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 the 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 four centuries have responded by creating their most original and daring music.
The Russian imperial capital of St Petersburg had, 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 through to 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 Germany 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 emergence of a Russian national style was partly a cultural fashion, mirrored everywhere across Europe in 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 firment emerged Sergei Diaghilev, art, dance and music lover who turned his entrepreneurial attention to what was going on in Russia itself years before he thought of launching a cultural invasion of Paris.
An exhibition of portrait paintings he mounted in St Petersburg in 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' d 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 folk lore. 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 Scheherazade and his completion 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.
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