, “Ritual of Abduction” and “Ritual of the Two Rival Tribes,” and by the final full-company scene, “The Dancing Out of the Earth.” The dynamic summits of the second part are “The Naming and Honoring of the Chosen One” and “The Sacrificial Dance.”
The musical language of The Rite consists of three compositional strands that are individualized with sufficient clarity. The girls’ scenes are lyrical, with the melodic principle predominant. The youths’ scenes are boisterous and explosive, with the element of rhythm clearly to the fore. Finally, there is the mysterious world of the elders, with the harmonic archaism peculiar to it and its ominous, “dark” timbres and measured rhythms. The interaction of these strands is also the musical basis of the work’s dramatic structure.
Giving us a perhaps jarring insight into Soviet artistic culture of the 1960s, the author tried to place Stravinsky’s score in a larger context:
A pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov’s national school, Stravinsky proved to be one of the masters of modern Western art, but his esthetic principles are extremely alien to our socialist culture. All the same, the best compositions of this indubitably outstanding artist of our time, who was associated for many years with the traditions of Russian professional and folk creativity, are deserving of our attention and study.
Russian folk ingredients
It was not the story alone that drew on things out of Russia’s past. There is evidence that while constructing his musical score, Stravinsky also explored Russian chants and tunes. In turn, the music historian Richard Taruskin has explored Stravinsky’s work in detail, showing how the composer imbibed some of these melodies into his imagination and transformed them in wonderful ways. Taruskin points out:
Not every folk song in The Rite of Spring has been identified; indeed, an exhaustive accounting of Stravinsky’s musical sources will never be made….
Some of the borrowings are revealed only by examining Stravinsky’s sketchbook, for they were transformed beyond recognition in the process of composition. Here we have another reason why an account of the folk melodies in The Rite of Spring can never be exhaustive. The folk tunes in the sketchbook stand out only because their initial form (that is, as entered first in writing) they are unlike the familiar music of the finished ballet….The real development of material generally took place at the keyboard, and by the time an idea was entered into the sketchbook there is no telling how many unrecorded stages of crystallization it had gone through. Thus there is no telling whether elaborate transformation processes that effectively conceal a folk original stand behind the many motives and phrases that make their first appearance in Stravinsky’s sketches in their familiar, finished form.
In any case, it can be said for all four of the early Stravinsky ballet scores discussed here, that regardless of their source, even the little snatches of melodies can be quite striking as orchestrated by the composer—and certainly, with the underlying rhythmic accompaniment he provided, very kinetic inspiration for choreographers who set his music for the theatrical stage—starting with the break-through setting by Vaslav Nijinsky. As Millicent Hodson firmly stated:
For all the originality of Nijinsky’s stylized vocabulary in Le Sacre, and his inventive multiplication of movement for one dancer to a multitude, it was, rather, the rhythmic structure he created on top of the musical score that makes his version unique among the hundred some that followed,
details in the musical score
An unusually exciting way to experience Stravinsky’s score—and not requiring anyone to read standard notation—is via the link in the endnotes for Stephen Malinowski’s animated graphic rendition. He has assigned different shapes and colors to specific families of instruments. Horizontally, the symbols move along as the music is heard as generated by Jay Bacal using the virtual Vienna Symphonic library. High and low pitches are arranged vertically as we are used to in standard notation. The instrumentation is visually clear, and perhaps most amazing is the ease of discerning both the insistent beats in the strings at one point, and the irregular accents grouped in many instruments. The rhythms are apparent by the horizontal length of each shape. And it seems easy to recognize important instrumental entrances and exits and to ways in which the little “melodicles” are transformed as the piece goes along. The changes in density are shown vividly, contrasting the massed fortes with more delicate sections. And finally, at the end, it becomes even more understandable how the first audiences for Le Sacre might have found this frenetic and frantic musical climax terrifying, especially when accompanying the onstage depiction of a human sacrifice.
Either through the graphic rendition, or turning to the published score of Sacre, one can appreciate such details as the grace notes which serve to accent certain sounds; the fast flourishes that can draw the attention to whatever notes come next; the reintroduction of short motifs which could be called “melodicles”; the trills in the winds and fast back-and-forth bowing in the strings that serve to keep up excitement; the dynamic buildups to points where the entire orchestra plays in unison rhythm; the sense of “polytonality,” or making harmony that can be analyzed as being in two tonal keys at once; the insertion of rests to create unexpected, asymmetrical rhythmic patterns; the unusual timbres of the extended orchestra to include alto flute, small E-flat clarinet, small trumpet in D, Wagner tubas, contrabassoon—and the distinctive melodic lines given to bassoons and English horns. Then there is the percussive effect of strings playing unison rhythms in dissonant harmony such as seconds (like two adjacent notes on a piano).
Among the prominent technical compositional devices that Stravinsky employs to keep up the intensity of non-stop drive is the use of ostinato patterns. These could be any very short rhythmic or pitch motifs repeated over and over as a structural foundation. Against these he will inject unexpected accents, particularly effective when combined with a determined steady beat. Or rhythmically he may divide short notes into even shorter subdivisions while repeating the pitches of the original.
George Balanchine would have heartily agreed about the way dancers’ ears can hang onto the foundational beat in this score. In his essay on “The Dance Element in Stravinsky’s Music” he stressed that:
In Stravinsky’s music, the dance element of most force is the pulse. It is steady, insistent, yet healthy, always reassuring. You feel it even in the rests. It holds together each of his works and runs through them all….
Stravinsky’s strict beat is his sign of authority over time; over his interpreters too. A choreographer should, first of all, place confidence without limit in this control. For Stravinsky’s rhythmic invention, possible only above a stable base, will give the greatest stimulus to his own powers.
Despite multiple attempts through the years, some dance artists and their musical collaborators considered Sacre unmanageable. And though even some student orchestras nowadays seem to have few problems, many instrumental musicians in the past had challenges in conducting and playing the music for The Rite of Spring. They had to watch those metric changes: 4/4 then 3/ 4 then 2/4: not too much of a problem. Later: 5/4 then 7/4 then 6/4 then 5/4 then 4/4. Still not too bad! But later 2/8 then 3/16 then 2/16 then 3/16 and 2/8 all very fast: Whoops! Tricky for some in earlier generations to sight-read; less so for musicians of today.
And in regard to the dance itself, for a long time the original choreography for Sacre (though essentially unknowable) was denigrated and associated in the public mind only with the riot. Nevertheless the ballet was restaged by Leonide Massine, and in the initial public remarks of Diaghilev and even Stravinsky, that second version was preferred. But in his later years Stravinsky relented and said he thought Nijinsky’s was the best of all the settings for Sacre.
Flipping to our own contemporaries, Paul Taylor’s music director Donald York described some years ago what it was like to play one of the two pianos for Taylor’s oddball setting of Sacre. Instead of the familiar orchestral score, the two-piano arrangement made by the composer was used. And instead of a serious story of ancient ritual, there was now a hilarious plot, titled The Rehearsal. (Hint as to the general atmosphere: the characters include The Girl, The Private Eye, The Crook, His Mistress, His Stooge, and assorted Henchmen, Policemen, and Bar Maidens.) Plot aside, the choreographer shared his feelings about the two-piano version:
It has things that you don’t have in the orchestral version. It’s my feeling that the rhythms sound clearer. And the idea of it for that dance was that it was more suitable to have something that sounded like a “rehearsal” situation rather than a performance. That was important to the plot of the dance. But mainly, I chose it just because I liked it. I listened to the piano version for quite some time. In fact, we put it on instead of the other just for my own pleasure. Not that I wouldn’t like to choreograph the orchestral version someday, but with certain scores like that, the volume and the richness of the orchestration can swamp you if you don’t handle it right in the dance….
And commenting on the metrical changes in Sacre, Mr. Taylor said:
It’s not complex. It’s one of the easiest things to dance to I’ve ever done. It’s as easy as pie! The rhythms remain constant; they don’t retard or speed up. And so, they’re easy to count—for a dancer. At least nowadays. When it was first done, because it was so different, the dancers were thrown for a loop. But you see, the basic tempo is not fluctuating, and once you get the basic beat, then it’s easy. There’s no problem for the dancer.
As far as convenience to choreograph to, Sacre is written in very short sections, and that sort of helps with the problem of having things go on too long.
We’ll never know what Stravinsky might have thought about this recent reincarnation! But among others, Glen Tetley set his version on American Ballet Theatre, with a performance at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1976, and drew this response from Bill Zakariasen of the New York Daily News:
Those expecting pagan rites of ancient Russia were no doubt disappointed, yet for the first time in my experience, the choreography matched the elemental power of Stravinsky’s music.
This score has continued to fascinate both dancers and audiences—and not just in the world of ballet. Among the modern dance choreographers who have set their own responses to Sacre have been Lester Horton, Mary Wigman, Pina Bausch, and Martha Graham. Other ballet mountings have been done by the Royal Ballet in London, and by the Bolshoi in Russia. Those interested may be able to do a little research online and discover new stagings of Le Sacre du Printemps that might be seen in live performance. As of this writing, the Grands Ballets Canadiens just presented their version choreographed by Étienne Béchard.
And so it goes!
notes and explorations:
An excellent brief trailer clip about the Joffrey Ballet reconstruction of The Rite of Spring, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JPh7yq_5UBM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jo4sf2wT0wU film of the 1987 Joffrey performance. Orchestra of the National Theater of Prague, Allan Lewis conducting. Beatriz Rodriguez, the Chosen One. Robert Joffrey supervised the reconstruction.
The following film is highly recommended viewing online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8TQH-5Vrhk This is a documentary about Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and Stravinsky, followed by Joffrey Ballet performance of The Rite. Includes clip of interviews with Stravinsky and Marie Rambert (who had been assistant to Nijinsky and danced in the first performances herself). Documentation of Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer researching the choreographic clues as well as costumes and scenery, and information about how Robert Joffrey encouraged and oversaw this project.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IXMpUhuBMs Fascinating digital imagery of the sounds by Stephen Malinowski using music generated by Jay Bacal who used virtual instrument software from the Vienna Symphonic Library. Each colored shape corresponds to a family of instruments: ellipse: flutes (also cymbals and tam-tam) octagon: single reed (clarinet, bass clarinet) inverted ellipse/star: double reeds (oboe, English horn, bassoons) rectangle: brass (also, with “aura,” timpani, guiro and bass drum) rhombus: strings. Accessible for both musicians and those who do not read musical notation. Makes visually clear that constant beat and the strong chords, and easy to follow the melodies too, in regard to both rhythms and pitches. Trills are especially to fun to watch! 34 minutes.
Here are the sections and timings:
FIRST PART 00:12 A KISS OF THE EARTH (Introduction)
03:23 THE AUGURS OF SPRING / DANCES OF THE YOUNG GIRLS
06:32 RITUAL OF ABDUCTION
07:54 SPRING ROUNDS
11:28 RITUAL OF THE TWO RIVAL TRIBES
13:14 PROCESSION OF THE OLDEST AND WISEST ONE
13:54 THE KISS OF THE EARTH (The Oldest and Wisest One)
14:15 THE DANCING OUT OF THE EARTH
15:28 THE EXALTED SACRIFICE (Introduction)
20:06 MYSTIC CIRCLE OF THE YOUNG GIRLS
23:23 THE NAMING AND HONORING OF THE CHOSEN ONE
24:47 EVOCATION OF THE ANCESTORS
25:42 RITUAL ACTION OF THE ANCESTORS
29:18 SACRIFICIAL DANCE
Stephen Malinowski’s website is at http://www.musanim.com/ He has mounted a number of other musical pieces, including Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun.
http://www.musanim.com/pdf/RoS_MalinowskiBacal_ProgramNotes_2013jul24.pdf This is Malinowski’s brief explanation of how he did this graphing.
There are several CDs available of the two-piano version which Paul Taylor used for his choreography, including one recording on Hyperion with Marc-André Hamelin and Leif Ove Andsnes.
Dover Publications has available the 160-page full orchestral score of The Rite of Spring. It is a republication of the edition originally published in Moscow in 1965. The foreword and section headings have all been translated into English.
Marie Rambert’s memoir Quicksilver (London: Macmillan, 1972) is still available second-hand. Her account of the preparations and premiere of Sacre is taken from pp. 63-65.
One of the things Marie Rambert recounts in those interviews was the fact that Stravinsky and Nijinsky fought “battles” over the tempo for various sections of Sacre. “And I can’t remember who won!” she said with a laugh. In the reconstructed performance, Allan Lewis as conductor would be setting the tempos—though of course he would have conferred a lot with the dance artists during rehearsals.
Lynn Garafola has a lot to say concerning the changing makeup of audiences for the Ballets Russes, in her book Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Da Capo Press 1998 republication of the work originally published by Oxford University Press in 1989).
The quotation about Nijinsky as a choreographer is from Margot Fonteyn, The Magic of Dance (London: British Broadcasting Company 1984) p. 116. The book was published in tandem with the BBC six-part series by the same title—which most unfortunately, is not available on DVD or legally online.
http://www.roerich.org/roerich-biography.php A lengthy biography of the artist Nicholas Roerich, who had moved to New York in 1929. Website of the museum dedicated to him. Also, in Charles M. Joseph’s book already cited (Stravinsky’s Ballets) pp. 80 ff, some surprising information is given about what the author calls the crucial role of Roerich in the evolution of Sacre as Stravinsky was thinking about it.
Millicent Hodson’s book is Nijinsky’s Crime Against Grace: Reconstruction Score of the Original Choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 2008). She offers sketches in tandem with score excerpts, in a fascinating way that can be followed well enough by both music and dance students so that you understand the both the challenges and the general procedures that were used for research and the actual reconstruction of Nijinsky’s choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps.
In his book Ballet and Modern Dance, the critic Jack Anderson gave his opinion:
In 1987 the Joffrey Ballet offered a hypothetical reconstruction of Le Sacre made on the basis of meticulous research by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer. If it is impossible to say how it duplicated the original production, it was nevertheless very convincing. [p. 140.]
In an unusual review posted on amazon.com, Craig Matteson then of Ann Arbor expressed a surprising reaction to Sacre, coming as his comments did from somebody in our own time. He had this to say about the music and about Hodson’s book:
Hearing Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” for the first time when I was around 16 was a life changing event for me. I had never heard any music like that ever before. It honestly disturbed my sleep with vivid images for days afterwards. This powerful work has affected millions since its first performance on 29 May 1913 in Paris. While the work is one of the famous Ballets that Stravinsky wrote for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, it was only performed in its original form eight times; five in Paris and three in London. Soon afterward, Nijinsky had a break with Diaghilev and the impresario dropped all of the dancer’s works from the repertoire. This break was complex and involved their personal relationship, Nijinsky saying he was going to marry, and pressure from the places the company was to perform. The way “The Rite of Spring” was danced was soon lost. Even the dancers who performed in the original version seemed to want to forget it.
The dance of this ballet has become the stuff of myth. Some say it was an early manifestation of Nijinsky’s later insanity. Others, I think more convincingly, say it is a masterpiece and an expression of the dancer / choreographer’s originality and genius to make a great ballet using moves antithetical to the fashion, desires, and ethos of the time. The title of the book comes from an interview Nijinsky gave to a London newspaper saying that he had been accused of crimes against grace. He went on to explain exactly what he was after. He had his dancers move pigeon-toed and with all kinds of moves that expressed a time before art dancing. Doesn’t this make sense for “Pictures of Pagan Russia”?
This book describes the detective work, artistic reasoning, and the actual dance notation for the 1987 reconstruction Millicent Hodson made for “The Rite of Spring.” I have been fortunate to see a recording of that dance and was quite impressed. While some squabble this way or that about the work and its “faithfulness” to Nijinsky (how would anyone know?), I enjoyed it far more than the other modern dances I have seen attached to this work. There are wonderful prints of the drawings for the reconstructed costumes, fascinating historical photographs….
While most of us know Stravinsky’s music as a concert work or a recording, it is essential to remember that it was composed as a ballet. Nicholas Roerich provided Stravinsky with the scenario, Stravinsky wrote the music, and Nijinsky made the dance. Yes, he and Stravinsky argued over fitting the moves to the music and getting the music right. That anyone could get a handle on this amazing stuff in 1913 is a near miracle. This book can help you appreciate it more even today.
Bronislava Nijinska wrote her own book: Early Memoirs, translated and edited by Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983). With an introduction by Anna Kisselgoff. This provides a very personal account of the dance training and careers of Bronislava Nijinska and her brother Vaslav Nijinsky, with much information about the roles that she danced while with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and her choreographic work as well. Nijinsky was setting the role of the Chosen One on his sister, but when she became pregnant, she had to stop dancing and so the part was danced by Marie Piltz. Nevertheless, Nijinska offers some insights into this work.
Also recommended is Minna Lederman’s Stravinsky in the Theatre (New York: Da Capo, 1975 reprinting of the original 1949 publication by Farrar, Straus & Giroux). The comment about the Sacre riot is on p. 20.
Balanchine’s essay on “The Dance Element in Stravinsky’s Music” was included in Minna Lederman’s book. Quote is from p. 75.
The comments from Paul Taylor were made in a personal interview and reported in Katherine Teck, Music for the Dance, pp. 9-10. The composer/pianist Donald York was also interviewed and his account of working with Paul Taylor is included in the book.
For in-depth information about The Rite of Spring, see Volume One, chapter 12 of Richard Taruskin’s monumental study: Stravinsky and Russian Tradition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996). Presents comparisons of folk tunes alongside excerpts from Stravinsky’s score. (See, for example, pp. 898-99.) Also explains folk traditions and beliefs concerning the god Yarilo (a personification of the sun), along with developments in Russian Christian practices. Additionally, he translated several versions of the ballet’s synopsis, and there are reproductions of pages from Stravinsky’s sketchbook. The quotations at the end of this section are from pp. 893 and 894.
Although usually most of Taruskin’s monumental two-volumes would probably be grasped comfortably only by those with a background in details of musical theory and musicological analysis, yet the first chapter of Volume II is quite accessible, without technical notation and so forth. (See pp. 969-1033.) The author offers a most intriguing sample of letters and published reviews, all in translation from the Russian and French, providing a fascinating glimpse at the diverse reception given by musicians upon premiere performances of Sacre (both the Paris ballet performances and the purely concert ones led by the conductor Pierre Moneux in Russia the following year). The musical composition, not the dance, is the focus.
In comparison to how very little notice is given in the American press to premieres of new music composed for any ballet, the intensity of emotion on the part of Russian critics in particular seems astonishing. Included are some scathing remarks from one musician who had not even attended a performance or studied a full score! The extracts also report barbs against Stravinsky as a person, considered terribly haughty. Taruskin [p. 1022] comments on:
…the growing estrangement between the Russian musical establishment, even its most progressive wing, and the arrogant cosmopolite who had emerged from their midst. In this charged atmosphere, anything Stravinsky said and did could be held against him. His recklessness with the press and his offhand, even high-handed relations with his Russian counterparts…seemed to justify suspicion, as did his unswerving loyalty to Diaghilev.
But on pp. 1031-32, Taruskin reports an almost rapturous reaction to the purely musical concert performances led by Monteux, calling it “dazzling.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJkfyEKE94M This is Professor Taruskin’s lecture upon receiving the 2017 Kyoto Prize. He explains how he became involved in these researches—starting with majoring in Russian as an undergraduate, then doing graduate work in musicology, and later being fortunate enough to be given access to study the actual manuscripts and papers from the Stravinsky estate while they were being held at The New York Public Library for Performing Arts. (The estate was in litigation, and eventually that collection was acquired by the Paul Sacher library in Switzerland, where researchers apparently can only view microfilms.)
other critical writings:
For further information about Vaslav Nijinsky’s life and work, a good place to start is IED Vol. 4 the entry by Joan Acocella, pp, 639-48. A long and interesting article by Acocella is “Secrets of Nijinsky” from The New York Review of Books, January 14, 1999, online for fee at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1999/01/14/secrets-of-nijinsky/
In her encyclopedia article, Acocella suggests in reply to some critics who thought the choreography to Le Sacre was too much in the way of music visualization, that “there is strong evidence that much of the choreography was in counterpoint to the musical accents.” Regarding the initial reactions, she writes: “This tumultuous premiere is now regarded by many as the final birth spasm of modernism, and Stravinsky’s score has become the most celebrated composition of twentieth-century Western music.” Importantly, she offers the opinion that the accepted view now is that “Nijinsky’s choreography was as boldly modernist as the score.”
https://www.nytimes.com/1984/02/29/arts/the-dance-rite-by-martha-graham.html This is a 1984 review by Anna Kisselgoff in The New York Times, of Martha Graham’s Rite.
Here is Deborah Jowitt’s report on a revival of Martha Graham’s Rite in 2013: https://www.artsjournal.com/dancebeat/2013/08/another-rite/
In his book Léonide Massine and the 20th Century Ballet (Jefferson NC: McFarland & Co.,2004), p. 87, Leslie Norton drew a contrast with Nijinsky’s relationship to the music and commented: “Massine’s choreography was based on phrases, an approach that allowed for a freer connection of choreography and music. Far from treating each bar of the music an an entity to interpret, Massine’s movement phrases built long bridges over many bars of music touching down occasionally to mirror the score and then alighting for the next bridge.”
Also of interest is Shelley C. Berg, Le Sacre du Printemps: Seven Productions from Nijinsky to Martha Graham (Ann Arbor and London: UMI Research Press, 1988). The seven versions are: original choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky; two by Léonide Massine; others by Maurice Béjart, Paul Taylor, Richard Alston, and Martha Graham. Particularly fascinating is her account pp. 76-87 of Massine’s 1930 version sponsored by the League of Composers with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, first in Philadelphia and then at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Martha Graham was the Chosen One, and Berg offers surprising report of both Graham’s difficult participation and the positive one of Stokowski, who apparently was able to make helpful suggestions even regarding dancers’ movements and costumes.
Speaking of the reactions to the actual performances, Berg went on to report:
Massine’s choreography was called a masterpiece, and he was to produce the ballet twice more; first for La Scala, Milan, in 1948, and then for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1956. Commenting on the 1930 League of Composers performances, Massine observed: “We were all very relieved when Le Sacre du printemps was enthusiastically received, and hoped it was a sign that New York was beginning to take ballet seriously.” [p. 87]
What is particulary helpful about Shelley C. Berg’s book is that by means of words alone it provides not only a sense of the various choreographic styles but also of specific physical dance movements—and especially in the case of the two Massine versions, many insightful observations about the relation of the choreography to the music. Draws from many sources and delivers a taut chronology of how the dancers rehearsed and felt, how the audiences and critics reacted, and how the conductors regarded the score. Highly recommended.
Writing in The New York Times of September 214, 2012, the music historian Richard Taruskin [in a review titled “Shocker Cools Into a ‘Rite’ of Passage”] reported on yet another version, and on the question of human sacrifice:
Even without jettisoning the subject in toto, the message of “The Rite” has been regularly muted in performance. The clumsiest attempt, surely, was the first Soviet production, choreographed for the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow by Natalia Kasatkina and Vladimir Vasiliev in 1965 in the aftermath of Stravinsky’s 80th-birthday visit to his homeland in 1962. But though he was newly persona grata, the implicitly religious scenario remained a problem. The choreographers solved it by having a young Soviet hero leap out of the corps de ballet during the little flute scale right before the end, sweep the sacrificial victim off her feet and out of danger, and (coinciding with the last crashing chord) plunge a dagger into the idol before which she had been dancing.
Robert Greskovic wrote a very thoughtful chapter about the differences between a revival and a reconstruction, in his book Ballet 101 (Milwaukee, WI: Limelight Editions, 2005 reprint) pp.206-10. A revival he considers is “a once-popular work from the past being done afresh,” while a reconstruction is a new staging of a ballet that was essentially “lost” with no dancer having memory of the choreography. He refers to Hodson’s work on Sacre as an example of what “information” can form the basis.
The challenges presented by the essential ephemeral nature of dance are described vividly in Lynn Matluck Brooks and Joellen A. Meglin, editors, Preserving Dance Across Time and Space (London and New York; Routledge, 2013.) Brooks wrote an informative report about Genevieve Oswald and the formation of the dance collection at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts. Other essays by additional researchers explore some fascinating attempts to preserve dance legacies, including in other cultures around the world.
Finally, a consideration worth keeping in mind is about Stravinsky’s improvisations at the piano—and even the shape of the composer’s hand. See Charles M. Joseph, Stravinsky’s Ballets p. 85:
The profusion of keyboard figurations evident in Petrouchka was to be expected, given the ballet’s pianistic genesis. But many of the fundamental constructions of The Rite similarly derive, literally, from the shape of Stravinsky’s hand.
Ten years after her brother Vaslav Nijinsky had choreographed Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Bronislava Nijinska (1891-1972) set the composer’s score of Les Noces (The Wedding) for the company. The music, which requires four pianos and percussion and a chorus of voices plus vocal soloists, was composed by Stravinsky starting in 1914, but not finalized and performed until 1923, in Paris with Ernest Ansermet conducting. (The composer had moved to Switzerland for the duration of World War I.)
Les Noces is one of some 70 ballets that Nijiniska choreographed in her career, but unfortunately it is only one of two that have survived in performance for our time. (The other is Les Biches—which means literally doe deer, or “darlings.”) It was unusual then for a woman to choreograph for a major ballet company, but as the dance writer Cyril W. Beaumont commented in 1921:
Several years have passed since Nijinska appeared with the Diaghileff Company. It is earnestly to be hoped that she has come to remain, for she is every whit as great an artist as her brother. She, too, is an excellent choréographe.
Born in Minsk, Russia with both her parents dancers, Nijinska was trained at the Maryinsky Theater school and in 1908 was accepted into the theater’s corps de ballet. She was among the dancers to perform in Paris during the first season that Diaghilev produced ballet there (1909). Subsequently both she and her already famous brother joined the Ballet Russes, and both left in 1913—she to marry another dancer and have two children (a son and a daughter), and to return to Russia to dance, teach, and choreograph. After the war and the Russian revolution, Nijinska returned to Ballets Russes (1921) to perform as a leading ballerina, but also to choreograph new works, until 1925, when she became involved in a great many various theatrical projects—including founding her own dance company. She and her second husband (Nicholas Singaevsky, married in 1924) left Europe in 1939 and moved to Hollywood in 1941. Then and now within the dance world she has been regarded as a major innovative artist.
performances of Les Noces
For those of us who saw Igor Stravinsky conduct a concert performance of Les Noces at Town Hall in New York City on December 20, 1959 it was a memorable event. Today, you can hear Stravinsky’s recording from that time, with four other outstanding composers performing the piano parts: Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and Roger Sessions. But as with Stravinsky’s other works, this one makes more sense if you see the ballet and learn a little about what the work (sung in Russian) is about. The dance images are so striking that it would not seem right to ruin what might be anybody’s first impression by describing details of choreography here—except to say look for the pyramid shapes!
Recommended as a “first look” is the Royal Ballet DVD from 2001 (which has a talk by one dancer who was in the 1966 performance directed by Nijinska). Also good is the Maryinsky performance available online. Additionally, if you click the You Tube link in the notes below, there is a follow-along score that has the recording conducted by Stravinsky himself. Also recommended is reading an English translation of the singers’ words (given in the Dover score). Finally, you may enjoy taking a look at what young artists in California presented in more recent years—a different “take” on the score. (See link.)
the work itself
There are four scenes: Blessing of the Bride, Blessing of the Groom, Departure of the Bride, and Wedding Feast, which ends abruptly with the bride and groom simply being led into the wedding chamber, and the door closed after them as a set of chimes combines with piano to strike the ending sounds.
Regarding the relationship of movement to musical component, Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp are most admiring:
Les Noces is one of the masterpieces of the twentieth-century ballet because of the architectural dignity of Nijinska’s invention and the extraordinary rhythmic complexity by which she reflects the intricacies of Stravinsky’s score for four pianists, percussion, and a group of singers.
Stravinsky, on his part, was never one to shy away from criticizing performances of his own works—or rather, aspects created by other people. It seems that as he was composing various ballet scores, he would be imagining not only the general action and atmosphere, but at times even details of costumes and dancers’ physical movements. Consequently, when his collaborators came up with quite different concepts and results, he could be disappointed and then some. Regarding Les Noces, he shared his views in his his early memoir:
I must say that the stage production of Les Noces, though obviously one of talent, did not correspond with my original plan. I had pictured to myself something quite different.
The spectacle should have been a divertissement, and that is what I wanted to call it. It was not my intention to reproduce the ritual of peasant weddings, and I paid little heed to ethnographical considerations. My idea was to compose a sort of scenic ceremony, using as I liked those ritualistic elements so abundantly provided by the village customs which had been established for centuries in the celebration of Russian marriages. I took my inspiration from those customs, but reserved to myself the right to use them with absolute freedom….I wanted all my instrumental apparatus to be visible…a participant in the whole theatrical action. For this reason I wished to place the orchestra on the stage itself, letting the actors move on the space remaining free.
But Diaghilev had no sympathy with my wishes. And when I pointed out how successful the plan had been in L’Histoire du Soldat, I only stimulated his furious resistance because he could not bear L’Histoire.
Stravinsky’s reaction is just another reminder that a composer for ballet is only one of many people involved in a collaborative effort to mount a theatrical work. A pretty important person—of course! However, it does seem that he had more input into final formats and details than most composers usually have had in the past. Moreover, it also seems that as the 20th century moved along, it became increasingly normal for the choreographers’ movements and wishes to be the dominant aspect—and therefore those dance artists would quite rightly expect to have not only the first word, but also the last one.
But with Stravinsky, the music was often thoroughly composed before the choreography was planned out, and during the creative process, he was also thinking theatrically: what could the dance possibly look like onstage? It must be noted that in the case of Les Noces, the composer also wrote the libretto—using Russian lyrics taken primarily from songs collected by Pyotr Kireevsky and published in 1911. And if you read the words as translated from the French by Stanley Appelbaum (see score info below), Stravinsky’s vision becomes more clear; what he had in mind is definitely different from what Nijinska created onstage. There is more humor, more love. Trepidation about the unknown—yes; a nod to sometimes rigid traditional customs—yes; but also some sweet sharing on the part of the young women braiding the hair; more personal concern among the groom’s family as they recall his boyhood; more informal partying at the wedding celebration. Overall there is a lighter tone to the words than there is to the dance. Nijinska’s ballet is still unique and beautiful, but there does seem to be that contrast between the composer’s vision and the more somber one of the choreographer: personal vs. impersonalized symbol. Individuals vs. identical group members.
Before the production of Les Noces, Nijinska had her own differences with Diaghilev, who liked the heavy robes that artist Natalia Goncharova had sketched in design. But the choreographer absolutely refused to use costumes that might impede her dancers’ movements. In the end, she won out, and the costumes used were very simple. (Both the Royal Ballet dancers and the Maryinsky dancers who can be seen on film seem to be wearing costumes very much like what the choreographer wanted.)
Bronislava Nijinska wrote about the strong vision she had about setting Les Noces, and it is her vision that found its reality in the premiere by the Ballets Russes. This is what she described:
The story of Les Noces takes place in a peasant family in old Russia. I saw a dramatic quality in such wedding ceremonies of those times in the fate of the bride and groom, since the choice is made by parents to whom they owe complete obedience—there is no question of mutuality of feelings. The young girl knows nothing at all about her future family nor what lies in store for her. Not only will she be subject to her husband, but also to his parents. It is possible that after being loved and cherished by her own kin, she may be nothing more in her new, rough family than a useful extra worker, just another pair of hands. The soul of the innocent is in disarray—and she is bidding good-bye to her carefree youth and to her loving mother. For his part, the young groom cannot imagine what life will bring close to this young girl, whom he scarcely knows, if at all. How can such souls rejoice during their wedding ceremonies; they are deep in other thoughts….From the very beginning I had this vision of Les Noces.
After attending a revival performance in 1936, the distinguished critic Edwin Denby shared his reaction:
Noces in the choroegraphy of Nijinska…is, I’m sure, one of the finest things one can see anywhere. And if I could think of higher praise I would write it.
Noces is noble, it is fierce, it is simple, it is fresh, it is thrilling. It is full of interest….There is a realness in the relation of dance and music like a dual force, separate, but inseparable.
Despite having garnered high praise, Les Noces slipped from public attention for quite a few years. And when she was in California, Nijinska more or less retired from public life. But Frederick Ashton sparked a revival of interest, inviting her to restage Les Biches in 1964 for the Royal Ballet in London, followed in 1966 by Les Noces. For this revival, Ashton brought Nijinska to London, and when he led her out for a bow onstage, he called her “one of the greatest choreographers of our day.” Then according to Ashton’s biographer, former Ballets Russes dancer Marie Rambert called out from the audience: “The greatest!”
setting by Robbins
Stravinsky’s score has sparked settings by other choreographers as well. In New York, the version by Jerome Robbins for American Ballet Theatre was much acclaimed. He first mounted it in 1965 with live musicians onstage. In 1998, he restaged it for New York City Ballet—his last work for the company before his death—but used a recording by the Pokrovsky Ensemble, a group of classically trained Russian singers who performed in traditional folk styles. (This can be heard on You Tube—see notes below.) In 2008 in memory of the choreographer, New York City Ballet mounted the version with musicians onstage, and the company gave a performance in 2018 as part of their centennial celebration of Jerome Robbins.
Reviewing the ballet in The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay reported that the Robbins version followed Stravinsky’s scenario quite closely. However, he felt that the Robbins choreography suffers in comparison to Nijinska’s “superlative” 1923 setting, though he nevertheless felt a certain sympathy in the newer version. Robbins, he wrote, “showed how things are for humans in this world.” Macaulay had only one misgiving: that since subtitles are so commonly used in theatrical performances nowadays, they might have helped the audience understand what was going on. But turning to the music, the Times critic voiced unalloyed appreciation: “Few Stravinsky scores are more incisive or thrilling.”
notes and explorations:
A performance of Les Noces by the Royal Ballet is on the same Opus Arte DVD as Firebird. It is conducted by John Carewe. There is also an additional talk by David Drew, who danced in the 1966 revival that was directed by Nijinska herself. He vividly described how the choreographer seemed “ancient” to the then-young dancers; how she had to wear a hearing aid…was virtually immobile and spoke very little English. But when he came to describing the rehearsals to make sure that everybody had to be identical—for instance in the placement of heads in the stunning pyramid formations—one begins to understand the incredible demands on the dancers’ stamina and artistry. Nijinska’s husband took notes and assisted in the rehearsals. Another thing that made the rehearsals difficult was that the music was provided only by two pianos (no percussion, no voices). A woman dancer commented that for current performances and rehearsals (under the guidance of Christopher Newton, who also had learned the work directly from Nijinska), she felt the dancers basically had to memorize counts, “because the music is so hard to make out.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDGl6bcVqSM performance by Mariinsky Theater Ballet conducted by Valery Gergiev, from their 2008 White Nights Festival. Part I.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bzqV6lv0a0 music only by Pokrovsky Ensemble, 1994. Likely the recording that Jerome Robbins used for one of his productions of Les Noces. The CD can still be found used.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNBDJNHeZmo The score to Les Noces is shown accurately as the music progresses. In the score, words in Russian & French, though chorus sings in English. But next best thing to the old “bouncing ball” guide that used to be seen in movie theaters! You can see despite the metrical changes, how Stravinsky keeps up that urgent beat that if there are dancers, keeps them together and going. Not the common quarter-note pace of a beat, but half that, insistent. Also, you can easily see how the four pianos are used not in virtuosic traditions, but in tandem often as single-lines doubled, or stark harmonies. That eighth-note momentum is nonstop. The credits identify Igor Stravinsky himself as conductor and the four pianists as these composers: Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland, Lukas Foss, and Roger Sessions.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94pv467RKDc Interesting to hear and see young people in the United States: version by La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, Steven Schick, conductor; Allyson Green, choreographer; plus discussion between them of how the performance was prepared. Includes students and professionals. Dancers are Tijuana’s Lux Boreal troupe. Filmed in 2012. Directors began the performance with Ligeti’s piece for 100 metronomes. When they stop ticking, the Stravinsky starts. Meanwhile, dancers pantomime a wedding scene more personal than shown in Nijinska’s original Les Noces. The musicians are onstage—which means there is not all that much room for the dancers. But that is what the composer originally wanted. Women are not on pointe. An American view: more cheerful than NIjinska’s choreography, with hugs and smiles instead of impersonal cheek air kisses and immobile faces. Different and ambitious project they took on here, especially singing in Russian. Audience clapped appreciation.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siEgJVpLPyY Highly recommended. An unusual and excellent performance of just the music, perfomed by the A Capella Choir of the University of North Texas, College of Music. Conducted by Richard Sparks, who also gives a most informative pre-performance talk in which he has the musicians (singers, pianists and percussionists) give short musical excerpts interspersed with his explanations of Russian wedding customs, and pointing out Stravinsky’s techniques during the four tableaux. Such details as telling how Stravinsky was inspired by a man’s hic-cups while he was on a train ride! Also visually fascinating because filming from the back of the stage shows percussionists plus the four pianists lined up so you can see the coordination. English supertitles reminded live audience of the main meanings of the Russian texts (but not always visible on film). 43 minutes.
The complete score to Les Noces is available from Dover Publications, with a translation from the French by Stanley Appelbaum (New York: 1998, unabridged republication of work originally published by J. & W. Chester, Ltd. in London, 1922).
The quote from Mary Clarke and Clement Crisp is from The Ballet Goer’s Guide, p. 186.
Stravinsky’s comments about Les Noces are drawn from Minna Lederman, p. 156 as she excerpted them from a translation of Stravinsky’s memoir.
Bronislava Nijinska’s vision was published in translation in Dance Magazine, December 1974 and is quoted here as published in Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998 republication of the work originally published in 1989 by Oxford University Press) p. 129.
For a description of the daring aspects of Les Biches, see Lynn Garafola’s book. pp. 129-34. Cyril Beaumont’s 1921 comment is also from Garafola, p. 124
The quotation from Edwin Denby is from “Nijinska’s Noces” in the critic’s Dance Writings, edited by Robert Cornfield and William MacKay (University Press of Florida, 1986) p. 37.
The account about Nijinska in London is from David Vaughan, Frederick Ashton and His Ballets (London: Dance Books, 2nd edition, 1999) p. 350. (Ashton had previously invited her to London to do a revival of Les Biches.)
The complete review by Alastair Macaulay at:
Bronislava Nijinska wrote her own book: Early Memoirs, translated and edited by Irina Nijinska and Jean Rawlinson (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983). With an introduction by Anna Kisselgoff. This provides a very personal account of the dance training and careers of both Bronislava Nijinska and her brother Vaslav Nijinsky, with much personal information about the roles that she danced while with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and her choreographic work as well. Unfortunately, this really is about her early years and does not cover Les Noces.
One reader anonymously posted on amazon’s website this reaction to reading Nijinska’s memoir:
This is an extraordinary book. I read it twice through, as it is unputdownable. It is a remarkably vivid account of childhood and growing to maturity in a bygone era at a time of great cultural and social changes. The humanity of the writer shines through and it is a gripping story from beginning to end. Nijinska’s narrative shows how difficult it was to be Nijinsky’s sister and still retain her own identity and develop her own talent.
For further information about Nijinska’s career, see the article in IED by Gunhild Oberzaucher-Schuller.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bronislava_Nijinska A lengthy bio, with discussion of her major works.
An illustrated catalogue of the choreographer’s works is Nancy Van Norman Baer, Bronislava Nijinska: A Dancer’s Legacy (San Francisco: Fine Arts Museum, 1986). This was done in connection with an exhibition. Includes information about some of her ballets, plus a very useful chronology and list of works.
Something to look forward to: the dance historian Lynn Garafola’s forthcoming book about Nijinska! Previously published is her article “Bronislava Nijinska: A Legacy Uncovered” in the journal Women and Performance (V. 3 issue 2, 1987) in relation to the art exhibitions. Available for purchase: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07407708708571106?journalCode=rwap20
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Garafola About the writer.