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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Richard Taruskin

Intellectual prestige was finally added to the social and artistic prestige the Russian ballet enjoyed during its opulent phase under Vsevolozhsky when Alexandre Benois (1870–1960), a young student from an old Russian family of Western European extraction long distinguished in St. Petersburg’s artistic life, attended the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, found the experience esthetically overwhelming, and began bruiting it about among his friends, a group of rich young esthetes and dandies who called themselves the “Nevsky Pickwickians” (after Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfare, which ran parallel to the Neva River).

Ballet Finds Its Theorist

ex. 3-6 “Omnibus progression”

Ballet Finds Its Theorist

ex. 3-7a Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty, Carabosse music, no. 1, mm. 1–2

Ballet Finds Its TheoristBallet Finds Its Theorist

ex. 3-7b Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty, Carabosse music, no. 4 (finale), mm. 37ff

Ballet Finds Its Theorist

ex. 3-7c Pyotr Ilyich Chaikovsky, The Sleeping Beauty, Carabosse music, no. 5 (scène), mm. 202–14

“Chaikovsky’s music was what I seemed to be waiting for since my earliest childhood,”14 Benois wrote in his old age, long after becoming a world-famous painter, theatrical designer, and art historian. It embodied “the aristocratic spirit, untouched by any democratic deviations, which reigned in Russia under the scepter of Alexander III; the unique atmosphere of the St. Petersburg Theater School and the traditions that had been pursued in consequence; and finally a rejuvenation of these traditions so that, on this occasion, shaking off the dust of routine, they should appear in all the freshness of something newly-born.” As Benois saw it, the Russian Imperial Ballet, that antiquated French entertainment preserved “in a state of mummification,” had “continued to live its own life, remote from all disturbances,” and in consequence had been saved from the general decline of the art of dance throughout the rest of Europe.

But far more than that, ballet had stood aloof from all the main trends of serious Russian art in the nineteenth century—the trends represented by novelists like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, and by composers like Musorgsky or even the Chaikovsky of the operas and symphonies. Precisely because of this, because it was mere purposeless play and divertissement, because it had remained true to seemingly superannuated principles of beauty and stylization, it was far less tainted than opera with the hated residue of realism and was uncompromised by the didactic and social concerns that encumbered modern Russian literature. The Russian ballet, in short, was a kind of belle au bois dormant or sleeping beauty in its own right, an outmoded aristocratic toy whose irrelevance to all serious artistic endeavor in Russia was a standing joke until, by a curious quirk of fate, the nature of serious artistic endeavor changed in such a fashion as to make it relevant once more.

It was the Nevsky Pickwickians, grown up into an intrepid estheticist faction known as Mir iskusstva (“The world of art”), who planted the awakening kiss. Benois remained their chief theorist, but their chief executive was Sergey Diaghilev (1872–1929), a man of enormous energy and vision who put the group and its magic name on the map, first by organizing Mir iskusstva art exhibitions, then by editing a superb arts journal also called Mir iskusstva, and finally by assuming the mantle of Vsevolozhsky but on an international scale, becoming, it is no exaggeration to say, the greatest impresario the world has ever seen. His efforts sparked a resurgence of ballet that lasted to the end of the twentieth century and beyond, and, toward the beginning of that century, briefly made ballet one of the major sites of artistic and musical innovation, perhaps the hottest one of all.

Ballet Finds Its Theorist

fig. 3-2 Sergey Diaghilev (1906), by Leon Bakst. The figure in the background is Diaghilev’s childhood nanny.

But first the enabling theory. Benois expressed it most succinctly in 1908, in an article called “Colloquy on Ballet” because it was cast in the form of a dialogue between an “Artist,” representing the author, and a hypothetical “Balletomane.” The latter voices the mindlessly hedonistic view that ballet was just “a fragile, aristocratic amusement” that can have nothing to do with “the serious questions of our day,” and whose very existence in the modern world was anachronistic and therefore precarious.15 To this the artist replies that on the contrary, “the history of ballet is far from over; before it lie even greater prospects, perhaps, than lie before opera or drama.” The reason was that ballet was an ideal Gesamtkunstwerk, as imagined by Wagner but never realized by him, because he never managed to rid his art of its utilitarian aspect.

And what was that? Words! True art cannot mix with words, precisely because words have fixed, hence earthbound, meaning. Benois’s theory of ballet turns out to be the old romantic esthetic of “absolute music” in its maximalistic—or maximally “estheticized”—phase. The Artist continues:

One thing is clear. After all the temptations of our brains, after all words, tedious and confusing, insipid and foolish, murky and bombastic, one wants silence and spectacle on the stage. Yet it would be wrong to call ballet a dumbshow. Ballet is perhaps the most eloquent of all spectacles, since it permits the two most excellent conductors of thought—music and gesture—to appear in their full expanse and depth, unencumbered by words, which limit and fetter thought, bringing it down from heaven to earth.16

The Artist’s point is that words, unlike music and movement, are by nature utilitarian. They seek to accomplish something specific, and therefore limited. They lead to laughter and tears—to emotions tied to objects and hence unesthetic. “A baby crying for its milk is utilitarian and boring,” Benois wrote. “But a smiling baby—that one is holy, surrounded by a divine aureole, full of regal radiance.”17 Ballet’s unique capacity was its power to evoke the “esthetic smile,” the emotion of pure esthetic delight. That made it supreme among the arts, and certainly among the theatrical arts:

Even the most abstract and exalted drama is burdened with utilitarianism. In most cases it conceals (sometimes very artfully) a didactic utility, or else at its very climax it reflects our vain concerns, our strivings, our clamberings, our aggressions. In the dramatic theater one either laughs or cries. In ballet, though, the chief meaning is in the smile (and not in laughter or in tears). In the drama the big moment comes when the spectator is most shaken by the depicted sufferings; in comedy it comes when the spectator bursts out laughing; but in ballet it comes when the spectator smiles. That is the reason for its existence. The dance is nothing but “a full-length smile,” a smile in which the whole body participates.

Opera, according to this theory, is even worse than drama, because it “blasphemously” tries to force music into fusion with the utilitarian medium of words, not to mention the fact that the two media impede each other’s comprehensibility (a problem to which most operagoers can indeed attest!) since words make a distracting counterclaim on the faculty of hearing. Was not Wagner’s greatest opera, Tristan und Isolde, the very one in which the libretto’s words mattered the least? So why not get rid of them altogether? Far from a truncated, denatured, or handicapped form of opera (the usual view of ballet d’action, even the best of them), Benois now proposed that ballet was the final step in music-theater’s liberation from the tyranny of the spoken drama, ultimately in music’s liberation from the tyranny of words. Ballet, he insisted, was the artistic wave of the future.


(14) Alexandre Benois, Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet, trans. Mary Britnieva (London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1941), p. 372.

(15) Alexandre Benois, “Beseda o balete,” in V. Meyerhold, et al., Teatr (St. Petersburg: Shipovnik, 1908), p. 100.

(16) Ibid., p. 103.

(17) Ibid., p. 106.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2023. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003005.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 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003005.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 21 Sep. 2023, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003005.xml