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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 3 Aristocratic Maximalism
Richard Taruskin

And so it became, thanks to Diaghilev. Beginning in 1906, at first with heavy financial backing from the Russian crown, Diaghilev embarked on an epoch-making “export campaign,” as Benois rather drily called it, a yearly “Russian season” in Paris, the artistic capital of the world and the political capital of what was, since the accession of Tsar Nikolai II in 1894, Russia’s most strategic diplomatic and military ally. Diaghilev’s first Parisian presentation was an exhibition of Russian painting from medieval icons to the work of the Mir iskusstva circle itself.

The next year, 1907, Diaghilev brought a series of dazzling “historical concerts” in which all the greatest Russian musicians of the day took part: Rimsky-Korsakov, the dean of living Russian composers; Glazunov, his star pupil; the pianist-composers Alexander Scriabin (1872–1915) and Sergey Rachmaninoff (1873–1943), and many others. These concerts were not only historical (that is, presenting works from the full range of Russian musical history) but also historic: they provided a conduit that brought the latest Russian music to French ears like those of Ravel, whose avid absorption of Russian influences we have already observed in Chapter 2.

In 1908, Diaghilev brought a legendary production of Musorgsky’s Boris Godunov (in a version edited by Rimsky-Korsakov) to the stage of the Paris Opéra, which set a never-to-be-surpassed benchmark for luxuriance and spectacle. The next year, 1909, it was a mixed “Russian season” of music theater, now including ballet for the first time. The Russian ballets especially amazed the French, who had considered the ballet to be their national property, but who now saw their version of it thoroughly surpassed. The ballet spectacles, unexpectedly, proved far more successful with the public than the operas. Diaghilev decided to follow Benois’s advice, which he had until then resisted, and specialize henceforth in presenting Russian ballets to Parisian audiences.

And yet the French critics had complained that the ballets presented in 1909 did not duplicate the exotic impression created by the Russian operas, and that without an overlay of recognizably Russian style (which meant, for French ears, a folkloristic or “oriental” style) they could not regard the Russian ballet as a truly authentic artistic product. Here indeed was a paradox: the Russian ballet, originally a French import and proud of its stylistic heritage, now had to become stylistically “Russian” so as to justify its exportation back to France. Diaghilev’s solution was to commission, expressly for presentation in France in 1910, something without precedent in Russia: a ballet on a Russian folk subject, and with music cast in a conspicuously exotic “Russian” style. He cast about for a composer willing to come up with so weird a thing.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Aristocratic Maximalism." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003006.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003006.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 24 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-003006.xml