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  • Graham Abbott

Diaghilev the Catalyst

Updated: Apr 5, 2020

The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary gives two definitions for the word “catalyst”. The first is a specialised meaning relating to science: something that makes a chemical reaction happen more quickly without itself being changed. The other is a more general meaning which reflects an everyday use of the word: an event or person that causes great change. In the history of the performing arts in the 20th century very few people could lay greater claim to the description of “catalyst” than the subject of today’s post: Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev.


Serov: Sergei Diaghilev (1909)

Diaghilev was born in Novgorod in Russia in March 1872. He graduated from the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music in 1892 but his career embraced the visual arts as much as music. He rapidly developed a reputation as an art critic and, in 1899, he founded an art journal called “The World of Art” in collaboration with his lover, Dmitri Filosofov. Filosofov was one of a number of men with whom Diaghilev had personal relationships which in turn inspired his artistic endeavours, and his relationship with Filosofov lasted fifteen years, until 1905.


Diaghilev is usually described these days as an impresario. He planned and executed new artistic events, bringing together talented individuals and providing new environments for the creation of new work. In 1908 he took a huge gamble and presented Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov in Paris, with the famous Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin in the title role. The gamble paid off and the season was a great success. This encouraged Diaghilev to form a new company, the Ballets Russes (or Russian Ballet) as a vehicle for the exposure of Russian art to the west. It also turned out to be a vehicle for creation of new works by Russian choreographers and composers, as well as artists from other countries. Despite the fact that it was comprised of Russian dancers, the company was based in Monaco and mainly performed in Paris. The company never actually performed in Russia.


The Russian Ballet was launched in Paris in 1909 with a new ballet based on Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from his opera Prince Igor. [listen]


1909 was also the year in which Diaghilev commenced a new relationship, this time with the young, dynamic Russian dancer Vaclav Nijinsky. Here again there can be no doubt that the personal connection with Nijinsky - which was widely-known and acknowledged in Paris - had a direct influence on Diaghilev‘s artistic direction. Nijinsky was a major figure in the Russian Ballet, both as a dancer and as a choreographer.


Vaclav Nijinsky (c. 1910s)

In 1910 the company presented a ballet on Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schéhérazade. These seasons showed that Diaghilev was not only capable of organising great performances on an international scale, but he was making it clear that the Russian Ballet was going to be innovative in its style. The seasons of 1909 and 1910 were hugely successful due to a number of factors. The choreography of Michel Fokine developed Diaghilev’s principles of asymmetry and perpetual motion, features which were completely at odds with traditional classical ballet of the time. The costumes of the famous Russian designer Léon Bakst were also a huge talking point, with their bright colours and exotic design. But these works were on pre-existing music. Diaghilev’s next collaboration opened a completely new direction not only for choreography and design but for the whole course of 20th century music as well.


Bakst: Set design for Schéhérazade (1910)

On 25 June 1910 the company presented a new ballet, his first completely new commissioned work. The scenario, based on Russian folklore, was predictable and familiar, but the music was something else. The composer was a 27-year old Russian who was starting to make a name for himself: Igor Stravinsky. It was called The Firebird. [listen]


Bakst: Costume design for The Firebird (1910)

The Firebird was an instant and sensational success, making Stravinsky a household name virtually overnight. June 13 the following year, 1911, saw the premiere of Stravinsky’s next ballet for Diaghilev. The scenario was more original, the score bolder and more assured, and the success was as great as that of Firebird. The ballet was Petrushka, with Nijinsky in the title role. This 1976 video of the complete ballet features Rudolf Nureyev in the title role. [listen]


Nijinsky as Petrushka (1911)

Petrushka is set in a circus. The year after its premiere Stravinsky composed Three Easy Pieces for Piano Duet and in one of these - the Polka - he portrays Diaghilev as a circus ringmaster. [listen]


Sergei Diaghilev (1910)

Diaghilev was certainly proving himself adept and bringing great works of art into being, and Stravinsky wasn’t the only composer he commissioned. In 1912 the Russian Ballet presented a new work by Maurice Ravel. It set a scenario by Fokine which drew its inspiration from classical Greece: Daphnis and Chloe. It’s hard to imagine that this ravishing work, well-known in the concert hall as much as a ballet score, had a long and stormy gestation of three years, and that Diaghilev nearly cancelled the project at the last minute. Ravel’s insistence on using a wordless chorus in addition to the large orchestra caused more friction, but the result is a work Ravel described as a choreographic symphony, which perhaps explains why it works so well as a concert piece, in addition to being one of the great ballet scores. [listen]


Bakst: Set design for Daphnis and Chloe (1912)

If Diaghilev thought he had difficulties with Ravel’s new work in 1912, he had no idea what awaited him with Stravinsky’s next work the following year. Using an enormous orchestra and setting a scenario based on rituals of human sacrifice in pagan Russia, Stravinsky’s new work, The Rite of Spring, remains fresh and new today more than a century later. The opening night - with an audience full of the great and the good but largely devoid of people with an understanding of contemporary art - is remembered as one of the great audience revolts in music history. What is forgotten is the fact that the general rehearsal immediately before - with an audience largely comprising the artistic intelligentsia of Paris - passed without any hint of unrest. The Rite of Spring remains as one of the iconic works in western music, and to many it marks the beginning of modernism in music of the 20th century. [listen]



The three “great” Stravinsky ballets - Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring - are widely-known to have been brought about by the composer’s association with Diaghilev. What is not generally recognised is that these were just the beginning. Stravinsky provided more works for Diaghilev over the next 15 years, both operas and ballets. Furthermore composers such as Debussy, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, Poulenc, Dukas, Auric and Milhaud also wrote for Diaghilev. The amount of music he nurtured into existence - often accompanied by the work of some of the greatest names in scenic and costume design and danced to the work of some of the greatest choreographers - is truly staggering.


The fame of The Rite of Spring tends to overshadow another wonderful score premiered by the Russian Ballet in 1913. Two weeks before Stravinsky’s masterwork was first performed, Diaghilev presented a ballet to a new score by Debussy, known in French as Jeux. The title, meaning “games” or “play”, refers to an amazingly simple scenario involving a game of tennis. Yet for this scenario, Debussy provided a dazzlingly complex score, full of intricate musical development. It deserves to be better-known, especially as it works wonderfully well in the concert hall. [listen]


Nijinsky in Jeux (1913)

Stravinsky’s next score for Diaghilev came the following year, 1914, and it was a 45-minute opera. It had had a long gestation, the first sketches dating back to 1908 but put aside while he worked on the “big three” ballets for Diaghilev. When in 1914 he returned to The Nightingale - based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen - a lot had changed, and the work contains a real mix of Stravinsky’s styles from before and after the big three. [listen]


In 1917 Stravinsky extracted and arranged a short ballet score without singers from The Nightingale called The Song of the Nightingale, and this was also performed by Diaghilev’s company.


The other major new score from 1914 was a large-scale one-act ballet by Richard Strauss called The Legend of Joseph. Based on the Old Testament story of the attempt by Potiphar’s wife to seduce to Joseph while he was in Egypt, Strauss’ score is on an enormous scale, lasting more than an hour and calling for a huge orchestra. The role of Joseph was intended for Nijinsky, but shortly before the premiere he ended his relationship with Diaghilev and married, causing a complete break professionally as well as personally between the two. Joseph was eventually danced by the young Léonid Massine, who replaced Nijinsky in Diaghilev’s affections, and who later achieved fame as a choreographer. [listen]


Strauss with his wife and son (1910)

The first world war clearly interrupted the operation of the Russian Ballet in Paris. The Italian composer Vincenzo Tommasini provided a score for Diaghilev in 1917 called The Good-Humoured Ladies. This was an orchestra arrangement of harpsichord sonatas by the 18th century composer Domenico Scarlatti, and is one of the earliest manifestations of the phenomenon known as neo-classicism. Music and other arts took solace in looking back to safer, more elegant times. Other composers (like Stravinsky) used neo-classicism as a springboard for their own creativity, whereas Tommasini’s score is a straight arrangement of Scarlatti’s music. [listen]


1917 also saw one of the most original French ballet scores created for Diaghilev, Erik Satie’s Parade. During the war Stravinsky was absent from Paris (he was a Russian refugee in Switzerland) and the French elevated Satie in their estimation to take his place. The scenario for the ballet was by Jean Cocteau, and is as simple and direct as Satie’s music: it’s the parade before a circus. Managers, jugglers and acrobats keep the crowd so well entertained that they mistake the parade for the show itself, with the result that the circus itself has no audience. The music contains parts for a typewriter, a rifle and a siren, and is in Satie’s famous tongue-in-cheek mode throughout. Of particular note with regard to Parade is the person who undertook the scenic design. His work created a lot of comment, something one would expect from the work of Pablo Picasso. Here’s the ballet’s finale. [listen]


Erik Satie (1920)

Picasso: Costume design for Parade (1917)

In 1917, Diaghilev premiered a work by the Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla. Initially called The Corregidor and the Miller’s Wife, the work was performed by the company in Madrid. Although happy with the work in this form, Diaghilev suggested some alterations, which were incorporated in the revised version, The Three-Cornered Hat. The Russian Ballet premiered the new version two years later in London in 1919. This occasion was a who’s who of the arts world, with the choreography by Massine (who also danced the principal male role), the design by Picasso, and Ernest Ansermet conducting. The score calls for a mezzo soprano in addition to the orchestra, and the flavour is unmistakably Spanish from start to end. [listen]


Manuel de Falla

It might be sobering at this point to realise that not only had all these great works been brought about by Diaghilev and his company. All these works had been produced within less than a decade, and despite the interruption of the first world war. It must have been a pretty heady time to be creating new work of such quality over such a long period, and there was more to come. Over most of the next decade Stravinsky would provide six more major works for Diaghilev, and another Russian composer, Sergei Prokofiev, would provide three, in addition to the works of the other composers mentioned earlier.


Stravinsky shocked the musical world in 1920 by taking a leaf out of Tommasini’s book and writing Pulcinella, a ballet based on eighteenth century music by Pergolesi and his contemporaries. Taking a leaf out of de Falla’s book at the same time, Stravinsky incorporated solo voices into the score (solo voices which are omitted in the better-known orchestral suite from the ballet). [listen]


In 1921, the year after Pulcinella, Diaghilev premiered The Buffoon, a ballet by Prokofiev. In 1922 the Russian impresario mounted two Stravinsky works in Paris, the one act operas Renard and Mavra, and the following year the ballet for pianos, percussion and voices, The Wedding (often referred to today by its French title, Les Noces). The Wedding, telling the story of a Russian wedding party, was a favourite work of Diaghilev’s, and Stravinsky dedicated the work to him. [listen]


In 1927 Diaghilev presented new works by both Stravinsky and Prokofiev. Stravinsky’s deliberately cold opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex was written to mark the 20th anniversary of Diaghilev’s work in the theatre, but Diaghilev didn’t like the piece at all. Prokofiev’s Le pas d’acier (The Steel Dance, or The Steel Step) was a ballet based on factories and workers, and reflected an industrial coldness.


In 1928 Stravinsky provided his last score for Diaghilev’s company, a gentle neo-classical ballet on Greek themes called Apollon musagète in French, or usually just Apollo in English. It’s scored for strings only and - like many of Stravinsky’s works of this period - deserves to be better-known. [listen]


The 1920s were a period of decline for the Russian Ballet; Grove’s Dictionary claims that the company followed fashion rather than setting it. There is no doubt, though, that some of the scores written for Diaghilev even at this stage are masterpieces. I’m going to end this survey of by referring to Prokofiev’s last ballet for Diaghilev, called The Prodigal Son. Premiered in Paris in 1929, the year of Diaghilev’s death, and it proved to be the last new production Diaghilev staged.


Sergei Prokofiev (c. 1918)

Based on the well-known New Testament parable, Prokofiev’s score marks a turning point in his creative output, and hints at the rich lyricism of his Romeo and Juliet ballet score of the following decade. There is one movement, though, which is pretty amazing. Called The Despoiling it describes the prodigal son being attacked and robbed. It contains some of the most brilliant clarinet and bass clarinet writing I’ve ever heard. [listen]


Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev died in Venice in August 1929 and was buried on the Venetian cemetery island of San Michele. 42 years later, in 1971, Stravinsky was buried a few metres away. If a catalyst is an event or person that causes great change, then the effect of Diaghilev on music, visual arts, dance and opera in the 20th century was truly that of a catalyst. It’s impossible to consider the course of 20th century music without the works mentioned above, and our culture is so much the richer for his efforts.


Diaghilev's grave, San Michele, Venice

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in April, 2005.

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