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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Richard Taruskin

Or so it would have been, had it not escaped to Russia. Why Russia? For the same simple reason. In Russia, the strongest autocracy in Europe (and after 1848 the last bastion there of true-blue absolute monarchy), where the theaters remained until 1882 under the direct control of the crown, ballet was fostered to an extent unheard of anywhere else on the continent. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Russian court was already a magnet for French choreographers, exactly as it had been, during the eighteenth, for Italian opera composers. Didelot served in St. Petersburg for two tours of duty, from 1801 to 1811 and again from 1816 until his death in 1837. He was followed there by Arthur Saint-Léon (1821–70), who retained his connection with the Russian Imperial Theaters even when called back to Paris to stage Delibes’s ballets. But the golden age of the Russian “classical” ballet came with the reign of Marius Petipa (1818–1910), widely regarded as the century’s greatest choreographer, who headed the company at St. Petersburg’s Mariyinsky Theater (called the Kirov in Soviet times) from 1869 until his death.

By the late 1870s, Russia was the only country where one could regularly see “pure” ballet—that is, ballet as a separate entity rather than as an adjunct or appendage to an opera or a play. During his tenure at the Mariyinsky, where he was enthusiastically supported by the imperial family, Petipa created no fewer than forty-six full-evening ballets d’action and enjoyed virtually unlimited access to the imperial treasury, so that his productions reached a peak of spectacular grandeur never matched before or since—and completely unavailable to the actual composers of Russia.

For although flourishing in the Russian capitals as nowhere else on earth, and therefore an art of immense national importance for Russia for the prestige it brought the court, the ballet remained a French art, dominated by French artists, and one that admitted Russian practitioners only in subordinate roles. The most important Russian choreographer at this time, Lev Ivanov (1834–1901), never rose above the rank of assistant to Petipa; his chief claim to fame came as choreographer of Chaikovsky’s Nutcracker (1892), a task that fell to him only because Petipa had taken ill.

And this seemed perfectly natural in a country where until the 1880s French remained the official language of the court (as, a century earlier, it had been in Germany). Nor was composing the music for the imperial Russian ballet a task for Russians. The theater maintained a staff of imported specialists like the Italians Cesare Pugni (1802–70, in Russia from 1851) and Riccardo Drigo (1846–1930, in Russia 1879–1920) or the Austrian Ludwig Minkus (1826–1917, in Russia 1853–86), Petipa’s favorite, whose ballets—especially Don Quixote (1869) and La bayadère (1877)—are still occasionally revived as vehicles for virtuoso ballerinas. The only Maryinsky ballet with a Russian subject or setting was Pugni’s Konyok-gorbunok, “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” (1864, choreography by Saint-Léon), a holiday confection based on a favorite children’s story.

Children, in fact, were one of the target audiences for the Mariyinsky ballet, which chiefly performed at matinées—where “the half-empty auditorium contained a special public,” according to one wry memoirist, consisting of “a mixture of boys and girls accompanied by their mothers or governesses, and old men with binoculars”—and holiday galas.5 Russian intellectuals and “serious” artists were not altogether unjustified in thinking ballet an entertainment for snobs and tired businessmen—“the fruits of M. Petipa’s and St. Léon’s nonsensical imagination,”6 as one very serious critic put it in the pages of Epokha, an intellectual journal edited by the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As for Russian composers, largely frozen out of the ballet business anyway, their opinion was well summarized in 1900 by Rimsky-Korsakov, in a letter to a critic who had inquired whether the ballet had matured under Petipa to the point where composers of the front rank might profitably apply themselves to it. “I’m inclined to think not,” was the adamant reply:

And therefore I myself will never write such music. In the first place, because it is a degenerate art. In the second place, because miming is not a full-fledged art form. In the third place, balletic miming is extremely elementary and leads to a naïve kind of symbolism. In the fourth place, the best thing ballet has to offer—dances—are boring, since the language of dance and the whole vocabulary of movement are extremely skimpy. With the exception of character and national dances (which can also become tiring), there is only the classical, which makes up the greater part. These (that is, classical dances) are beautiful in themselves; but they are all the same, and to stare for a whole evening at one classical dance after another is impossible. In the fifth place, there is no need for good music in ballet; the necessary rhythm and melodiousness can be found in the work of any number of able hacks today. In the sixth place, in view of its paltry significance in the spectacle, ballet music is usually performed in a sloppy, slapdash manner that would tell sorely on the work of a highly talented composer.7

The attitude Rimsky-Korsakov was expressing was to a considerable degree a prejudice, born in part out of professional envy, and in part out of the special high-mindedness (or civic-mindedness) that the traditions of Russian realism had inspired. That prejudice came especially to the fore in an astonishing letter that a young Moscow composer, Sergey Taneyev (1856–1915), had the effrontery to send Chaikovsky, his former Conservatory professor, in 1878, after hearing Chaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. “In my opinion,” he wrote,

the Symphony has one defect to which I shall never be reconciled: in every movement there are phrases that sound like ballet music: the middle section of the Andante, the Trio of the Scherzo, and a kind of march in the Finale. Hearing the Symphony, my inner eye sees involuntarily “our prima ballerina,” which puts me out of humor and spoils my pleasure in the many beauties of the work.8

Chaikovsky protested against Taneyev’s assumption that balletic associations must necessarily be a taint: “Do you mean to say that the Trio of my Scherzo is in the style of Minkus or Pugni? It does not, to my mind, deserve such criticism. When the music is good, on the other hand, what difference does it make whether la Sobiechtchanskaya [the Moscow prima ballerina] dances to it or not?”9


(5) Prince Peter Lieven, The Birth of the Ballets-Russes (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1936), p. 56.

(6) A. A. Grigoryev, “Russkiy teatr v Peterburge,” in Epokha (1864), no. 3: 232.

(7) Rimsky-Korsakov to Semyon Kruglikov, 2 February 1900; N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov, Polnoye sobraniye sochineniy: literaturnïye proizvedeniya i perepiska, Vol. VIIIb (Moscow: Muzïka, 1982), p. 105.

(8) Sergey Taneyev to Chaikovsky, 18 March 1878; M. Chaikovsky, Life and Letters of Tchaikovsky, Vol. I (New York: Vienna House, 1973), pp. 292–93.

(9) Chaikovsky to Taneyev, 27 March 1878; Ibid., p. 293.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003003.xml