Update browser for a secure Made experience

It looks like you may be using a web browser version that we don't support. Make sure you're using the most recent version of your browser, or try using of these supported browsers, to get the full Made experience: Chrome, Firefox, Safari, or Edge.

The Ballets Russes in Paris

May 1, 2019
Sketch of Sergey Diaghilev by Valentin Serov

CMS ends its Russia-focused season with a look at Russian music abroad, specifically Paris in the early 20th century. In 1906, the year after Bloody Sunday and a revolution in Russia, impresario Sergey Diaghilev brought an exhibit of Russian art to Paris. Over the next few years he organized other artistic ventures in the city, finally settling on dance as the most popular with Parisian audiences. He founded the Ballets Russes in 1909 and kicked off two decades of innovation in music, ballets, costumes, and set design. The productions he mounted were hugely influential in the worlds of both dance and music, and frequently involved top artists including Kandinsky, Picasso, Miró, and Matisse.

“Diaghilev invented Russia for foreigners.” -Coco Chanel

Parisians were fascinated with foreign art and culture and had been at least since the 1889 World’s Fair, but Diaghilev brought a particularly enticing mix of avant-garde dance, modern design, and cutting edge music rooted in traditional Russian folk music and fairy tales. Diaghilev first commissioned a little-known composer named Stravinsky for the 1910 season to compose music for The Firebird. The runaway success of the production led Stravinsky to write nine more ballets for Diaghilev over the next 20 years. Stravinsky and Diaghilev shaped the course of Parisian music.

The Firebird, ballet costume, 1910, by Léon Bakst

Stravinsky brought Russian musical techniques that weren’t practiced in the west, specifically new ideas about octatonicism.

After staging three blockbusters with music by Stravinsky (Firebird, Petrushka, and Rite of Spring), not to mention other productions with leading French composers like Debussy and Ravel, Diaghilev branched out in other directions. The company toured extensively and Diaghilev was particularly captivated by a trip to Spain in 1916 that led to him using more Spanish music. In 1919 the company performed El sombrero de tres picos with music by Manuel de Falla.

But perhaps Diaghilev’s most famous musical innovation was his suggestion to Stravinsky that he set some themes by Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Pergolesi (or at least some music that was then believed to be by Pergolesi). The result was Pulcinella, making Diaghilev at least partly responsible for the 1920s fascination with neo-classicism.

Diaghilev died in 1929, marking the end of the Ballets Russes just before the Great Depression and World War II changed Europe forever. However, his legacy lives on. He started out promoting Russian art abroad but soon widened his focus and ended up commissioning some of the most famous music of the early 20th century.

Come to CMS's season finale, Ballets Russes, May 19, 5:00 PM at Alice Tully Hall.


Article by Laura Keller, Editorial Manager.