The city of Venice, Italy is divided into six districts or sestieri. The northernmost of these is called Cannaregio. This district got its name because it contained the main canal that formed a transportation corridor in and out of the city proper to the mainland. Cannaregio is Italian for “Royal Canal”. In a lagoon just outside of Cannaregio lies the Isle of San Michele. Several centuries ago, the Isle of San Michele was designated for use as a cemetery. Over the years, many famous people have been buried there. One of those whose gravesite can be found there is Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Not far from his gravesite is another one that contains the remains of Russian Arts impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Forever united in life, they remain united in death as well. Today we shall learn the story of how they came to know each other and how that relationship resulted in one of the most famous moments in modern music history: the Paris Riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s symphonic opera, “The Rite of Spring”.
In the late 1800s, the Diaghilev family was one of the most prominent families in all of Russia when it came to their involvement in The Arts. They hosted concerts at their estate every other Tuesday. They funded new ballets, symphonies and exhibits by all of the most popular writers, poets, painters and sculptors that Russia had to offer. In this environment, young Sergei Diaghilev grew up. He was encouraged to learn to play the piano and was giving public recitals of his own original works by the time he was only fifteen years of age. But more than possessing a love of music, Sergei Diaghilev possessed an amazing ability to organize the exhibits and concerts that happened at his family’s estate. In time, Diaghilev took his organizational talents beyond the walls of his home and began organizing concerts and art exhibitions throughout Russia. In doing so, he came into contact with a large group of talented young dancers, composers, writers and artists. In order to help promote the work of his new-found friends, Diaghilev founded an influential Arts magazine called Mir iskusstva or World of Art. Diaghilev became known as one of Russia’s leading promoters of The Arts, which earned him the protection and support of Czar Nicholas II. In time, Diaghilev wanted to extend the reach of Russian Arts so he began organizing art exhibits in Paris, France. When those went well, Diaghilev decided to bring Russian music into the cultural heart of Europe. To do this, he contacted one of the young, rising stars of Russian classical music, his friend Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky accepted Diaghilev’s commission and began work on a symphonic opera/ballet that came to be called “The Rite of Spring”. What happened next did nothing less than change the course of modern music.
As the early 1900s progressed, the Arts scene in Russia was filled with young artists in all disciplines who possessed a thorough grounding in Arts theories and traditions but who also wished to bring their own unique vision to bear in the new works that they were creating. It was a time of great creative innovation in the Arts, regardless of the discipline in question. Igor Stravinsky, along with fellow composers Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, formed the new vanguard of compositional thought when it came to creating symphonies, operas and ballets. Stravinsky believed that his work should be steeped in history but performed with unbridled imagination. Thus, the creative vision of Igor Stravinsky seemed a perfect match for the promotional vision of Sergei Diaghilev.
In composing “The Rite of Spring”, Igor Stravinsky drew upon cultural folklore for a story about the coming of spring and the rebirth of nature that accompanies the change of seasons. As you may remember from a previous post (which you can read here), the song “Carol of the Bells” was originally based upon a Ukrainian folk song called “The Little Swallow”, which also heralded the coming of spring and offered blessings for a good growing season and harvest to follow. So, by tapping into the coming of spring as the foundation for his new work, Stravinsky was bringing forth one of Russia’s most cherished and time-honoured aspects of its folklore. There was nothing controversial in this at all.
However, Igor Stravinsky had no intention of simply creating a peaceful, pastoral composition for his own debut in Paris. In his mind, this was his golden opportunity to make a bold artistic statement. So, Igor Stravinsky decided to create a musical work called a symphonic opera ballet. What this means is that his work would have a unified theme running over two acts. The first act would be a traditional symphony and opera combination. In the second act, the visual element would change into a ballet. Both acts would tell a continuous story about the birth of spring. As he began his work, Stravinsky surrounded himself with the most creative people he could find. Thus, Maria Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky were hired as dancers and choreographers. The stage design and costumes were made by a man named Nicholas Roerich. The world of opera in Paris at the time was one in which tradition and refinement were the orders of the day. However, these young Russian artists had something else in mind when they created all aspects of “The Rite of Spring”. It was decided early on that this production would turn everything the world knew about music and dance inside out and upside down.
With the luxury of retrospection, the term avant-garde would come to be coined to describe what Igor Stravinsky and his friends unleashed upon an unsuspecting Parisian audience that day. There was almost nothing about “The Rite of Spring” that conformed to any preconceived notions of what a symphony, opera or ballet should be like. Stravinsky believed his work to be grand and glorious. Fellow composer Giacomo Puccini, who was in attendance that evening, called it “a cacophony of noise”. The other members of the audience didn’t know what to make of a score in which notes clashed and competed for attention instead of working together in harmony as they were used to hearing. “The Rite of Spring” was not what they were expecting, which was exactly what Igor Stravinsky and friends had intended. Although this debut performance of “The Rite of Spring” was met with boos and jeers and with objects hurled toward the stage (which resulted in the Paris police being summoned), the concert never stopped for a single second. In the end, what saved Stravinsky’s performance, as well as Diaghilev’s promotional reputation, was that there were enough savvy Parisians there who came to realize that what, at first, seemed to be nothing more than noisy confusion was actually a revolutionary way of producing music as Art. While traditionalists balked at what Diaghilev, Stravinsky and company had achieved, history would render a more flattering judgment. “The Rite of Spring” is now viewed as a turning point in the world of modern music because it was the moment when someone proved that the “rules” of musical composition needn’t be confining and limiting. In fact, the exact opposite was possible. The foundational aspects of composing operas and ballets could be used to springboard in all sorts of new and interesting directions. Throughout the history of music, there have been moments of courage such as this (think about Bob Dylan going “electric” at the Newport Jazz Festival). Doing what is comfortable and expected is often the easier route for creators to take when creating new work. It takes courage to go against the grain on principle, but that is what Sergei Diaghilev believed was the necessary next step for Russian Arts at home and around the world. His sponsorship of Igor Stravinsky’s seminal work was to be just the beginning of a brave new world for Art everywhere. It was a revolutionary idea. But then came the real Revolution back home in Russia, and everything changed for people like Diaghilev and all those involved in the Russian Arts community.
As we saw in a previous post, the rise of Lenin and then Stalin to the top political post in Russia cast a pall over everyone who had enjoyed free rein under the Imperialist regime of Czar Nicholas II. Those who opted to remain in Russia were expected to follow the exacting dictates of Josef Stalin or, as happened to Dimtri Shostakovich, face the consequences. Personal creative freedom quickly gave way to The Arts being used to promote patriotic nationalism. Directors of The Bolshoi Ballet stopped performing anything remotely artistically innovative and original and instead, only put on shows that were deemed to be “good Russian productions”. If you stayed in Russia, like Sergei Prokofiev did, you created new work that conformed to what was expected and nothing more. Avoiding the wrath of those in positions of power was now the primary motivating factor behind most artistic decisions made by the Arts community in Russia under Stalin.
Not long after Stalin assumed control, Sergei Diaghilev was summoned home. He refused to return. As a consequence, he was officially condemned as a “bourgeois intellectual” in perpetuity, meaning he could never return to his homeland while Stalin was in power. Now considered an “artistic refugee”, Diaghilev centered his promotional efforts around The Ballets Russes and lived out the remainder of his days arranging for new works to be brought to international stages. One of the consequences of living in exile was that acquiring financial backing became difficult. He was no longer able to count on the support of patrons such as Czar Nicholas II (who had been killed during the Revolution). One of the people he would come into conflict with because of financial considerations was his friend, Igor Stravinksy.
Like Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky refused his own summons back to Russia. He knew that he could never put the necessary shackles on his creativity that would be required in order to return home. So, he remained abroad for the remainder of his days as well. Unfortunately, Stravinsky’s income dwindled to almost nothing after losing access to Diaghilev’s patronage. Diaghilev never wanted to cut off Stravinsky’s income, but he could barely afford to mount the small productions that he was doing, let alone continue to provide his friend with an allowance. As a result, Igor Stravinsky spent the rest of his days adrift. He lived in Switzerland for a while and then moved with his family into the home of Coco Chanel in France. While there, he agreed to sell the rights to all of his piano-based compositions to the Pleyel Piano Company for inclusion in their line of player pianos. (It was a Pleyel piano that Frederic Chopin had shipped to the island of Majorca when he stayed there with writer/partner, George Sand. You can read a post about that here). Eventually, Stravinsky immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. His final opera featured the poet Dylan Thomas as librettist. Igor Stravinsky’s final public concert was as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra during a performance at Massey Hall. It is a small world.
As the final wish of both Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, they were buried in the “Russian corner” of the cemetery on the Isle of San Michele near Venice, Italy. The Isle of San Michele is now their home. Even in death, the pair continue to make bold artistic statements.
The link to the video of the composition “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky can be found here.
The link to the official website for Igor Stravinsky can be found here.
The link to the official website for Les Ballets Russes, founded by Sergei Diaghilev, can be found here.
The link to the official website for the Isle of San Michele can be found here.
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