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Dancing with Diaghilev

Thirty years ago, the composer Nicholas Nabokov, a distant cousin of Diaghilev, told me that there were, for Diaghilev, three kinds of composers: the kids, young men that he could dominate; the grownups, like Debussy, whom he could not; and, in a category all to himself, Stravinsky.

Diaghilev's relationship with Stravinsky, the most, productive and important of his life, stretched over 20 years from the commission for Firebird in 1909 to their last collaboration, Apollo in 1928. Indeed, Stravinsky was crucial in the artistic development of the Ballets Russes, his works rarely out of the company's repertoire. Hardly a month went by without contact with Diaghilev, to discuss ideas or work in progress, yet the friendship between the two men was always uncomfortable. In his books of conversations with Robert Craft, published between 1958 and 1969, Stravinsky rarely has a good word to say for Diaghilev, although he was much more generous during a long discussion I had with him in 1966. Both men were proud and obstinate. Diaghilev saw his role with composers as interventionist, which Stravinsky resented. Everyone except Stravinsky acknowledged Diaghilev's musical understanding. Stravinsky, on the other hand, took great delight in telling how, when he first played Diaghilev The Rite of Spring on the piano, Diaghilev asked, 'How long does it last?' 'To the end, my dear,' replied the composer.

Yet it was Diaghilev who, two years earlier, had persuaded Stravinsky to abandon the piece he was writing for piano and orchestra, and convert it into Petrushka: large chunks of the original survive in the central scenes. When it came to The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky was more reluctant to listen to suggestions. Marie Rambert once told me of epic rows with Nijinsky, especially about the 'correct' tempi of the tableaux (Stravinsky's savage criticism of Pierre Monteux, who conducted the work's premiere, was based on the tempi chosen by the conductor and Nijinsky). Stravinsky had been difficult from the very beginning of the association with Diaghilev. Recalling how Diaghilev kept him waiting at their first meeting, he said 'I was young but already impatient' and speculated on the direction his life might have taken had he followed his inclination to leave.

The 1920s began with a string of collaborations: the reworking of Rossignol, Pulcinella, Mavra, the final version of Les Noces, even some rescoring of Tchaikovsky. Diaghilev was jealous of anyone else getting involved. They performed Renard, although it had been commissioned by the Princesse de Polignac, but he never forgave Stravinsky for writing Le Baiser de la Fee for Ida Rubinstein's company, and it was several years before they collaborated again. Anton Dolin remembered travelling on the night sleeper to Monte Carlo and being kept awake by a shouting match (as usual, about money) between Diaghilev and Stravinsky in the next compartment. Stravinsky suffered from the failure of Russian publishers to subscribe to international copyright conventions, and Diaghilev was adept at paying royalties as late as possible. Stravinsky's letters in the '20s are full of complaints about the whereabouts of the orchestral parts of his ballet scores, especially when he had a chance to perform them in concert. And yet, 40 years later, Stravinsky told me with emotion, 'Diaghilev and I were on good terms and bad terms, in good times and bad times, but fundamentally he was my elder brother.'

It was Stravinsky who introduced Diaghilev to Manuel de Falla in 1912. Nabokov put Falla among the composers to whom Diaghilev was not close and whom therefore he could not influence. I found this strange since the two men were very much together during the gestation of The Three-Cornered Hat. During the last years of the First World War, the Ballets Russes, only able to perform in neutral countries, were stranded in Spain, where King Alfonso had been a notable supporter. Diaghilev encouraged his dancers to go to the cabarets and fiestas to watch how the Spanish danced, much as young men in St Petersburg went to see the gypsies. Part of Russian culture had long been fascinated by Spain, since Glinka's Jota Aragonesa and Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. Now choreographer Leonide Massine became seriously taken by the complexity and intensity of real Spanish music and dance.

Diaghilev had been considering whether Nights in the Garden of Spain might not make an effective ballet score, when Falla asked him and Massine to attend a performance of the pantomime El Corregidor y la Molinera for which he had written incidental music. Diaghilev immediately saw dramatic possibilities in this story of the miller's wife and her rejection of her ridiculous suitor. As a form of creative research he set out, with Falla, Massine and Felix Fernandez (a young dancer who had taught Massine the basics of the flamenco tradition) on a journey through Spain to look at other forms of dance. The Sevillana, the Jota, the Malaguena all appeared in The Three-Cornered Hat which, when premiered in London in 1919, became one of Diaghilev's greatest successes.

Massine recalled to me how much emphasis Diaghilev, who dictated the work's dramatic shape,placed on a brilliant finale, but the piece is much more than a Fantasy on Spanish Themes, and remains one of Diaghilev's greatest commissions, proof of his extraordinary ability to draw the best from composers, even in unpropitious circumstances. As Marie Rambert said, 'Working for Diaghilev could be a terrible ordeal, but it was also an incredible joy' which is why, nearly 70 years later, we see that not only Stravinsky and Falla, but composers as different as Poulenc and Prokofiev did their best work for him. Where are the Diaghilevs of today?


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