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Ed Waffle

Stravinsky on ballet

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During the summer and autumn of 1911, Igor Stravinsky was probably as involved in ballet music as one person could be. He was composing “The Great Sacrifice” (which became “The Rite of Spring”), proofreading the as yet unpublished full score of “The Firebird” and preparing all the parts of “Petrouchka” for several different publishers.

So, while his views on ballet would always be interesting, they might be particularly so from a time when he was immersed in ballet music from morning until night for week after week.

The biography “Stravinsky, a Creative Spring: Russia and France 1882-1934” by Steven Walsh has an exchange of letters between Stravinsky and Volodya Rimsky-Korsakov, the son of Nikolai. Volodya despised ballet and is, according to Walsh, merely reiterating the standard St. Petersburg intellectual prejudice against an art form “which had long been the purview of children, governesses and dirty old men” and was “the lowest form of art”.

Stravinsky replied:

“In principle, I’m in favor of beautiful and complete scores being staged with good choreography. It’s clear to me that you simply do not like and are not interested in ballet. I can only tell you that I, on the contrary, love and am interested in ballet most of all, and this is no empty enthusiasm, but a serious and profound delight in theatrical spectacle—as a living visual art.”

If Michelangelo were living today, Stravinsky suggested, ballet is the one theatrical expression he would recognize, “the one form of theatre which sets itself the basic goal of beauty and nothing more...just as Michelangelo’s sole aim was the beauty of the visible.”

I can’t give Walsh’s book a strong recommendation, although there is much in it of great value. He spends enough time and energy in either commenting upon or refuting other biographers that it can be distracting unless one has read and remembered those works. If you have read all or at least most of the Robert Craft diaries, volumes of letters and biographies concerning Stravinsky, plus the Richard Taruskin biography, Walsh’s discussion of them will make sense. But it will still not be very interesting. His main strength lies in his analysis of the music.


"Happy are the fiery natures which burn themselves out,

and glory in the sword which wears away the scabbard:


Writing of Pauline Viardot

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