Howard Goodall on Diaghilev's Music, part 1

The composer and broadcaster considers how Diaghilev helped Russian music and dance forge a new identity and launched it into early 20th century Paris

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Video Transcript

For composers, myself included, writing for dance presents particular challenges. How do you tell a story without spoken or sung narrative? How will the dancers’ need for predictability of pulse, speed and duration marry with a sense that the music is free-flowing, emotionally volatile and in the moment? How do you synchronise music’s own internal clock with the passing of real time on stage? Dancers attempt to defy gravity and suspend their bodies in air – how does the composer enhance this illusion, not undermine it? In the process of tackling these challenges, composers over 4 centuries have responded by creating their most original & daring music.

The Russian Imperial capital of St Petersburghad by the end of the 19th century become one of the greatest musical centres the world had ever seen.  A roll call of outstanding composers, each the mentor of the next, had developed, from Glinka in the 1830s passing the baton to  Balakirev , Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the teacher of Stravinsky. At the beginning of this relay race, the music they composed slavishly followed the rules and fashions dictated in German and Austria.  By the time it reaches Rimsky-Korsakov it has acquired an unmistakably Russian character  any lingering associations with the German-Austrian mainstream were blown completely out of the water by Stravinsky

The gradual emergence of a Russian national style was partly a cultural fashion, mirrored everywhere across Europein the final decades of the 19th century and partly political determination. The years leading up to the October Revolution of 1905 saw a re-awakened public interest in Russian ethnic art and architecture, a trend in line with  the nationalist leanings of Tsars Alexander II and Nicholas II. Out of this ferment emerged Sergei Diaghilev, art, dance and music lover who turned his entrepreneurial attention to what was going on in Russiaitself years before he thought of launching a cultural invasion of Paris.

An  extensive exhibition of portrait paintings he mounted in St Petersburgin 1905 was intended to show the educated classes of the Imperial Capital the great wealth of the country’s artistic talents beyond the city’s parochial horizon, a collection that he had spent a year researching throughout Russia. In 1906 he took another exhibition of Russian paintings to Paris,  the success of which encouraged him to present a season of Russian concerts there in the following year and to mount composer Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov the year after that.

Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov was but one of a series of operas that cashed in on the Russian aristocracy’s growing obsession with Slavic folklore; Rimsky-Korsakov mined the same richly colourful seam with such pageants as Kaschei the Immortal, ,  The Tsar’s Bride, The Tale of Tsar Saltan, The Golden Cockerel and The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.  These latter pieces, alongside his concert spectacular Scheherzade and his completion and mounting of Borodin’s unfinished epic Prince Igor, were to prove a fertile starting-point for his – then unknown – protégé Stravinsky - Diaghilev then created with Stravinsky and others, a new breed of Russian ballet, with a heavily Slavic  tint for the delight, titillation and alarm of Paris’s hyper-sophisticated  cultural elite.


Howard Goodall looks at the emergence of a distinctly Russian brand of classical music from the early nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. Diaghilev, he points out, was an important force in the development of both Russia's art and its music long before he conceived the notion of 'taking the show on the road'.

The Ballet Russes' sensational debut in Paris, then the world's undisputed capital of creative and artistic culture, brought worldwide exposure to the revolutionary new brand of ballet Diaghilev had helped to create.

Like many of Diaghilev's collaborators,  composer Igor Stravinsky also came to real world prominence through his association with the great impresario.