The Impresario

Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929) was raised in Perm, a city near the Ural mountains of Russia. His family was one of landed gentry, with their fortune based on vodka. From 1870 to 1890, the family lived on their sizable estate near Perm in the summers, and in a large mansion in Perm itself during winters. The young boy’s mother had died just three months after his birth. But his father remarried two years later, and Diaghilev’s cultured stepmother, Elena Valerianovna Panaeva, encouraged an interest in the arts, including hosting small concerts in the family home and seeing that the young Sergei had piano lessons.

The year 1890 was a crucial one, for Sergei’s father went bankrupt and all the family properties were auctioned off. The young man had just graduated from the local gymnasium. Because he had an inheritance from his mother, with his cousin he was able first to travel in Europe and then to settle in St. Petersburg to study law, graduating in 1896. In that more cosmopolitan urban setting, Diaghilev became a member of the informal literary and artistic circle that the painter Alexandre Benois wrote about so fondly, and he became more knowledgeable about both theatrical and visual arts.

At first acquaintance, it had seemed to his St. Petersburg friends that Diaghilev was not very interested in ballet. Also, his musical talents seemed limited, though he pursued studies in composition and singing at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and could play the piano reasonably well. But his professors discouraged him from pursuing a career in music. Furthermore, he was not a choreographer; he was not foremost a writer; he was not a painter.

Apparently Diaghilev early on recognized that his talents lay not mainly as a creator, but as a director and organizer. The 1905 portrait that Léon Bakst painted of Diaghilev, with his nanny asleep in the background, shows a young man of elegant bearing, complete with gold watch chain and gold cufflinks, gazing at the painter with self-confidence. (See image online.) It has been repeated that the ambitious future impresario may have had some notion of eventually being Minister of Culture. For two years starting in 1899 he had worked as special assistant to the director of the Imperial Theaters, but he did not progress to other civil service positions.

As things turned out, Diaghilev embarked on critical writing, with several of his colleagues launching a review called Mir iskusstva (The World of Art). Additionally he organized several exhibitions in Russia, including one in 1906 in which he assembled 750 different works. Subsequently he mounted an exhibition in Paris, where the intention was to introduce Russian culture to a Western European population. This was so successful that soon he followed up with operas, performed in Paris, and some later in London as well: Boris Godunov by Modest Mussorgsky (as revised by Rimsky-Korsakov) in 1908; Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin (again, completed by Rimsky-Korsakov, with Alexander Glazunov) in 1909; Ruslan and Ludmilla by Glinka, also in 1909.

However, Diaghilev made his mark in the world mainly as the impresario who founded the Ballets Russes with its initial 1909 performances in Paris and continued directing the company until his death in 1929. He managed to find financial backing for ambitious theatrical productions. He brought together talents of dancers, choreographers, composers, and visual artists to create theatrical productions that by turns pleased and shocked the Western public. He commissioned new scores from leading composers as well as scenic and costume designs from outstanding artists of his time. And just when Isadora Duncan was startling audiences (including in Russia) with her barefoot dances set to existing concert music, similarly Diaghilev’s choreographers were soon setting their ballets to works of great composers of the past as well as to existing and new music by their contemporaries.

From 1909 when the Tsar withdrew all financial support, the impresario’s talent for making contacts and securing new patrons became paramount. Like all subsequent touring companies, the Ballets Russes could never depend on box office receipts alone. Yet the ballets that Diaghilev managed to produce were extravagant, breath-taking and path-breaking.

Among the choreographers enlisted by Diaghilev was first of all Michel Fokine, who was the ballet master at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. He created many admired ballets based on strict classical training, but extending the subjects and styles to include both the exotic and the modern. The dance critic Walter Sorrell underscored his importance: “It is fair to say that without Fokine, Diaghilev’s dream could easily have turned into a nightmare, or at least would not have achieved immediate acclaim.”

Fokine was followed by Vaslav Nijinsky (known first as a sensational dancer); and  then by  Léonide Massine (formerly of the Bolshoi Theater) and then by Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava Nijinska—all three of whom created cutting-edge works—and  finally by George Balanchine, who went on to develop his distinctive style of classical ballet in the United States.

The visual artists who designed sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes included well-known names: Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst at first; followed later by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Nicholas Roerich, and Natalia Goncharova. Indeed, it is hard to separate the decor art and costumes in the Ballets Russes  productions from other aspects, for they contributed to theatrical works of unique flavor.

The dance historian Ivor Guest gave a good summary of the wide influence of the Ballets Russes:

The shattering impact of Diaghilev’s Paris season of 1909 has passed into theatrical legend. For the art of dancing, it marked the moment of regeneration. With almost unbelievable suddenness, ballet was recognised as a major aesthetic force, spreading its influence into many areas of life, from the other theatre arts to fashion in dress and interior decoration. Never before had the dance, or any other form of spectacle, been accompanied by décor and costumes so evocative and distinguished, nor in human memory had Paris seen choreography of such inspiration as that of Michel Fokine. These performances were a feast of visual and plastic beauty that no one who saw them could ever forget.

notes and explorations:


Walter Sorrell’s comment on Fokine, from The Dance through the Ages, (1957) p. 164.

The quotation from Ivor Guest is from The Paris Opéra Ballet, p. 70. This is a brief introduction to the life and career of Sergei Diaghilev. Includes image of the 1905 portrait by Bakst.

A brief article by Elizabeth Aldrich, curator of dance at the Library of Congress, about Diaghilev and links to some pictures in the collection can be found at:

Interesting essay: “Diaghilev and Music” by the Russian-born composer Nicolas Nabokov (1903-78) excerpted in Reading Dance, ed. Robert Gottlieb (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008) pp. 508-13. Actually this was excerpted from Nabokov’s book of essays, Old Friends and New Music (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press/Little Brown and Company, 1951) pp. 79-88. And this entire book makes for fascinating reading, ranging from a description of the composer’s privileged childhood (so similar to that of his cousin the famous novelist Vladimir Nabokov), up to his post-World War II position as a civilian officer for the Music Control Branch of the Information Control Division of the U.S. Military, stationed in Germany, where the  overall effort was intended “to help the Germans re-establish a semblance, a modicum of culture on the ruins of twelve years of the Nazi Reich.” [as described on p. 263]

Simultaneously, the Russian “Generals” in Berlin tried to lure the composer into returning to Russia. Tellingly, here is a taste of Nabokov’s satirical account of  their suggestion [pp. 281-82]:

“We need composers in Russia, and you know what has happened all over Russia? New towns have sprung up all over the place, and each one has a new university…and a conservatory. They were built by the Red pioneers, during their summer vacation….In the middle of the town stands a factory, say a tractor factory, and around it are clean, neat workers’ dwellings. The whole town lives for the factory. Imbued with pride at its rising production, it follows the statistics of the factory’s output with intense excitement. When a tired father comes home from a day’s work in the factory his children jump all over him and shout: “Tell us, tell us, Father, how high was the output today?

“…Yes, Nikolai Dimitrievich Nabokov, a man with your name and your intelligence should be wearing our uniform or should be teaching in one of our schools or our conservatories….Of course you wouldn’t hope to find right away a teaching post in Moscow or Leningrad, or even Kharkov or Kiev but…but in one of those new Siberian towns…there…there you would have a good place to live, to teach and to work.”

Nabokov’s response:

“Thank you,” I said calmly and slowly, “but I prefer the climate of New York.”

And indeed, along with sharing some horrifying facts about life in Russia, the composer gave us some wonderful glimpses into his life and career outside of what  became the Soviet Union, starting in Paris where he met Diaghilev and was commissioned by the impresario to write his first ballet score, Ode: Méditation sur la Majesté de Dieu for the Ballets Russes.  It was choreographed by Léonide Massine, with stage design by the artist Pavel Tchelitchev. First performed in 1928, the lyrical music can be heard on a 2002 Chandros CD. 

After moving to the United States (later becoming an American citizen in 1939) Nabokov provided the music for Massine’s 1934 ballet Union Pacific (which can also be heard on the Chandos CD). Then came scores for several other ballets—including the full-length one commissioned by New York City Ballet for George Balanchine’s version of Don Quixote, which the choreographer premiered with himself in the lead role opposite his muse Suzanne Farrell in 1965.  When Suzanne Farrell revived the ballet with her own company at Kennedy Center in 2005, critic John Rockwell wrote:

The music, decently rendered by an orchestra conducted by Ormsby Wilkins, sounded far better than most reviewers from 40 years ago heard it. This can be acerbic music, but it matches the drama, captures the varied moods and is sometimes downright gorgeous. The pianist Hubert Borde plays a reduction of the lyrical waltz from Act III of Nabokov’s  Don Quixote.  My husband and I attended that premiere performance of Don Quixote, now considered historic, and though I would love to be able to let readers know there is at least a decent CD recording of the music available, sorry, there isn’t. But for those who can access the restored film at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, above is a link explaining how it was made. 

For an unusual account of how the young dancer Suzanne Farrell experienced both the preparations and the performance of Don Quixote, see chapter 6 “The Don and Dulcinea” in her memoir Holding On to the Air (2002 edition, University Press of Florida). She apparently imbibed the music in such detail that she could hum sections to herself when she practiced alone in a studio. And commenting about Nabokov’s score (p. 116) she wrote:

More than any other single element in the ballet, it was this passionate yet simple music that gave me the final clue to being Dulcinea. I cannot explain it; it was in the music—soft, gentle, mournful, and sweet, taken from an old Russian folk theme. When planning the ballet with Nabokov, Mr. B. had said to him, “Don’t you remember this?” and sat down at the piano and played a melody—or what he remembered of it—from his youth. It was music that had been haunting him all his life. Nabokov orchestrated it, and it became my theme.

For a documentary of the ballerina telling the story of her dancing career (plus performance clips from New York City Ballet and of her later role coaching dancers in her own company at The Kennedy Center), see Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse (filmed in 1996, now on Winstar DVD). Includes recollections by Jacques d’Amboise and Paul Mejia and some b&w film footage of Don Quixote.

The former dancer/coach/master teacher has her own website at 

Nabokov wrote a second volume, Bagázh [Baggage]: Memoirs of a Russian Cosmopolitan (New York: Atheneum, 1975). He repeats his account of meeting and working with Diaghilev and Massine, and how both Balanchine and Stravinsky joined him at the piano when Nabokov was demonstrating his initial working score of Ode for Diaghilev. Apparently it was Stravinsky who enthusiastically suggested that it be presented as a ballet. Unfortunately, many problems ensued with the production, involving both Massine’s vision for choreography and Tchelitchev’s stage designs. So  just days before the premiere, Diaghilev himself took charge of the preparations and in particular the lighting to save the production from disaster. Nabokov’s recollections bear witness to the talents of Diaghilev in bringing diverse arts together, and his insights about specific adjustments needed to improve things. 

The composer [pp. 189-196] goes on to tell of his experience in America with Archibald MacLeish, Massine, and Col. de Basil’s Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in creating and premiering the ballet Union Pacific amazingly in just 23 days.  Since the time allotted for composing was very short, the musician Eddie Powell was enlisted to help with the orchestration—which is both skillful and delightful to hear. Nabokov reported [p. 195]: 

Union Pacific became for the next two years the most successful ballet of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s repertoire. It was played all over America. It toured throughout Europe and through most of the world. Almost everywhere it had the same rousing success.

Though the construction of a railroad in 1869 might seem like a very odd subject for a ballet, yet reference can be made to the blockbuster popular Italian ballet  Excelsior described in this website’s chapter 9. That ballet concluded by depicting the meeting of construction crews building a tunnel through a mountain. 

In Union Pacific performances, apparently the part most popular with audiences was the fight of the barman, portrayed by Massine himself. We can only imagine this and the rest of the staged ballet, but the music provides a very energetic spark to the imagination! The Chandos recording was performed by the Residentie Orchestra The Hague under the direction of Valeri Polyansky. Obituary of Nicolas Nabokov, by Allen Hughes.

The composer Ned Rorem once remarked “Nicolas Nabokov is our most famous unknown composer.” At least now there is another book that sheds more light on the unusual life and work of this musician. In 2015 Oxford University Press published the only biography in English,  Nicolas Nabokov: A Life in Freedom and Music  by Vincent Giroud. His book fills gaps in Nabokov’s story-telling, drawing on the composer’s unpublished writings plus obviously extensive research. Included in this detailed chronological presentation are facts about the composer’s teaching, descriptions of his music, and surprising information about his extensive work at the international level after World War II both as a civilian within the American military, and as Secretary General for the  Congress for Cultural Freedom over the course of seventeen years. Giroud identifies who was who among Nabokov’s eminent contacts plus facts of historical context as well as about the sometimes fateful lives of extended family members. (More cheerful are brief profiles of the five wives who helped him through various years and projects of life, and introduction to three sons.)  Very welcome is the end section with information on all of Nabokov’s compositions—including several more commissioned ballets. The book is highly recommended, though it leaves one with the thwarted desire to hear more of Nabokov’s music itself! The biographer Vincent Giroud and the composer’s son Ivan Nabokov in a 46-minute conversation at the American Library in Paris in 2015. They played a recording of the waltz from  Ode, for chorus and orchestra. The son touched upon his father’s charm in story-telling, and felt that the composer “lived what he taught” during his years in American academia. The author Giroud liked to emphasize the considerable role of Nicolas Nabokov as an international “cultural force” especially since America (unlike other countries) did not have a Ministry of Culture.

As documented by Giroud (p. 265), after the ambitious and challenging first Paris festival presented in 1952 by the international Congress for Cultural Freedom, it was considered “a major critical and public success, with the Boston Symphony and New York City Ballet garnering particular success.” And a reviewer for Le Monde was quoted as saying that “he had felt as if the times of Diaghilev had been restored and no further comments were necessary.” The biographer himself commented (p. 268) that: “it seems fair to say that Nabokov had not been wrong to recognize Diaghilev’s place as one of the major cultural forces of the twentieth century.”

The young Nicolas Nabokov was among the last of the “discovered” collaborating composers, during 1928, the last year of Diaghilev’s life, for Ode. Looking back in 1942, the composer reflected:

But above all else, the profound and irreplaceable influence exercised by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes upon a whole artistic generation was dependent on the close association of his collaborators with the man himself, with his immense knowledge, his ability to inspire, to discriminate, to demand and expect the best of his artists….

His real judges and critics always remained the artists themselves. They were his true friends and his true enemies, they were his collaborators and antagonists, and it is really to them and for them that he carried on his intense and exciting work.

It was for the artists of Paris and of all Europe, and ultimately for the artists of the whole world, that every spring (so often against the greatest financial odds) he offered a magnificent two or three weeks of what he believed was the best, the latest, the freshest, and the most daring in music, painting, and dancing. If sometimes he did not succeed, we must remember that we still thrive on and feed from the remains of his abundant and generous table. [Old Friends and New Music,  pp. 73-74]

That retrospective opinion considered, in the next section we’ll turn back the clock to the early composer collaborators for Diaghilev, starting in 1909.

films: National Gallery of Art, 28 minute documentary that can be viewed online, about Diaghilev and art and dance.

For a whirlwind introduction to the Ballets Russes—its productions, stars, costumes, choreographers, sets, and tours—watch the 2013 DVD Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes: When Art Danced with Music, produced by the National Gallery of Art in conjunction with their exhibit by the same name.

Ballets Russes, 2005 DVD on Zeitgeist Video, unique film by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, documenting the company founded by Diaghilev. This DVD helps to clarify the history of three companies: Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo; and Col. De Basil’s Ballets Russes. Offers rare black and white films of past performances plus interviews with dancers who were outstanding in their careers. Also includes clips of interviews from 2000 reunion of Ballets Russes dancers. Delivers a most unusual report about what it was like for an entire company to tour. Brief booklet includes an introduction by Jack Anderson.


Jane Pritchard. editor, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929 (London: V&A Publishing, 2010; paperback, 2015). A book of pictures and essays in connection with an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Includes information on  the music, by Howard Goodall. A “browsing” kind of book, with  magnificent illustrations.  Includes a helpful timeline and a good introductory essay by Geoffrey Marsh, “Serge Diagilev and the Strange Birth of the Ballets Russes” plus portrait by Bakst.

Highly recommended is Lynn Garafola, Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998 republication of work originally published by Oxford University Press in 1989). This is a detailed introduction to the impresario’s life and work. 378 pages with appendix listings of all the ballet productions, by choreographer, with basic listings of composers and orchestrators. The author makes the point (p. 147) that dance historians have given the business side of ballet “short shrift,” and sets that right by providing enormous detail about the financial aspects of what Diaghilev accomplished. The information provided includes touring costs, dancers’ salaries, patronage, the effect of audience tastes on artistic choices, what happened in wartime, and much more.

Richard Buckle, Diaghilev (New York: Atheneum, 1984) This 616-page book is still considered the definitive biography, by an eminent British writer. For those who want to immerse themselves in a great deal of detail, it gives an almost day-by-day account.

Sjeng Scheijen, Diaghilev: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). Another lengthy biography (560 pages), this one drawing on Russian sources about the impresario’s early life with information not presented in English previously.  This is a review of the above book, plus further observations from the eminent dance scholar Joan Acocella. Titled “The Showman: How Diaghilev came to dance” it provides some updated corrections to former biographies.

S. L. Grigoriev, The Diaghilev Ballet 1909-1929 (Alton, Hampshire: Dance Books 2009 republication of the work originally published in 1953 ). Based on personal logs that the author wrote during the time that he was regisseur of the Ballets Russes. Unique year-by-year account of what both the company and the people were doing.

Early Collaborators

Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945) was a lead-off composer for the Ballets Russes, with his score for Le Pavillon d’Armide. The choreographer Michel Fokine had first heard Tcherepnin’s suite of this music, at a concert in St. Petersburg, and he asked permission to set it choreographically for his students’ annual performance in 1907. The composer gave his permission while also explaining that the suite was part of what he and the painter Alexander Benois hoped could be expanded into a full three-act ballet. Benois had first developed his idea for the ballet libretto based on the novel Omphale by Théophile Gautier. He had initially approached the composer Tcherepnin (who was married to the artist’s niece, Marie Benois) and together they developed the beginnings.

The students must have given a splendid performance, for the director of the Imperial Theatres offered to produce the entire ballet with the professional company and even commissioned Benois to be in charge of decor and costumes. Seven months later, the ballet was on the stage of the Maryinsky Theatre, and the audience felt it was a great success! No small part of that was probably due to the cast: Pavel Gerdt, Anna Pavlova, and Vaslav Nijinsky. A first-hand account of how all this came to be was included by Alexandre Benois in his most engaging book Reminiscences of Russian Ballet.

Following this auspicious premiere, Diaghilev arranged for the same dancers to perform in the ballet for the opening 1909 Paris programs with his new Ballets Russes troupe, and the composer himself traveled to conduct that historic European premiere. The ballet was repeated in following seasons, with some changes of cast, but typical of the impressions that audience members retained was this brief comment written by Cyril W. Beaumont, recalling the performance he had seen twenty-five years before, of Le Pavillon d’Armide:

Of that evening I can recall four things which impressed me: the melodious music with its seductive quality and hint of mystery; the grace and beauty of Karsavina as Armide; the wonderful dancing of Nijinsky as the slave, particularly in a variation in which he crossed from one side of the stage to the other by means of a series of vertical bounds, entrechats, and tours en l’air, in which he rose and fell and rose again with the softness and ease of a bouncing india rubber ball….

So too the Ballets Russes bounced energetically into the world—and ballet was never again the same.

An important part of the initial success of the Ballets Russes—as noted in the above quote—was the collaboration of Nikolai Tcherepnin. The company was fortunate, for although he was on the faculty of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and also had continuing work with the Maryinsky, this musician was able to conduct performances for the Ballets Russes for five years—including not only in Paris but also for tours to Berlin, Monte Carlo, Rome, and London.

Diaghilev produced a second ballet with music by Tcherepnin in 1911: his Narcisse. Later on, also his Dionysus in 1922 and his Russian Fairy Tale in 1923. Additionally, Anna Pavlova (who had left Ballets Russes early on to form her own touring company) commissioned the composer’s score for The Romance of the Mummy in 1924. Perhaps overshadowed by the appearance of Igor Stravinsky on the ballet scene, Tcherepnin came to have less attention. Yet his music is still very beautiful to listen to. Several links are provided below.

Revolution and wars of course tore apart more than artists’ lives.  The Tcherepnin family moved to Tblisi, in the Caucasus, in 1918 to escape turmoil,  then to Paris in 1921. But in 1941 the family was trapped in occupied Paris while they were again attempting to flee to freedom. The composer died there in 1945. However, his musical skills were passed along to his son Alexander, who lived for half a century in France then in New York had a distinguished career as a composer—passing along musical creativity to his own sons.

Le Pavillon d’Armide

Because it is not nowadays performed, a brief condensation of the plot of Le Pavillon d’Armide follows here, to offer a sense of what appealed to the Parisian public in that very first season of the Ballets Russes.

During a storm, a nobleman is given shelter by a magician, in a room hung with a tapestry depicting “Armida’s” court. The tapestry comes alive, and of course the nobleman falls in love with Armida. Come morning, all that is left of this dream is an actual scarf from the vision, and the ballet ends with the nobleman falling unconscious. The story totally captivated Benois, who developed the libretto for the resulting ballet, and wrote about the total experience in his book of reminiscences. We cannot at present see the ballet, which came to be considered rather old-fashioned, but there is a recording of the music, which by itself can still give pleasure.

notes and explorations:


There is a brief summary of the plot for Le Pavillon d’Armide in Beaumont’s Complete Book of Ballets pp. 557-59.

For more information about Nikolai Tcherepnin, his son Alexander, and grandson Ivan, go to  The Tcherepnin Society—with biographical information and links to purchase recordings.  This is a PDF autobiography of Nikolai Tcherepnin, titled Under Canopy of My Life, translated by John Ranck. On p.12 is first mention of his future father-in-law, the painter Albert Benois (brother of Alexandre).

For a very personal first-hand account of what comfortably well-off life and ballet performances and theaters were like in old Russia, highly recommended are the three books of memoirs by the painter/designer Alexandre Benois: Volume 1 Memoirs, translated by Moura Buderg with an introduction by Peter Ustinov (London: Chatto & Windus Ltd. 1960). Vol. 2 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1964). And perhaps most importantly, Reminiscences of The Russian Ballet (New York: Da Capo Press, 1977 republication of the work first published in London, 1941).

What may be most surprising are the accounts of just how much of Diaghilev’s career beginnings may have been helped by the circle of artists who had been gathered around Benois. The artist also includes an account of some of the group’s first attempt at mounting any ballet: Sylvia, which had been premiered in Paris with a score by Delibes. It didn’t happen, and the story fits in with other behind-the-scenes glimpses of how the Russian theater management operated. But most of all, these three books are unusual for the way Benois evokes scenes and events in St. Petersburg as well as his verbal portraits of individual family members, colleagues, and figures in public life during the late 19th century.

For a surprising first-hand account of how Le Pavillon d’Armide came to be, see Benois’ Reminiscences of the Russian Ballet, chapter XIII titled “A Ballet of My Own,  chapter XVI titled “Resurrection of My Ballet,” followed by chapter XVII “Rehearsals” and then chapter XVIII “Triumph of Le Pavillon d’Armide.” Concluding his account of the premiere, Benois wrote: [pp. 265-66]

It passed without a hitch. Even if the public felt a little bewildered by the unusual subject and by the fact that there were no dances in the first and third scenes…it showed its approval very distinctly. Frantic applause burst after the Buffoons’ Dance, for which Tcherepnine had devised a wonderfully provoking rhythm, and where Fokine’s talents had been superbly effective. Although it was the Buffoons’ Dance that produced the loudest shouts of acclamation, all the other numbers were greeted with thunderous applause and demands of “Encore.” At the end of the performance, although the hand of the clock was approaching 1 a.m., we, the three creators of the ballet, were loudly demanded by the public. For the first time in my life, I had the vainglorious pleasure of appearing behind the footlights. Anna Pavlovna, her arms full of the flowers she had just received, kissed me, Fokine and Tcherepnine in front of the public, while [Pavel] Gerdt, deeply moved, kept pressing my hands. Everyone was happy and pleased.

A catalogue for the 1980 London exhibition Alexandre Benois (1870-1960), Drawings for the Ballet was issued by Hazlitt, Gooden & Fox. It includes black and white drawings by Benois plus a synopsis for the following ballets: Le Pavillon d’Armide, Petrouchka, Nutcracker and Giselle. As made clear by the chronology of admirable projects, the career of Alexandre Benois as designer of theatrical scenery and costumes  included work for many theaters and companies beyond the Ballets Russes—and included not only ballets but also operas, not only in Russia, but also in several European cities. Additionally, he wrote histories of art, was a curator at the famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and continued his own work as a painter.
Some samples of the paintings and designs by Alexandre Benois. Stunning! Here are 77 more images of Alexandre Benois artwork.  images of designs for theatrical sets by Benois.

performances:  This is a lovely recording of a suite from Nikolai Tcherepnin’s Le Pavillon d’Armide, performed by the Staatsphilharmonie Rhieinland-Pfalz conducted by Igor Blashkov. This was released on a 2000 CD on the Olympia label. Another CD, on the Alliance label, is a 1994 performance by the Moscow Symphony under Henry Shek. Individual tracks can be purchased via amazon.  Suite from Le Pavillon d’Armide, St Petersburg Academy Orchestra conducted by Viktor Fedotov. Currently the CD is unavailable, so nice to have this online. This is a rare video of Cleopatre performed by Rome Opera Ballet. This ballet was on the opening 1909 Paris program of the Ballets Russes. Tcherepnin conducted the music, which was a mix of scores by him and other Russian composers: Arensky, Liadov, Rimsky-Korsakov, Taneev, Glazunov, and Mussorgsky. Fokine was the choreographer. Recording of just the music for Tcherepnin’s Narcisse et Echo, performed by the Hague Chamber Choir and Orchestra, conducted by Gennady Rozhdestvensky.

The Bamberg Symphony under Kukasz Borowicz released a CD of Narcisse et Echo.  Here is the prelude to Tcherepnin’s  work The Distant Princess, performed by the Russian National Orchestra.

Another sample of the composer’s style is a recording of Austrian horn players performing the  six quartets by Nikolai Tcherepnin, with the visual score to follow along.

And this is a video of Michael Alford, Rebekah Boos, Nathan Halberstadt, and Aaron Thomas performing in 2016. 

Nijinsky and Debussy

Recognized as the outstanding male ballet dancer of his time, Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950) also choreographed three works for the Ballets Russes in Paris: Le Sacre du Printemps, L’Après-midi d’un faune, and Jeux. Nijinsky’s choreography for Le Sacre du Printemps has already been discussed, but it bears repeating that near the end of Stravinsky’s life, the composer let it be known that he had revised his opinion and felt that Nijinsky’s setting of his score was indeed the best in comparison with other efforts to set Sacre.

The music of Claude Debussy was also important in Nijinsky’s creative efforts with the Ballets Russes. First, he famously set the extant orchestral tone-poem L’Après-midi d’un faune with himself in the lead role of the faun and women dancers including his sister Bronislava Nijinska as nymphs dressed in Grecian style gowns. The movements for all were striking in two-dimensional profiles suggestive of figures on ancient friezes. The pace of the dance is in keeping with the languid flow of the music itself. The faun watches the nymphs, eventually picks up a scarf that one of them dropped, retires atop a rock atop the scarf, and gasps in an orgastic movement. The ending was toned down in subsequent performances when Léonide Massine took over the role, after Diaghilev had been called into court in New York in 1916 precisely to prevent a scandal. So Massine simply placed the scarf on a rock and sat gazing at it as the curtain fell.

Because Diaghilev allowed no filming of the company’s performances, we know of Nijinsky’s diverse roles only through words and still photographs. However, the Joffrey Ballet and Rudolf Nureyev created and filmed a revival of L’Après-midi d’un faune based on all the information they could gather, and that can be seen now. (See notes below for information.)

* * *

Claude-Achille Debussy (1862-1918)  has come to be known as a composer of “Impressionistic” music based on unusual scales, some inspired by his hearing Javanese gamelan music at the 1899 Paris Exposition. But even from days of his studies at the Paris Conservatory, he did not take to the academic insistence on “rules” of traditional harmonies. He once explained:

I was taught that this chord must be like this and another like that. This is a case of perfect harmony, I was told, and this is not. Then, as now, I believed there was no such thing as a perfect chord. For a long time I did not want to study what I considered foolishness. Then I realized that I must at least pretend to study in order to get through the Conservatory. So I studied, but all the time I worked out my own little schemes, and whenever we were taught anything I made a note in my mind as to whether I considered it right or wrong. Don’t imagine for a moment that I told anyone of this. I kept it all to myself. Until I could give a proof of my ideas I did not care to talk of them.

Debussy was quite taken by French poetry of his time and made a number of settings for songs. But his inspiration from Stéphane Mallarmé’s L’Après-midi d’un faune had quite a different musical kind of outcome.

When the poet (at age 23) began writing this poem, on his drafts he included staging cues for a narrator and performers. He revised his poem many times over the next decade until it was finally published in 1876. Another decade after that, and Debussy read it, noticing some commonalities with a verse play about the mythological Diana (which he was thinking of setting musically). Both stories harked back to the ancient myth of Pan—the half-human, half-goat creature who pursued the nymph Syrinx. To save their companion, other water nymphs changed Syrinx into reeds at the crucial moment, so that when Pan attempted to embrace her, he found himself blowing into reeds instead, creating beautiful music which real humans copied as they fashioned instruments called panpipes. So it was appropriate for Debussy, when he orchestrated  L’Après-midi d’un faune, to begin the piece with a long languid flute solo.

But the origin of this famous work goes back to the time when the composer met the poet in person, in 1890. The following year, Mallarmé was again thinking about a staged format including his poem, and so when he and Debussy began to work on the project, the idea was for incidental music to accompany a staged reading of the poem—a kind of suite. However, what Debussy composed was a 10-minute piece simply evoking the poem, with both a full orchestral setting and a two-piano reduction. In 1894 the Debussy played his piece on the piano, alone, for Mallarmé to hear. The composer reported the poet’s reaction: “This music prolongs the emotion of my poem, and sets the scene more vividly than color!”

Debussy, always strapped for cash, sold his composition to a publisher for 200 francs (not much in those days). Then in December 1894, the work was premiered in concert. Mallarmé attended and wrote a note that he felt the music “offers no dissonance with my text, except that it goes further, truly, in nostalgia and light, with finesse, uneasiness, and richness.”

The orchestral performance was a triumph. The audience loved it so much that the orchestra departed from long-standing rules and repeated Faune in its entirety. Ever since, this has remained a popular work heard in live orchestral concerts as well as in recordings.

As to Nijinsky’s choreographic setting of Faune, according to one biographer, it “was a project Debussy would soon regret.” And concert-goers? Well, for some: “What Nijinsky did with Debussy’s beloved score has never been forgiven by many aficionados of music and ballet.” For others, however, what Nijinsky did, in this his first ballet, was astonishingly beautiful and very much in line with the flavor and soul of the music.

Another quite different setting of this score was made by Jerome Robbins for New York City Ballet’s with stars Tanaquil LeClercq and Francisco Moncion, portraying them in a bare studio, each staring at themselves in a mirror, not relating to each other visually even as they were executing dance movements. Near the end, the man kisses the woman lightly on the cheek—introducing for the first time any emotional contact; but then the antiseptic aura returns as she walks out and the man lies down on the floor and falls asleep.


Though set on a tennis court with a man and two women in modern sporting dress, Jeux is not really about the game of tennis, but rather the game of flirtation. Apparently there was some discussion about whether this could be about three men, but that idea was quickly nixed.

Diaghilev proposed the idea for this second Nijinsky ballet to Debussy in June 1912. The composer was still disgruntled about what he thought was the disgraceful first one, and said no. However, money talks, and when the impresario offered 10,000 francs, and thinking about how nice it is to eat, the composer agreed. He wrote the score in about a month, and seemed to enjoy doing so. The biographer Harvey Lee Snyder gave this surprising report:

He valued Jeux as much as any of his other compositions. And Jeux remains, in the opinion of many of those whose opinions are valued, the composer’s most important and influential orchestral score.

So this is how the commission went: contract signed June 18 specifying August 31 as due date; scenario not delivered until mid-July; piano score finished before the end of August; impresario asked for changes and additional music; composer worked on it until September 12th; end of October, eight more bars requested; December, more small changes requested. May 15, 1913, Jeux was premiered at the new Théatre des Champs-Elysées with the eminent conductor Pierre Monteux leading the performance.

What the audience saw onstage were two women socializing quietly on a tennis court, namely the dancers Tamara Karsavina and Ludmilla Shollar.  A ball rolls on; Nijinsky leaps onto the stage looking for the ball. He starts to flirt with one, with the other, then dances with one, then the other, then all together, ending in a triple kiss that Debussy found quite risqué. The composer also felt that Nijinsky had “trampled” the rhythms of his score, and poured out his frustrations in a public article:

I am no scientist and am therefore ill-equipped to talk about dancing; these days one has to be something of an anatomist to talk about this otherwise light-hearted subject. Before I wrote a ballet I had no clue what a choreographer was. Now I know: he’s a man who is very good at arithmetic….How did a simple man like me come to be involved in a story with so many repercussions? Because one needs to eat, and because one day I dined with Sergei Diaghilev, a terrible but wonderful man who could make even stones dance….

Writing many years later, Richard Buckle, in his biography of Nijinsky, offered an appreciative view of Nijinsky’s pioneering work:

Listening to Debussy’s wonderful score today, our minds boggle at how Nijinsky could have found movements—if not to match or parallel it—at least which would seem acceptable as something to watch while listening to it. It is clear that he sought a most venturesome solution….That the composer of such a score should have been so derisive of pioneering in another medium and that his derision  should be shared by both critics and the public fills us with such pity for the heroic Diaghilev and Nijinsky….

As for the music of Jeux, though it passed into shadows for awhile, when it emerged, it could evoke this opinion in 2001 from Andrew Clements writing in The Guardian. He called it: “arguably Debussy’s supreme achievement.”

Regardless of the high praise that Debussy’s music garnered among many musicians, Jeux as a ballet was soon eclipsed, for two weeks later the premiere of Le Sacre du Printemps took place. Difficult to fathom how Nijinsky worked on both ballets simultaneously, but he had indeed done that.

Jeux and Sacre were the last Nijinsky works that Diaghilev saw premiered.

After that, the dancer/choreographer went on tour to South America with the company; suddenly married the Hungarian aristocrat Romola de Pulszky in 1913; tried to start his own company without success; delighted in the birth of his first daughter; and from the outbreak of World War I until January 1916 was put under arrest with his family in Budapest as prisoners of war—during which time he worked on his new system of notating dance on paper. (This caused the military to question him at length because they suspected him of developing a code for secret war information!)

It was only through international diplomatic efforts plus arrangements with America and with Diaghilev that after two years, Nijinsky was allowed to be “lent” to the Ballets Russes for extensive tours of the United States and South America. Part of the arrangements for the second tour were that in addition to performing himself, Nijinsky was to be in charge of 65 dancers, 60 musicians, plus technical staff. As if that wasn’t stressful enough, he sprained his ankle just before the scheduled premiere of a new ballet he had choreographed to a tone poem by Richard Strauss (which will be discussed later in this essay).

After the tours and some performances in Spain, Nijinsky and his family hoped to find some respite in Switzerland, where unfortunately he began to descend into schizophrenia. His last “performance” was before a small audience, in which he used dance to express the horrors of war. He also expressed the horrors of his mental state in a diary and a series of dread-inspiring drawings.

A second daughter was born into the family, but she never saw her father dance professionally, for Nijinsky never performed in public again. He spent the last 30 years of his life in and out of mental hospitals, suffering greatly.

* * *

Subsequent to Nijinsky’s final departure from the Ballets Russe, Debussy also did not compose any more ballet music for Diaghilev.  He wrote only two other ballet scores. One was La Boîte à joujoux in 1913, for his then-seven-year-old daughter but also in agreement with a writer/illustrator of children’s books. (See the last essay, “For the Very Young” for a little more information on this. It was not performed until after the composer’s passing.)

The last Debussy piece set as a ballet during his lifetime was Printemps, originally one of his early purely symphonic scores. It had been reorchestrated by Henri Busser and became the unlikely showstopper in a 1914 smash hit revue called Not Likely in London. It is reported that there were 305 performances, seen by perhaps a half million people—making it the orchestral work by Debussy that had been heard the most during his lifetime.

Nowadays the statistic of “most heard” may belong to L’Après-midi d’un faune, in concert and on CDs. But dancers continue to be attracted to Debussy’s other music. For example, one of the most beautiful ballets created by the late Todd Bolender is The Still Point, inspired by the T.S. Eliot poem “Burnt Norten,” and set to the first, second, and third movements of Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor. This continues to be performed and is well worth seeing in live performance. Bolender choreographed it in 1955 for the Frankel-Ryder modern dance company and restaged it the next year for New York City Ballet. Among the companies performing it in the past have been Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the Kansas City Ballet. The stirring excerpt from the poem begins:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.

Debussy would probably have liked both the poem and the ballet setting of his music!

notes and explorations:                                                                                           


For an extended account of French composer Claude Debussy’s complicated life, see Harvey Lee Snyder, Afternoon of a Faun: How Debussy Created a New Music for the Modern World (Milwaukee: Amadeus Press, 2015 ). The quotation about chords is from pp. 22-23. His account of The Faun is from chapter 11, pp. 145-48; of Diaghilev and Jeux, pp. 276-280. The remark about Faune being regrettable is from p. 277; about concert-goers, p. 278. For the author’s description of Jeux  see p. 281. His quotation from The Guardian is on p. 282. The information regarding Printemps is on p. 284.

The quotations about Jeux are taken from the translation of Debussy’s article that appeared in Le Matin on May 15, 1913, as published in Debussy on Music: The Critical Writings of the Great French Composer, collected by Francois Lesure, translated Richard Langham Smith (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977) pp. 291-92.

The quotation from Richard Buckle’s Nijinsky (New York: Pegasus Books 2012 edition) p. 346.

For further dance-related information on the composer’s music, see the entry for Debussy in IED, written by Noel Goodwin.

An unusual collection of black and white photographs that Adolf de Meyer took of Nijinsky in 1912, in his own ballet, was published by Dance Books in 1983 titled L’apres-midi d’un Faune, with commentary by Jennifer Dunning.

Also see Stephanie Jordan, “Debussy, the Dance, and the Faune” in Debussy in Performance, edited by James R. Briscoe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999). The author, then professor of dance at Roehampton Institute in London, lays out a detailed study of what happens in the choreography in relation to the music, and discusses aspects of the ballet in relation to then-current aesthetic trends in visual art. Very interesting—and with no musical notation readers can follow the thoughts easily.


Though for obvious reasons there are fictional aspects, nevertheless recommended is the 1980 Herbert Ross film Nijinsky  available on an Olive Films DVD. Starring George De La Pena, Alan Bates, and Leslie Brown.   Rudolf Nureyev performing L’Après-midi d’un faune  with the Joffrey Ballet. Nureyev comes across as non-human, yet with poignant feelings. Notice the slow pace of music and movement and the way the faun walks. another mounting. Montreal Symphony conducted by Charles Dutoit performing L’Après-midi d’un faune, with the two-piano score visually moving along. Obviously just the melody lines and figuration are shown; —this is not the orchestral score, though the sounds of full instrumentation are what you hear. Very old b&w film of Tanaquil LeClercq and Jacques d’Amboise in the Jerome Robbins setting of Afternoon of a Faun.

htps:// This is the complete orchestral score of Faune. Performance is South German Philharmonic, conducted by Hanspeter Gmur. animated “score” of Faune  by Stephen Malinowski. (Same musician who did Sacre score.) Here is his website: Notes tell how this was done. A side trip: his beautiful performance plus animation of Debussy’s Arabesque #1. a very musical-sounding recitation of Mallarme’s poem, by Pierre Jean Jouve. Notated score to Jeux moving along  with performances of National Theater Orchestra of Paris, under baton of Manuel Rosenthal.

Jeux was staged by Millicent Hodson for University of North Carolina School of the Arts, conducted by John Mauceri. No, we will never be able to see Nijinsky’s “original,” but this was a clear and beautiful performance that gave us some idea of his approach. (Unfortunately, the online mounting was taken down because of copyright claims.) A very blurry film of Hodson’s revival of Jeux performed in Rome, with dancers Alessandro Molin, Carla Fracci, and Silvia Curti. Part 2:

DVD on VAI label, The Still Point choreographed by Todd Bolender, performed by Melissa Hayden and Jacques d’Amboise in 1962.  A performance of Todd Bolender’s choreography titled The Still Point, danced by Devon Teuscher and Cory Stearns of ABT, staged by James Jordan at the Vail Dance Festival August 2021. Dedicated to the memory of Melissa Hayden and Jacques d’Amboise.  Though the recording is scratchy, yet this is still beautiful to see: Melissa Hayden and Jacques d’Amboise performing The Still Point for the Bell Telephone Hour in 1962. Mounted online by John Clifford.

about the Nijinskys:

Romola Nijinsky, Nijinsky (Originally published by Simon & Schuster in 1934; available now in various Pocket Book editions. References here are from 1977 printing with a foreword by Paul Claudel). Though not mentioned in the book, of course, but acknowledged by Lincoln Kirstein subsequently was the fact that he was ghost-writer for large parts of the memoir. A good guess is for the earlier years and performances. The later chapters covering Romola Nijinsky’s life with the dancer have a very personal ring to them. In any case, the whole book is surprisingly beautifully written—very informative about performances, and emotional at the end. Romola Nijinsky wrote a subsequent book titled The Last Years of Nijinsky (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952). Buckle, in his biography, drew on this heavily as his source.

For a very extensive account, see Richard Buckle, Nijinsky: A Life of Genius and Madness (New York: Pegasus edition 2012 of the work previously published 40 years prior). Makes a nice complement to this author’s similarly detailed book on Diaghilev.

On the infamous 1905 Bloody Sunday in Russia, Vaslav Nijinsky was among those citizens attacked, and he suffered an injury to his head. Subsequently as an adult, as mentioned repeatedly by his wife in her writing, Nijinsky suffered severe headaches. All that preceded his mental illness, which was such a terrible tragedy. It does seem that a great deal of the information here was drawn directly from Romola Nijinsky’s book, but still this can provide readers with an accessible biography, including some photographs.

A pertinent  article is Brief biography of his wife. In her own memoir, Romola Nijinsky was surprisingly candid in sharing her feelings about Vaslav, it would seem to the point of obsession. She managed to arrange studio lessons for herself with the Ballet Russes master teacher Enrico Cecchetti (who warned her about wanting to get too close to Nijinsky). Subsequently, she managed to become part of the company for minor roles…and that is how it came about that she was on board the ship when Nijinsky proposed to her. She soon decided she was not cut out to be a dancer, and that the better role was taking care of her two daughters and her husband—which  obviously turned out to be a large and demanding order, but which she ultimately felt was a gift that had also brought unusual happiness into her life.

Fokine and Ravel

Some musicians consider Daphnis and Chloé to be the most important composition by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Michel Fokine the choreographer considered the ballet the most sorrowful work of his entire life. Years later after Frederick Ashton set his version for the Royal Ballet, he said: “I enjoyed almost more than anything working on Daphnis and Chloé because it was all so very very difficult and I had to dig deeply into myself to do it.”

Diaghilev the impresario indeed had reason to be wrathful about this project, even though he had commissioned the score. Not only was the composer being so slow in his writing that the premiere had to be put off more than a season; Ravel also arranged for something that just was “never done,” namely a public concert performance of extracted orchestral suites before the ballet itself was performed.

And yet Fokine said he loved the score from the first time he heard it, and he declared: “What a pleasure it was to compose dances to these unusual and at the same time natural rhythms, and how wonderful Ravel’s music sounded in orchestration!” He went on to recall:

Later, when I danced the role of Daphnis, I would lie on the stage in darkness during the Dance of the Nymphs, listening to the lengthy musical interpretation of the dawn and how, at each performance, I was entranced.

I loved Ravel’s music, and to work with it was a great joy for me. I must admit, however, that in some places I somehow felt a lack of virility which, in my opinion, was necessary for a projection of the world of antiquity. But the forceful Dances of the Pirates in the second tableau, and the final Bacchanal in the third, so greatly raised the tone of the ballet that nothing but a healthy, vital impression was left of the entire performance.

Nowadays we can enjoy this same music for ourselves—not lying on a stage floor, but sitting comfortably in a chair. There are a number of CDs available plus several fine performances that can be heard online (see notes below). This score is obviously held up for its masterful orchestration and evocation of emotional aura. The daybreak scene that Fokine found entrancing begins the Suite No.2. For now it is also possible to watch Frederick Ashton’s lovely choreographed version as mounted online.

Ashton too remarked about the music:

In working on Daphnis and Chloe I found the music so wonderful and so beautiful and so overwhelming sometimes that I felt that it was like waves that were going to submerge me, and I had great difficulty in keeping my head above it, especially in the last scene, where there’s a great deal of music—I found it difficult to match it up with movement, because it seemed to me that it was almost better to stand still.

Ashton’s biographer David Vaughan went on to report that at the moment of greatest musical climax, Ashton emptied the stage of all dancers except Daphnis and Chloe—and then everyone was back, jumping up and down and fluttering scarves as the curtain came down.

One reason Daphnis and Chloé did not find extensive productions after its 1912 premiere is simply because of the large musical forces required. A full orchestra might number as many as 80 players—and then there was the chorus. Especially during and after World War I, there had to be a lot of “belt-tightening” among theaters in general. And so among the ballet scores that found increasing favor were ones such as Stravinsky’s Apollo, which required considerably smaller forces. However, Ravel’s hour-long masterpiece has found ready audiences over the years when the two extracted suites are performed in concert halls. (See links below in the notes for some recordings which can be heard online.)

* * *

As Ravel characterized the idea that was presented to him along with a commission to compose the score, Daphnis and Chloé was a pastoral romance, based on a story attributed to the third-century Greek author Longus. The composer observed that at first, in 1909, it was difficult to collaborate with the choreographer because he spoke no French, and he, Ravel, knew only how to swear in Russian! However, when the artist Leon Bakst stepped in as go-between interpreter, the initial work went better. (And it was Bakst who later did the decor and costumes.) By 1910 the composer had completed a piano version; in 1911 he completely reworked the finale. The orchestration was major work, calling for large forces including a full chorus, but by 1912, the Paris audience finally saw the premiere starring Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina, with Pierre Monteux conducting.

Looking back in later years, Ravel explained that his intention was to compose “a vast musical fresco, less thoughtful of archaism than of fidelity to the Greece of my dreams.”

The best synopsis of the ballet is in the memoirs of Fokine himself. He had been thinking about it for about eight years, and imagined many details. Putting the story very briefly here: Daphnis is a young and naive shepherd, in love and  loved in return by Chloé. There are some wonderful dances by their friends, who bring offerings to the cave of the god Pan. Then a couple of would-be seducers introduce a bit of confusion, and even worse, some pirates arrive and abduct Chloé—who though her hands are tied, yet manages to perform a pleading dance. Suddenly the pirate crew sense something very strange and run off the stage, for Pan himself arrives to rescue Chloé. Back home among her friends, she is reunited with Daphnis, and everybody dances a finale of joy, accompanied by not only the orchestra but also the wordless chorus. Something before all that: the story of Pan’s love for Syrinx was to be enacted, accompanied by lovely flute melodies (to represent the instrument known as panpipes after the myth of how the instrument was invented). And before that, when Daphnis was lying prostrate, three nymphs danced, and it is they who interceded with Pan to rescue Chloé.

* * *

Daphnis and Chloé was not Ravel’s only composition to find favor with dancers. Perhaps the most lasting in terms of performance was Boléro, written in 1928 for Ida Rubinstein. (For more about that, see the essay on Evocations of  Spain.) Some of the pieces he originally composed for piano were subsequently orchestrated and used for ballet, including: Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) written in 1908 and Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, written in 1911.  La Valse, composed in 1920, was turned down by Diaghilev, who said it was a masterpiece but not ballet music. Nevertheless, it was choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska for Ida Rubinstein in 1929.

Some of Ravel’s concert pieces include dance forms that are by turns quite beautiful or exciting: for instance his Tombeau de Couperin, written in 1919 in memory of six friends who died in World War I,  and Tzigane in 1924.

Perhaps the most ambitious homage to Ravel by the dance world was the festival performed in 1975 by the New York City Ballet, which offered 16 ballets choreographed by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, John Taras, and Jacques d’Amboise. Among the works performed were Balanchine’s setting of Le Tombeau de Couperin and the stunning Tzigane with Suzanne Farrell’s solo. Other pieces were Robbins’ beautiful Concerto in G and the Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Un Barque sur l’Ocean, and his version of Ma Mère l’Oye. Balanchine also contributed choreography for Sonatine, L’Enfant et les Sortileges, Pavane, Gaspard de la Nuit, and Rapsodie Espagnole. John Taras had a new take on Daphnis and Chloé. And Jacques d’Amboise set Alborada del Gracioso.

notes and explorations:


Dover Publications has a full orchestral score of Daphnis and Chloé available.

The comment about the Ravel ballet being the most sorrowful is in Fokine’s Memoirs, p. 202. He included in his account how Tcherepnin’s Narcisse was put together quickly for the 1911 season. What particularly angered Fokine was the overly-efficient use of the same scenery, a similar backstage chorus, and similar characters of shepherds, shepherdesses, and nymphs. (p. 201). Moreover, there were artistic concerns: Ravel insisted on only his few measures of music for the pirates to accomplish an abduction. The comments about performing and listening are from p. 200. Nijinsky performed the role of Daphnis in the original production. Fokine took it on in 1914 and later in 1921. For a short biography of the choreographer, go to this link for the Fokine Estate Archive.  For a short biography of the composer.

For an essay titled “Greekness and myth in Daphnis and Chloé” see chapter 3 in Deborah Mawer, The Ballets of Maurice Ravel: Creation and Interpretation (London and New York: Routledge 2017 paperback of the work first published in 2006). The author is a musicologist and gives detailed scholarly accounts of Ravel’s ballets, with some notated examples. Other chapters cover Ma Mère l’Oye, Valses noble, La Valse, Le Tombeau de Couperin, Boléro, and some lesser-known works. She includes information about later mountings after the original stagings of the ballets.

Another book that tells the plot, but also with notated musical examples, is Robert Lawrence, The Victor Book of Ballets and Ballet Music (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950) pp.147-53. Balanchine and Mason’s book also describes the plot, but according to the version given by Ashton and the Royal Ballet in 1951 (pp. 162-66).

For information about how Ashton developed his version, see David Vaughan, Frederick Ashton and His Ballets, revised edition (London: Dance Books,1999) pp. 245-51. The first quotation is from p. 250, the second from pp. 248-49.

For the plot according to Fokine’s original version, see Beaumont, pp. 595-98. He even goes so far as to say of Ravel’s contribution: “The score of this ballet is musically of great importance and is regarded by competent critics as one of the finest achievements in modern French music” (writing in 1938).

performances: This is the first of nine You Tube mountings of Frederick Ashton’s setting of Daphnis and Chloé, as filmed for the BBC. As of now, it has not been released on DVD. The music, of course, makes more sense if one sees the dance. Men in modern khaki pants and plain shirts; women in costumes such as early modern dancers used to wear, but very colorful, and with pointe shoes. If the dancers don’t look like shepherds and shepherdesses from Greece, they do offer a lovely sense of community, and of young love, plus delightfully vigorous and lyric competitive male solos. Part 3 ends with the abduction of Chloé, which indeed does happen very fast—as Fokine complained of.
This is part 4 mounted by Jim Beattie for now—and the rest of the 9 sections follow. As part of their television series conducted by Gerard Schwartz, the All Star Orchestra made this video recording in 2012 of Ravel’s Suite #2 from Daphnis and Chloe. This is from the first episode, “Music for the Theatre,” which includes a brief introduction about Stravinsky and Diaghilev, followed by performance/analysis of Firebird Suite (already highly recommended).

There are CD orchestral performances of both the complete ballet and the suites. A concert performance with clear and beautiful sound, by WDR Sinfonieorchester Koln conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste, with chorus. Diaghilev at one point objected to the chorus taking up too much space onstage and had Ravel do an orchestral version—which by contract was to be used for only certain stagings. Over 32,000 people have listened to this hour-long recording online, and one commented: “Sublime!” Visually you see the instruments playing. Another recording, made in 1980 by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony and Chorus, listened to by over 326,000 listeners, many of whom posted highly admiring comments. A piano reduced score is shown visually moving along as the orchestra performance is heard.  Well, so far this is most popular: over 452,000 listeners! This performance is by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and chorus conducted by Seiji Ozawa, just Suite No. 2, beginning with the “daybreak” section that so many people, including Fokine, found so emotional. One listener wrote: “This calms my soul and reminds me of what humankind at its finest can produce!” This is a stunning performance by Suzanne Farrell of Tzigane, as choreographed by George Balanchine. Ravel composed this originally for piano and violin, then orchestrated it. A splendid performance is available on Nonesuch DVD Choreography by Balanchine, 2004.

A lovely performance by the Paris Opera Ballet of In G to Ravel’s piano concerto, as choreographed by Jerome Robbins, is on a Bel Air 2008 DVD filmed in 2008. Kyra Nichols and Sean Lavery perform the slow movement of In G as choreographed by Jerome Robbins.  performers not identified, but  lovely film of Robbins Concerto in G, the slow movement of Ravel’s beautiful work, starting with long unfolding lyrical solo piano passage, gently joined by flute then oboe then strings, as the pianist continues with a lovely filigree of moving notes. Pavane for a Dead Princess performed on piano by Philomela Eva Terwey; danced by Tanya and Julio Acevedo  and interestingly filmed with rippling water effects. A rehearsal.

A boxed CD set of the complete recorded works of Ravel is available on the Decca label.

When he recorded a CD of Ravel works in the 1990s, conductor/pianist Andrew Litton could not have foreseen that starting in 2015 he would be conducting the orchestra at New York City Ballet for their repertoire set to works by Ravel. On a Virgin Classics CD included are La Valse (which Balanchine set), the dramatic Alborada del Gracioso (set by Jacques d’Amboise), the Piano Concerto in G (which Jerome Robbins titled simply In G)—plus Boléro and Pavane. Litton conducted, and also performed as piano soloist. 

A Spectrum of Other Dances

Although Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes are noted for creative collaborations, yet for music they offered a mix of old and new. Fewer than half the ballets had original scores, though many of the others had fresh arrangements. Among these was Le Spectre de la Rose, introduced in 1911 in Monte Carlo. It was instantly  one of the ongoing favorites with audiences, originally performed by Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky, with decor and costumes by Léon Bakst.

Based on a poem by Théophile Gautier, the music used by the choreographer Michel Fokine was Introduction to the Dance, written  in 1819 by the German composer Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) for piano duet but orchestrated by Hector Berlioz in 1841. The form is that of a rondo—which means you will hear one theme reoccurring interspersed with other melodies. Weber, himself a virtuoso pianist, intended it as a concert piece rather than for ballroom dancing. And the composer had a general “story” in mind. His scenario, given in the score, went like this:

Bars 1–5: first appearance of the dancers
Bars 5–9: the lady’s evasive reply
Bars 9–13: his pressing invitation
Bars 13–16: her consent
Bars 17–19: he begins conversation
Bars 19–21: her reply
Bars 21-23: speaks with greater warmth
Bars 23–25: the sympathetic agreement
Bars 25–27: addresses her with regard to the dance
Bars 27–29: her answer
Bars 29–31: they take their places
Bars 31–35: waiting for the commencement of the dance.
The dance
The conclusion of the dance, his thanks, her reply, and their retirement.

* * *

How this piece came to be heard in theaters as accompaniment for a ballet makes an interesting story. When a production of Weber’s opera Der Freischütz was being scheduled for 1841 at the Paris Opéra, the producers asked Hector Berlioz to add a ballet in the middle. It had long been the practice to have ballets interpolated into French operas (with music not necessarily by the same composer) and in this German one, there was none. But Berlioz—who was known for his enormous and grandiose orchestrations for his own compositions—felt that he wanted to respect the late Weber and use only some of his extant music. Hence the transformation of Invitation to the Dance. Although  according to Tchaikovsky (who was in the audience) the inserted ballet itself was terrible, the music was so popular with audiences that this version began to be played in concerts…and then to be the music heard while the famous duo of Nijinsky and Karsavina waltzed onstage in Monte Carlo and on into history. Nikolai Tcherepnin conducted the premiere.

The scenario used for Fokine’s choreography continues to be used for revivals nowadays. (The original libretto for the ballet was by Jean-Louis Vaudoyer.) In the orchestration by Berlioz, the long introduction features a cello solo melody, during which a young woman, just returning from a ball, carrying a rose from the evening’s gathering, smiles and falls asleep in her armchair. A strong dotted figure begins a waltz, and the male spirit of the rose leaps in through the window. First performed by Vaslav Nijinsky, this became one of his signature roles—which we can enjoy only in still photographs.

The spirit of the rose casts a spell with his movements enticing the still-sleeping young woman to dance to the more gentle section of the waltz music. They by turns have brief solos (he with many amazing leaps) and as the romantic aura continues, they dance and float on air together then apart in classical ballet steps. At last the woman again sits in repose in her chair. The figure of the rose bends over her briefly, then leaps out the window. The cello solo is heard again. The young woman awakes, not sure what was real or a dream, and whiffs the fragrance of the real rose.

the designer

Surely one of the iconic images from the entire Ballets Russes repertoire is that of Vaslav Nijinsky as the spirit of the rose, in a costume designed by Léon Bakst.

Bakst had been among the members of the original circle of literary and artistic men gathered around Benois in St. Petersburg, and with Diaghilev, he was among the co-founders of The World of Art publications.

Born Lev Samoilovich Rosenberg in 1866 in Russia to a middle-class Jewish family, the artist died in Paris in 1924. Winning a drawing contest at the age of 12 had convinced him he should become a painter, and he studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts as a noncredit student. Subsequently he found work as a book illustrator. By 1889 the artist was able to have his first solo exhibition, and that is when he decided to change his name to Léon Bakst. He continued his studies, found employment painting portraits and as an art teacher for a Grand Duke’s children. Most importantly, that is when his association with Diaghilev began to flourish.

After the formation of the Ballets Russes, Bakst quickly became known as a designer of stunning sets and costumes, which contributed greatly to the entire “flavor” and stylistic impression of the ballets as a whole. Looking at images of his work even now, one is immediately struck by the strong sense of flow, the sensuous women, the sensational combination of colors, the detailed patterns in the textiles, and the unmistakable personal style. Among the Ballets Russes productions to which he added his talents were not only Le Spectre de la Rose, but also Cleopatra, Carnaval, Schéhérazade, Firebird, Narcisse, L’après-midi d’un faune, Daphnis et Chloé, Le Dieu Bleu, and Jeux.

During the years of such creations, Bakst lived in Europe for the reason that because he was Jewish he was not allowed to live permanently in Russia outside the Pale of Settlement.

Bakst was not the only collaborator to have altercations with Diaghilev (partly over the fact that he took on work for Ida Rubinstein when she established her own dance company). But although he left the Ballets Russes for a time, Bakst returned to design lavish sets and costumes for the London production of The Sleeping Princess in 1921.

notes and explorations:

performances:  This is Mikhail Baryshnikov and Marianna Tcherkassy performing Le Spectre de la Rose at Wolftrap. The film and sound are more clear on the Kultur DVD Baryshnikov at Wolftrap, which includes an excerpt from Coppélia and a very humorous solo, Vestris. We will never see Nijinsky’s leaps, but Baryshnikov’s 1976 performance certainly looks stunning, and his lyrical movements serve beautifully to create the character of the rose. Tcherkassy also looks enchanting  in her role. Baryshnikov dances Spectre de la Rose with Margot Fonteyn. JRH film. This is Rudolf Nureyev and Denise Jackson, taken from the Joffrey Ballet film of Nureyev’s tribute to Nijinsky (available only on VHS at this point). In his introduction, Nureyev made the point that people endlessly talk about the exiting leap at the end of the ballet. That takes only a few seconds, he pointed out; what really matters is what you do in the other nine and a half minutes! For people who can’t get enough of Le Spectre de la Rose, here’s another performance: by Nina Ananiashvilli and Faruhk Ruzimatov. They are all good, and very interesting to see how each pair of performers projects their own particular artistry.   From a Saison Russe film, another very beautiful performance.  Link to purchase the Kultur DVD of the Kirov presenting Le Spectre de la Rose and other works originally danced by Nijinsky.


Balanchine and Mason, Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, p. 575 offers us an English summary of Gautier’s poem:

A rose addresses the girl who wore it to a ball. The rose is grateful for having danced with her all evening, grateful even for death on her breast, and tells the maiden that his ghost will continue to dance, at her bedside, all night long, to express his love.

Going on to explain how the choreography of this dance was handed down [p. 576]  Balanchine and Mason reported:

Mikhail Baryshnikov first danced Le Spectre de la Rose at a performance during the first Hamburg Ballet Festival, dedicated to the memory of Nijinsky, June 22, 1975. Lynn Seymour was the girl. She had been advised on her role by Margot Fonteyn, who had known the recollections of Tamara Karsavina [from the original role]. Baryshnikov learned his role from André Eglevsky, the great premier danseur who had learned it from Fokine himself. John Percival reported to Dance and Dancers that he had never seen Baryshnikov “dance better in anything and I have never seen this role so well done….His immensely powerful leaps were done with such soft strength, and he evoked perfectly the mixture of sensuousness and romance which is the ballet’s essence.”

Nancy Goldner is then quoted, reporting in Dance News about the 1976 revival by American Ballet Theatre, also commenting on the portrayal by Baryshnikov:

He was a marvel of strength and clarity, but the fantastic aspect of his specter was that he reincarnates a historical style without looking mannered.

about the design artist:

In his entry about Bakst in the IED, V.1 p. 254, John E. Bowly commented:

There is no question that the immediate popularity of the Ballets Russes was much indebted to Bakst’s work—to his riot of colors, exotic and erotic evocations, and dynamic forms….

Bakst gave particular attention to the entire notion of costume onstage, emphasizing flexibility and liberating the dancer’s movement. Indeed, what was innovative in his costumes…was not just the elaborate sensuality of the ensembles but the real emancipation and exaggeration of the body’s rhythm. Bakst treated the dancer’s body as the principal organizational element onstage…and hence as the determinant of the costume’s expression.

Maria Tseneva, Leon Bakst: Masterpieces in Colour , Volume 2 (Create Space Publishing, 2015). Volume 1 is available through amazon kindle format.

Charles Spencer, Leon Bakst and the Ballets Russes (Academy Editions, 1995 republication of the work originally published in 1973). Biography worth reading plus over 300 illustrations and updated information presented in combination with an exhibit of the artist’s work. Chapter 4 is devoted to the Ballets Russes; chapter 9 to the Sleeping Princess, including beautiful color reproductions of the panels in which Bakst had previously depicted the story.

Another book is The Decorative Art of Leon Bakst (New York: Dover Publications 1972 republication of the work originally published by the Fine Arts Society in London, 1913). Nice color reproductions, but also amusing to browse through the flowery prose in the “Appreciation” by Arséne Alexandre and the “Notes on the Ballets” by Jean Cocteau.

online images:

Online images related to Le Spectre de la Rose and pictures by Bakst. 106 images of design art by Bakst.

Images of various performers in Le Spectre de la Rose

The Other Strauss

We tend to think of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) as the composer of terrifically difficult long tone-poems for orchestra: Don Juan, Don Quixote, Ein Heldenleben, Also Sprach Zarathustra, and Till Eulenspiegel. This last one is perhaps most famous, with its tricky horn parts. (For this we have to thank the inspiration of the composer’s father, Franz Stauss, a famous horn player in his day. The son claimed that what he wrote for Till shouldn’t have seemed difficult, because he had heard his father warm up on things like that for years.)

But in contrast to the elfish jesting of the tone-poem, for the ballet world, there is a particular sadness connected with Till Eulenspiegel. This was the last piece to which Nijinsky set his choreography, in New York on that 1916 tour. The work did not stay in the Ballets Russes repertoire, but it had 22 performances in the U.S., where audiences seemed to enjoy Till very much.  As reported by Richard Buckle:

Following the scenario of Strauss, Nijinsky had taken the little phrase on the clarinet, which is like a mocking question-mark, as the leitmotiv of Till, the German Puck, and had involved his hero in a series of skirmishes with noble ladies, learned doctors and the law. He diverged from the composer’s programme in treating the epilogue not as the people’s recollection of the dead mischief-maker, but as a hint of his immunity from hanging, like the apparition of the dead Petrouchka.

After describing the action and story in detail, Buckle went on to report about the premiere of Nijinsky’s Till:

The ballet lasted only eighteen minutes. As the curtain fell, a storm of applause greeted what was to be the last new ballet by Nijinsky to be performed on any stage, and amid the flowers the choreographer and the designer [Robert Edmond Jones] held hands and took the curtain calls together. There were fifteen in all. “C’est vraiment tres, tres heureux,” murmered Nijinsky. Even Monteux [who had opted not to conduct anything by Strauss during the war] was applauding from his box. Romola [Nijinsky’s wife] thought Till was Vaslav’s best work.

* * *

Another Strauss work was a commissioned score for the ballet La Légende de Joseph, based on the Biblical story of Potiphar’s Wife, which was premiered by Ballets Russes in Paris in 1914 with the composer himself conducting. The original plan was for Nijinsky to choreograph this work, but after Nijinsky’s marriage, Diaghilev went back to Fokine and during a five-hour phone call begged him to return—which he did, choreographing both the new Strauss score and Nikolai Tcherepnin’s orchestration of Robert Schumann’s Papillons (a piano suite from 1829 that depicted the “Butterflies” or character types at a ballroom dance).

For the Strauss work, with Nijinsky no longer around, Léonide Massine was cast in a lead role (and also became Diaghilev’s new focus).  Concerning the premiere, the régisseur Grigoriev observed:

Unfortunately [it] failed to fulfil our expectations. Strauss’s music, though interesting in itself, was not really suited to dancing; both the black and gold scene by Sert and the costumes by Bakst failed in some way to create the proper atmosphere; and Fokine had been hampered in his composition by the vagueness of the scenario, which resulted in an unconvincing plot.

Complicating the preparations for this ballet were the embroilments of personal relationships within the company. For those of us far-removed from the scene, who knows what really happened? Fokine in his memoirs tried to be understanding of the impresario’s desire to have more than one choreographer and recalled the situation just before the Strauss project:

At that time, Diaghilev was “creating” a choreographer out of Vaslav Nijinsky. The “freedom from Fokine” movement had already begun. Actually this was the fourth consecutive season of a repertoire of works by one ballet master, and the Diaghilev enterprise was standing on the firm foundation of this repertoire….

Diaghilev’s desire was understandable: not to depend on Fokine, but to create a repertoire from the compositions of various choreographers, and to unite all the ballets under his own name, as under one supreme leadership….

It would have been more just, however, not to foster the illusion that my productions were also created under his supreme leadership, and not to allow my ballets to be called “his.” Having taken from me all the productions, having taken from me the idea of the new ballet, the idea of the reformation of the art of ballet—having taken from me what I had conceived and, in fact, had already put into practice in St. Petersburg…he could have parted from me somewhat differently from the way he did in 1912.

The semi-fictionalized account represented by the popular Herbert Ross film Nijinsky suggested that it was Diaghilev who fired Fokine, bitterly let Nijinsky go on purpose, then took on the younger Léonide Massine as a companion/dancer to portray the lead role of Joseph in the Strauss ballet.

The scenario of the ballet itself is a bit complicated, but suffice it here to say that it is based on a story in the Biblical Book of Genesis about Joseph in Egypt, according to which the Egyptian Potiphar’s wife tried unsuccessfully to seduce the young Joseph, who was then imprisoned but not killed for the false accusation of rape. We all know how he then, because of his skill in explaining dreams, went on to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man—again according to the Biblical accounts.

The scenario for the Diaghilev production was considerably different, in the first place transferring the scene to 16th century Venice. When Joseph is about to be burned with heated irons, an angel appears and leads him up a staircase; and at the end, Potiphar’s wife strangles herself with her pearl necklace. Strauss’s music doesn’t seem very kinetic or very suggestive of the plot; it becomes more of a backdrop against which the dancers can do just about anything. And so it is not surprising that Fokine—who had been called in to save the day—had nothing to say about this work in his memoirs except that it marked the debut of Léonide Massine with the company.

The Herbert Ross movie suggests that Diaghilev and Nijinsky had personal altercations, and that their relationship was coming to an end anyway; and so the film made a big point of showing that when Nijinsky was on a ship to South America, Diaghilev did not send him the expected Strauss score to study.

The on-the-scene régisseur of the Ballets Russes, S.L. Grigoriev,  gave his explanation in his version of what happened in 1912:

Towards the middle of the London season, his contract having expired, Fokine left the company. His relations with Diaghilev had gone from bad to worse, and I imagine that their parting was cold in the extreme. In the course of his collaboration with our company he had composed no less than fourteen ballets, many of which became famous all over Europe and are still included in the repertoires of various organizations. He left us now deeply wounded, and received no consideration from Diaghilev….In spite of his difficult nature, the company and I myself liked and respected him. Moreover he was in his prime, and if he could have remained with Diaghilev, he would, I am sure, have created many other beautiful works. But Diaghilev was “in a hurry to live.” He was looking ahead towards fresh currents in choreography, and rather than rely on Fokine’s experience he preferred to guide Nijinsky in his lack of it. I did not, personally, believe in Nijinsky, and was sad to witness (with Fokine’s departure) the end of a glorious period in the history of Russian dancing.

Whatever really happened between the personalities in the Ballets Russes, the bare facts concerning The Legend of Joseph are that it received only seven performances in Paris; seven more in London; and no more ever again after that with the Ballets Russes.

We can never know what Fokine’s ballet about Joseph was like. But in our own time, as indicated by the rather ecstatic comments mounted online, listeners are discovering and appreciating the Strauss orchestral music by itself. (See links below.) And in 2007 a DVD was released of John Neumeier’s version which he valiantly choreographed for the Vienna State Opera Ballet.

More familiar to audiences in Richard Strauss’s compositions for ballet are his waltzes from his earlier 1911 opera Der Rosenkavalier. (For more about these, see this collection’s essay on waltzes.)

Perhaps more credit should be given to the Ballets Russes for at least trying to elicit new music for new choreography. Not everything will be a tremendous success. The Legend of Joseph was produced in a time of turmoil not only for the company but also for the world. However, after the addition of Massine to the Ballets Russes, there continued to be experiments—both successful and less so—in combining music, dance, and artistic design for scenery and costumes.

notes and explorations:


The 1980 Herbert Ross film available on DVD from Olive Films, starred Alan Bates as Diaghilev, George de la Pena as Nijinsky, and Leslie Brown as the woman who became Romola Nijinsky. As portrayed in some sources, she was an unlikely, even overbearing woman, at best unrealistic. But as portrayed in the film, she was sincere and indeed, in real life, Romola was the one who had to deal with Nijinsky’s mental illness, and support him and their daughters at the same time for thirty years amidst some very real political and war situations.  As part of that effort to earn money, she wrote her own memoir published in 1935. For the film, John Lanchbery adapted and conducted the music.  The noted film critic Vincent Canby pretty much panned the Herbert Ross film. Offers some perspective on what were the facts and what departed from the known.  This is the orchestral score for The Legend of Joseph, with the audio performance by the Dresden Staatskappelle conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli and also a synopsis of the story. The sounds are attractive immediately; but it is hard to imagine what the Ballets Russes did with the entire piece. The ending certainly was not guaranteed to send the audience away happy into the night.
This is another purely orchestral recording. The online listeners seemed to think it quite beautiful. By the Tokyo Symphony conducted by Hiroshi Wakasugi.

John Neumeier’s Legend of Joseph for the Vienna State Opera Ballet is available on a Deutsche Grammophon 2007 DVD. Starring Judith Jamison, Kevin Hagen, and Franz Wilhelm. Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser. In her autobiography Dancing Spirit, [pp. 177-188] Judith Jamison gives a  description of her experience in that version.

In his liner notes for the DVD, Neumeier relates how he too found the score “inaccessible.” Mainly, as we can sympathize with: “The discrepancy between the content and the medium always seemed to me too great.” About the 1914 ballet, he felt the libretto was a bit ridiculous to have the angel come, and that the stylistic resources used were already behind the times precisely because of Nijinsky’s previous ballets. Yet he felt respect for tradition and took on the project, replacing the too-many mime scenes with dance. Also he commented: “A tale of attempted seduction and resistance does not provide material for a whole evening,” and so his choreography sought to emphasize what would be Joseph’s mission after  the scenes in the ballet. But yes, there is an angel, who also has an important dance role.  The lead roles are danced splendidly by Judith Jamison, Kevin Haigen, Karl Musil, and Franz Wilhelm. It would be fascinating to hear what a contemporary composer would set to this same choreography, because the music by Strauss just doesn’t sound very convincing. This is one of a few short clips from the Hamburg Ballet performances of Josephslegende. Clip of Davide Dato dancing and discussing his lead role with the Vienna State Ballet, including comments on the music.


Fokine’s version of the break is on p. 202 of his Memoirs of a Ballet Master.

Grigoriev’s account of the break is on p. 71 of his book The Diaghilev Ballet 1909-1929 , translated Vera Bowen (Hampshire: Dance Books 2009 republication of the original 1953 work). Grigoriev’s report about the Strauss work is on p. 98. It is well-known that Grigoriev disliked Nijinsky very much; noteworthy that he called Nijinsky’s Till a “failure” which it obviously was not (and which he himself had not seen).

A long chapter about The Legend of Joseph is included in Wayne Heisler Jr., The Ballet Collaborations of Richard Strauss (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2009). On p. 48 he gives his personal overall assessment: “Indeed, Josephslegende has a legacy of failure, and for reasons that cannot be isolated to either the choreography or the libretto or the music alone. In short, this ballet-pantomime was a collective failure.”

An entirely different setting was choreographed by George Balanchine for the Royal Danish Ballet, in 1930.

The refusal of the conductor Pierre Monteux to conduct Nijinsky’s 1916 performances of his ballet set to Till by Richard Strauss during World War I had to do simply with the fact that the composer was German—not with any political intent in the music itself, which obviously was created long before the war.

The works by Strauss which are highlighted in this website include Till Eulenspiegel composed as a tone poem in 1895 and choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky in 1916 as his last ballet; the opera Rosenkavlier composed in 1911; Joseph’s Legend commissioned by Diaghilev and premiered in May 1914 just before World War I started in July; and the full-length ballet score Schlagobers written after World War I, 1921-22. (For this last ballet, see Whipped Cream as described in chapter 17.)

Till and the end of Nijinsky’s career:

In Cyril Beaumont’s book (p. 644) he reprints the first-hand report  by Carl Van Vechten about Till Eulenspiegel:

In arranging the scenario, Nijinsky followed in almost every detail Wilhelm Klatte’s description of the meaning of the music, which is printed in programme books whenever the tone-poem is performed, without Strauss’ authority, but sometimes with his sanction. Nijinsky was quite justified in altering the end of the work, which hangs the rogue-hero, into another practical joke. His version of this episode fits the music and, in the original Till Eulenspiegel, Till is not hanged but dies in bed. The keynote of Nijinsky’s interpretation was gaiety. He is utterly picaresque as the work itself.

The quotation about the clarinet etc. in Till Eulenspiegel is from Buckle’s biography Diaghilev (New York: Atheneum, 1979) pp. 316-17.

Robert Edmond Jones was stage designer for the New York performance of Till Eulenspiegel and wrote an account of his experiences doing this, for Dance Index in 1945. An excerpt was included in Robert Gottlieb’s Reading Dance (New York: Pantheon, 2008) pp. 920-929. In it, Jones is quoted as saying that the ballet’s premiere  “was an instant success.” Before that, there were many challenges, including accidents of Nijinsky falling and injuring himself during rehearsals. But recalling the curtain calls, Jones wrote:

Then the triumph, and the  cheering, like the clamor of great bells—now rapturous, now softening, now melting—and the mountains of flowers, and the curtain calls that seemed to never end. Nijinsky and I bow together, hand in hand. He is all smiles. As the curtain sweeps upward for the last time he murmurs once more, “C’est vraiment très, très heureux.” [p. 929]

Richard Buckle wrote Nijinsky: A Life of Genius and Madness (Pegasus Books: 2012 edition of the work first published in 1978), and  p. 447 also has a quotation about the curtain calls for Till. Buckle drew on many sources to offer a more balanced portrait than some former accounts, and he was able to check on many facts and talk to various people who knew Nijinsky toward the end of his life.

Buckle evokes a daunting impression of the second U.S. tour (following the first 40-week tour plus a 3-week New York City engagement). Not only performances, but social receptions, and Nijinsky in charge of some 65 dancers plus 60 orchestra members plus technical crew, for four months, traveling (to mention just some cities): Providence, New Haven, Baltimore, Bridgeport, Worcester, Hartford, Springfield, Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, Washington D.C. (in front of the President); Columbia, Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas, Tulsa, Wichita, Kansas City, Des Moines, Omaha, Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Francisco (for 2 weeks); Portland, Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, Birmingham, Knoxville, Nashville, Louisville, Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit, Toledo, Grand Rapids, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Albany.

For reports of these tours and details about the Till performances, a book that is hard to find at a reasonable price, but perhaps in libraries, is Nesta Macdonald, Diaghilev Observed by Critics in England and the United States 1911-1929 (New York: Dance Horizons; London: Dance Books Ltd. 1975).

The company led by Nijinsky made a further tour of South America, with a final performance in Montevideo—a fundraising gala to benefit the Red Cross. As described briefly in previous notes, after short time in Spain, the Nijinskys went to Switzerland, where the dancer succumbed to mental illness and never performed on the stage again.

Lincoln Kirstein, Nijinsky Dancing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975). This can still be found second-hand and is a treasure worth acquiring. Though he never saw Vaslav Nijinsky perform, yet Kirstein (later co-founder of New York City Ballet) had many conversations with people close to him—including Marie Rambert (who had worked as a a kind of assistant in rehearsals for The Rite of Spring) and Romola Nijinsky, for whom Kirstein became amanuensis/ghost writer for large sections of Romola’s biography of her husband. The author includes interesting information such as that Vaslav Nijinsky’s uncle was a clown in a circus (pertinent to the dancer’s own portrayal of Petrouchka).

The oversized book consists of Kirstein’s elegant preliminary essays about ballet in Russia before the career of Nijinsky, plus extensive commentaries accompanying the large sized photographic images of the dancer in many roles. The photographs, most of them from a collection that had been donated to the New York Public Library, are for the most part extraordinarily clear and constitute an important documentation of Nijinsky’s art, since no film was ever made of him in action.

And a review when Kirstein book was new, by Dale Harris: Kyra Nijinsky (the dancer’s older daughter)  interviewed by Dame Margot Fonteyn. Brief but very touching conversation about Nijinsky.

Photographs of the Nijinsky family.

DVD: Nijinsky,  a ballet by John Neumeier, available on C Major label, filmed in 2017. A complicated but fascinating performance precisely because of the virtuoso dancing by Alexandre Riabko and the entire cast of the Hamburg Ballet. Offers deeply emotional modern choreography with suggestive insertions of moves and poses that we recognize as probably from Nijinsky’s own performances and choreography—as well as from his sister’s dances.  Sets out to explore both the outer world experienced by this great dancer, plus suggestions of what might have been some of the horrors of his “inner” world. Of course we can never know what caused the artist’s schizophrenia, but we can identify with the concept that the cruelty of World War I was extremely more insane—and that is what Nijinsky was apparently trying to convey in his last “dance” before a private audience.  The double-disc set includes an interview with John Neumeier. Not for tame viewers! A sad but informative article, though obviously unable to offer definite diagnosis explaining causes of Nijinsky’s schizophrenia, is “One hundred years ago: Nijinsky and the origins of schizophrenia” by Emile Fernandez-Egea in Brain, A Journal of Neurology, 2019. 

A most heart-breaking account of Nijinsky’s life and descent into madness (as documented by his diary) was written by Joan Acocella, “Secrets of Nijinsky” in The New York Review of Books, January 14, 1999 issue (available for purchase online).

Joan Acocella also wrote the very informative entry for Nijinsky in the IED.  She reports that Till was enthusiastically received by both the New York audience and the press and includes a b&w picture of Nijinsky in one of the “merry pranks” of Till. She also offers a wonderful quotation from Cyril Beaumont concerning Nijinsky’s musicality:

He did not so much dance to the music;
he appeared to issue from it.
His dancing was music made visible.

Satie: Parade

Still in the midst of 1917 wartime, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes presented in Paris a light-hearted work that involved the collaboration of choreographer Léonide Massine, composer Erik Satie, writer Jean Cocteau, and painter Pablo Picasso (for both scenery and costumes). It is occasionally performed and continues to seem quite avant-garde and charming. (One revival was by the Joffrey Ballet in 1973.) The cubist style settings are artful, and two of the “costumes” are made of skyscraper boxes and other objects, so that all you see dancing are feet. Parade was meant to be a comical suggestion of characters waiting outside a sideshow at an amusement center—including a strange French manager smoking a pipe, a Chinese conjuror, a New York manager made of skyscrapers, an American girl with a bow on her head, a fantastic horse that dances in silence with its feet syncronized, and two acrobats—male and female—who do a tricky pas-de-deux. At the end, all the characters return for a kind of extended curtain call. A wonderful film made at a 2007 festival in France can be viewed online as well as a very brief Joffrey clip. (See link below.)

The original idea was Cocteau’s, and he persuaded Satie and Picasso to join him as collaborators. Massine apparently felt that “the music was supreme.” If you notice odd sounds while watching this ballet—yes, those really are sirens and typewriters, added by Cocteau to the dismay of the composer himself. The gunshot sounds are supposed to suggest cops and robbers in American movies that the little girl might have seen. But Satie composed the quasi-American dance tunes for her and the quasi-Chinese music to accompany the conjuror’s tricks. If you want to know what else is in the score proper, you can watch it online as you listen to the music. (See link below.)

Erik Satie (1866-1925) had never composed for ballet before Parade. He was an avant-garde composer described by music historians as being associated with “Les Six” composers in Paris at the time: Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc, and Darius Milhaud. The last two also had music used for Ballets Russes works, and will be mentioned briefly.

the choreographer

As indicated in the Strauss information, Léonide Massine (1896-1979) was brought into the Ballets Russes originally as a young dancer to portray the role of Joseph in The Legend of Joseph. Subsequently, Diaghilev encouraged Massine to start choreographing. His first produced work was Le Soleil de Nuit to extant music from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden. Again drawing from extant music, his ballet The Good-Humored Ladies was set to orchestrations of music by Domenico Scarlatti. After Parade, which was obviously a real collaboration, his next successes were La Boutique Fantasque (to delightful music by the opera composer Rossini, arranged and orchestrated by Ottorino Respighi) and the popular Three-Cornered Hat to the music by Manuel de Falla. (For more on this, see the essay on Evocations of Spain.) Subsequent choreography for the Ballets Russes included Le Chant du Rossignol adapted to music from Stravinsky’s existing opera; Pulcinella to Stravinsky’s score based on themes by Pergolesi; and Chout to music by Prokofiev.

Massine left Ballets Russes in 1921. He started his own company to tour South America; settled in London to start a ballet school, but later returned to Ballets Russes for a time. In 1929 he moved to the United States, entering into a very demanding more commercial schedule at the Roxy Theater in New York, where he staged and performed shows. A notable production at the Metropolitan Opera House, however, was his 1930 staging of The Rite of Spring with Martha Graham in the role of the Chosen One.

Subsequently working with both de Basil’s Ballets Russes and as artistic director for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Massine’s settings of symphonic works such as his Les Presages to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 and especially his Choreartium to Brahms Symphony No. 4 raised eyebrows among musicians. Massine joined Ballet Theatre in 1942 and for years after, he continued to lead a very busy life in the dance world as both a prolific choreographer and an outstanding character dancer. With a view to passing along what he knew, Massine wrote both a textbook on choreography and his memoirs. Additionally, it should be noted that the extensive touring he did with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in both Europe and around the United States was important in generating audience enthusiasm for new ballets.

His biographer, Leslie Norton, documented both the unique character of Massine’s dancing and his enormous output as a creator of new dances, observing in summary:

As a choreographer, Massine’s versatility made him perhaps the most representative choreographer of the twentieth century. He used a vast range of subjects and rarely treated them superficially. His character ballets dealt with vivid, unforgettable individuals, not stereotypes. His symphonic ballets revolutionized choreography and the relation of dance to music.

Even today, Parade continues as a landmark among modern styles of ballet, particularly for the collaboration of its creative artists.

notes and explorations:


Parade can be seen on You Tube, a film of a live performance given at Europa Danse festival in 2007, remounted by Susanna Della Pietra and supervised by Lorca Massine.  Excellent film!  Follow-along score of  Parade by Erik Satie, with Minneapolis Symphony conducted by Antal Dorati. For a delightful sample of Massine’s work with the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, here is the 1941 film The Gay Parisian (Gaité Parisienne­) in full color as produced by Warner Brothers starring not only Léonide Massine, but also Frederic Franklin and outstanding cast. Most enjoyable sample of Massine as both choreographer and character dancer, with classical ballet dancers on pointe. Musical collage of extracts from Jacques Offenbach’s operas was very effective, as orchestrated by Manuel Rosenthal.

For another saved performance, notably Massine both choreographed and danced the part of the Shoemaker in the now-classic 1947 film The Red Shoes with music composed, arranged, and  conducted by Brian Easdale. (Except for the ballet section, which was performed by the Royal Philharmonic conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.) The restored digital version available on both DVD and Blu-Ray on the Criterion Collection is highly recommended. Moira Shearer had the lead role as both leading actress and ballerina, and she was partnered by Robert Helpman, who choreographed the ballet (except for the Shoemaker). 

Two striking ballets set to Satie’s calm music are the Monotones I and II available on Opus Arte DVD The Frederick Ashton Collection, vol. 1. Against plain dark backdrop, one ballet is set for two women and one man; the other, for one woman and two men. The music is by Erik Satie—his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes, with surprisingly, some orchestrations by Claude Debussy and Roland-Manuel, plus some arrangements by John Lanchbery. Just lovely! Three-minute excerpt of Monotones II performed by Edward Watson, Marianela Nunez, and Nehemiah Kish.


The quotation about Massine’s opinion is from Balanchine and Mason, 101 Stories of the Great Ballets, p. 292.

In 1975 Robert Joffrey was interviewed about the revival of Parade, with a view of rehearsal with Massine (in the PBS American Masters series).

It should be noted that nowadays among the favorite piano pieces that dancers like to hear are the Gymnopedies by Erik Satie. Also, that the complete works of Satie are available in a boxed set on the Erato label.

The late Frank W. D. Ries wrote an entire book on The Dance Theatre of Jean Cocteau (Binsted, Hampshire: Dance Books, 2014). On p. 53 he quotes the critic Clive Barnes, after a 1973 performance of Parade, calling it a ballet of “dazzling triviality.” A telling observation!  Ries provided enormous detail about how Parade came to be.

For further information about Massine, see the entry in IED written by Lisa A. Fusillo.

Also brief bio.

Leslie Norton, Léonide Massine and the 20th Century Ballet (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2004). Provides information not only about Massine’s career, but also for each of his important works: the choreography, the sets, the music, the reception at the time, and comments about how it is viewed now. Parade is covered pp. 35-46. For his mounting of Sacre, see pp. 85-90; for Gaité Parisienne, pp. 198-204; Le Tricorne, pp. 61-68. Highly recommended. p. 313 the author sums up: “As a choreographer, Massine’s versatility made him perhaps the most representative choreographer of the twentieth century.”

Massine’s memoir is Massine: My Life in Ballet (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968).

Also see Vincente Garcia-Marquez, Massine: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1995).  Excellent overview article by Anna Kisselgoff, about Massine’s major works and career as a dancer.

Jack Anderson, The One and Only: The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (Alton: Dance Books, 1981). See especially  Chapter 3, “Massine and His Ballets.” A detailed account of the company’s formation and years and years of touring that sparked so much interest in ballet all around the U.S.

Also recommended is Vicente García-Marquez, The Ballets Russes: Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo 1932-1952 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990). Includes detailed descriptions of all the ballets that Massine choreographed for that company, with many photographs and coverage of press reactions. A very detailed chronological history that certainly highlights the accomplishments of Massine. The business end and names of three ballet companies can be very confusing. This gives a good succinct explanation of what happened after the folding of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The Massine estate’s listing of select Massine ballets, with links to videos that can be viewed online, including very rare and unusual footage of some of the “symphonic” ballets. Jack Anderson called Choreartium a “treasure” when revived in 1991.

Poulenc: Les Biches

The title doesn’t translate the way you might think it does! “Biche” in French means “doe” as in female deer. Some prefer to subtitle the ballet “The House Party” since it focuses on flirtatious young women.  Anyway, the ballet with music by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) and choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, was premiered by the Ballets Russes in 1924. It was popular in its time, and the choreographer was invited to revive it for the Royal Ballet in 1964.

Poulenc was among the French composers who came to be called “Les Six” (along with Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud and Germaine Tailleferre), though their styles were different. Prior to Les Biches he had collaborated with Honegger, Milhaud, Auric, and Tailleferre on the theatrical farce Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel produced by the Ballets Suédois.

When Diaghilev approached the composer, he suggested a score based on Glazunov’s romantic style, but Poulenc instead had a preference for taking Watteau paintings as his inspiration. The full score had the following movements: rondeau; chanson dansée, adagio, jeu, rag-mazurka, andantino, chanson dansée, finale. The music is quite well-made and pleasant, and though it is impossible to know how much the linked film resembles Nijinska’s original choreography (especially since several of the “costumes” are plain practice leotard instead of pretty dress as in original and sports shorts) yet there are clear relationships to the music.

Basically, there is a group of sophisticated young women who swirl around three men who show off their athletic prowess, and there are various flirtations during dances.  Poulenc regrouped some of the ballet music into a suite for orchestra alone, and this can be heard on CDs.

In 1929 Nijinska choreographed another ballet score by Poulenc, Aubade, which was subsequently set by Balanchine and has been revived by other choreographers. The composer’s light style was appreciated for several other ballets, and for his children’s work with narrator and piano, L’Histoire de Babar. This last was subsequently orchestrated and has been set occasionally for children’s ballet programs.

Known earlier in his life as an accomplished pianist (taught by his mother), Poulenc composed both solo pieces and larger ensemble works and concertos for piano. Known particularly for his melodious solo songs, he also wrote sacred choral music. Later his serious religious opera Dialogues des Carmelites received major performances. And for his original version of Les Biches, Poulenc had included three choral sections. The unseen offstage singers were intended to provide commentary about the onstage action. Subsequently in 1940 the composer revised the orchestration, and in 1948 he also made a suite without the overture or choral sections.

notes and explorations:

performances: This is a 15-minute film from the Ballets Russes Festival in Rome in 2009, with Les Biches restaged by Howard Sayette. The Rome Ballet was directed by Carla Fracci. The version with singers.  A tempting trailer of Royal Ballet 1999 production, ballerina in chic 1920s fashion with cigarette holder. Audio-only recording of  Les Biches. Philharmonia Orchestra under George Pretre, with Ambrosian Singers. Original CD on EMI label available used, or purchase sections as MP3 downloads via amazon.

An older CD on London label: Charles Dutoit and Orchestre National de France perform Le Biches, Aubade, and other ballet music by Poulenc.

Erato label has a boxed set of Poulenc’s complete works, including the ballet music.

information: As with all their articles, unattributed but nevertheless gives quite a bit of information about this Poulenc/Nijinska ballet, including brief description of each musical section. Finally, this is quite a lengthy biography of the composer himself.

Baird Hastings wrote the entry for Poulenc in the IED.

In the New Grove entry on the composer, author Myriam Chimènes made the interesting comment that “A number of Poulenc’s dramatic works deal with the inconsequential, if not the downright absurd,” which may explain why we don’t see his ballets produced often nowadays. However, his art songs and the opera Dialogues des Carmelites are still performed and noted especially for their melodiousness.

In her book Diaghilev Observed, p. 305, Nesta Macdonald gives what she considers an unsatisfactory translation of the choral words, and suggests that Poulenc probably wrote the French words himself since they mesh so closely with the music. Here is a summary:

Chanson Danse—Youth asks what is love, and Experience replies “love is a trap—love is like a cat that puts out a soft paw to caress, and then without warning—out come the claws. Beware of Love!

Jeu—The song is a parental grumble. Four daughters to get married off—one is reminded of Jane Austen!

Petite Chanson Dansée—a song of courtship, of bouquets, of kisses, of impending marriage….It seems a pity to leave them out when the composer wished them to be sung.

For further information about the creation of Les Biches see Lynn Garafola, La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern (Oxford University Press, March 2022) chapter 6. For information about Nijinska’s restaging late in her life for the Royal Ballet, see pp. 462ff; for her restaging for the Center Ballet of Buffalo, see pp. 477ff.

Milhaud: Le Train Bleu

This was also among the “avant-garde” ballets of Ballets Russes. Produced in 1924 with music by Darius Milhaud, choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, costumes by the fashion designer Coco Chanel, and a curtain by Pablo Picasso. It was based on a scenario by Jean Cocteau—whose opinion was that “Le train bleu is more than a frivolous work. It is a monument to frivolity!”

There is no train in sight; instead, this is a beach that was the destination of the train, and a bunch of sporty types. Among the inspirations was the role portrayed by Anton Dolin, who was a leading dancer in classical ballet, but who also practiced gymnastics. And Nijinska herself portrayed the ballet’s tennis star.

The scenario  went something  like this:

Scene: Women in bathing attire and pointe shoes, and one man in bathing attire doing acrobatic tricks at a beach-side pavilion, followed by others offering tennis, golf, fencing, swimming, and other suggestions of sports indulged in by the leisure class (who would have traveled by the famous “train bleu” to the coast of France for holidays).

That’s it. A lot of spoofs to make fun of “chic” doings of the leisure classes of the time. The ballet seems today a bit of fluff. The music goes along cheerfully enough, partly conjuring up the stuff of music hall revues.  There seems to be a suggestion of Wagner, a snappy galop and other light-hearted music, but including a lyrical section for the pas de deux, then  a wild fugue-like frenzy near the end. This was not the most outstanding of the composer’s ballets, but it certainly entertained audiences in its day. He wrote it between February 15th and March 5th (and it was premiered on June 20th 1924) after having composed another ballet, Salade, between February 5th and 20th. The composer conducted performances of Le Train Bleu in both Monte Carlo and London.

A brief impression of the score was given by Paul Collaer in his book on  Milhaud, after with all good will calling Le train bleu the composer’s most superficial composition:

After a calm, sunny opening, reminiscent of Verdi, there is a series of French operetta numbers, typically shallow….Milhaud imitates the light-opera style, except that here and there he suddenly goes off in the direction of a perfectly delightful modulation, makes a little detour to include some silky tune, and ends up by creating quite a nice piece of music. Take, for example, the duet between Beau-Gosse and Perlouse: it starts in the chansonette style of Yvain and all of a sudden develops into a concerto grosso, the verses being performed by groups of solo instruments, while the refrains are taken up by the tutti. Each verse has a slightly different twist of tonality. There is also a waltz, first appearing unobtrusively in the winds, then played with full vigor by the strings. In the middle of it, the melody suddenly disappears, but the rhythmic accompaniment continues, first on the dominant, then on the tonic, and in a few moments the dance tune starts again as if it had never stopped. A door has been closed for a minute, then reopened. These are the ballet’s redeeming details.

Viewers of the ballet can experience all this for yourselves. (See notes for link.)

the composer

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was born in Aix en Provence, but left France with his wife and son in 1940 because he was among Jews whom Nazis were after. (During the occupation, his mother suffered 70 Germans in her home, with the Gestapo coming nightly. By war’s end, Milhaud said a nephew and 20 cousins and other relatives had been killed in concentration camps.) Coming to the United States, he was invited to teach at Mills College. After 1947 he alternated years at the Paris Conservatory with summers at the Aspen Institute in Colorado. Retiring in 1971, the composer spent his last years in Switzerland, passing away in 1974.

Although crippled up by arthritis for much of his adult life, Milhaud yet titled the revised edition of his autobiography Ma Vie Heureuse (“My Happy Life”). Beginning as a child he had studied violin and already started composing, going on to complete formal studies at the Paris Conservatory. He mastered European traditions, and eventually among Milhaud’s ballet scores would be Salade, an arrangement of 17th and 18th-century Italian music, choreographed by Massine.

As a leading French composer, Milhaud developed his own styles. Interestingly enough, a major impact on his musical career was the post he held as attaché to the poet/ambassador Paul Claudel at the French Embassy in Brazil, 1917-19. The two men collaborated on a ballet titled L’Homme et son désir, which was premiered in Paris by the Ballets Suédois with scenario and choreography by Jean Börlin.

In Brazil Milhaud had been captivated by the music of Ernesto Nazareth and other popular composers, and he was inspired to write Le Boeuf sur le toit (“The ox on the roof”), hoping it might make a good soundtrack for a Charlie Chaplin film. That did not happen. But into Le Boeuf  Milhaud had incorporated many of the Brazilian melodies he had heard, alternating them with an original theme to make a rondo form. As in many of his pieces, one technique that gives a distinct and cheerful flavor to this score is the way he used polytonality (playing in several keys at once). Then there are the rhythms that have such a kinetic impact for dancers! Cocteau concocted a theatrical work using Milhaud’s score, set in a Prohibition-era bar, featuring acrobats and clowns. The ballet was such a success that a nightclub was named after it, and Le Boeuf  became among the most popular of the composer’s vast output of over 440 works.

Also inspired by Milhaud’s South American time was his suite of piano dances Saudades do Brasil (“Memories of Brazil”). Another New World influence for Milhaud was hearing jazz in New York’s Harlem in 1922. The next year he wrote his ballet score for La création du monde (“The Creation of the World”) with a libretto by Blaise Cendrars.  This too was premiered in Paris by Börlin and the Ballets Suédois, and was later set by Agnes de Mille as Black Ritual.

Milhaud wrote other ballet scores in later years—including Les Songes in 1943 for the ballerina Tamara Toumanova, choreographed by George Balanchine. Additionally his wide-ranging output included an opera to commemorate the 3,000th year of the Biblical King David and the founding of Jerusalem; an opera about Christopher Columbus; film scores; songs, symphonies, piano solos and duos, as well as chamber works for different instrumental combinations. Among the many surprises in Milhaud’s listings are his musical setting of an agricultural equipment catalog and an arrangement of Le jeu de Robin et Marion, which was introduced here in the first essay, on medieval music!

notes and explorations:


Kultur DVD Picasso and Dance has Le Train Bleu as performed by Paris Opera Ballet.  Dallas Neo-Classical Ballet’s performance of Le Train Bleu  in 2015. With orchestral sound accompaniment. Especially interesting to see is the way Nijinska choreographed traditional “pas de deux” partnering for the female tennis player and the male swimmer who shows off by flexing his muscles. And some very funny moments with the swimmer and her golfer partner.  a 2009 orchestral performance of Le Boeuf  in Montreal with dancer/entertainers in the forefront of stage. Part II.   Alondra de la Parra and Orchestre de Paris. A better purely musical performance.  A suggestion of what Milhaud’s initial vision of a Charlie Chaplin film might have been! He dances near the end!

EMI issued a remastered CD of Leonard Bernstein conducting the Orquesta Nacional de Francia in La Creation du Monde,  Saudades do Brasil and Le Bouef sur le toit.

Warner Classics has issued a 10-CD set of Milhaud’s works, titled “Une vie heureuse.” This is a two-piano score of Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit, moving along as you hear orchestral performance. brief information about the original ballet, with poster illustration of the real blue train.  Article written y Georg Predota. Also included is 5-minute clip of unidentified dancers in revival performance, beginning with the female tennis player—an ingenious choreography that mixes classical ballet with real tennis moves. She is then joined by the swimmer (who obviously is quite “full of himself”), and they do a pas-de-deux. Next the golfer enters…and after a few golfing moves, that unfortunately is the end of the clip. Go to the Kultur DVD for the whole thing.  Not a ballet, but a fantastic work by Milhaud, for two pianos four hands: Scaramouche, as delightfully performed by Youngsil Kim and Hyelim Oh in Seoul, 2016. Guaranteed to make you feel like dancing—or maybe even get up and do so! Another piece influenced by Brazilian musical rhythms.


For further information about the original creation of Le Train Bleu see Lynn Garafola, La Nijinska: Choreographer of the Modern (Oxford University Press, 2022) chapter 7 “Le Train Bleu and It’s Aftermath.” On p. 188 the author quotes comments about the reception of its performance in London—for which the composer also served as conductor. “Audiences and critics loved it,” she observes, going on to report 21 curtain calls! In the press, critics used such descriptions as “extraordinarily amusing and clever…brilliant use of the various athletic movements…refreshing as a breath of sea air.” This is a very interesting and informative article by Gay Morris from The New York Times about a revival of Le Train Bleu “after” the choreography of Nijinska, as mounted by the Oakland Ballet, reconstructed by Frank W.D. Ries and Irina Nijinska.  A collection of images, some related to Le Train Bleu. Of most interest are the images of the Picasso painting of two giant women, which was the curtain for the ballet. Diaghilev wanted to sell it.  More images of Picasso’s work for Le Train Bleu.

The autobiography by Darius Milhaud was originally translated as Notes Without Music (New York: Knopf, 1953). He revised it in 1972 titled Ma Vie Heureuse, translated as My Happy Life (London and New York: Marion Boyars, 1995). Especially pertinent is chapter 20, “Ballets,” pp.117-125.

Paul Collaer, translated by Jane Hohfeld Galante, Darius Milhaud  (San Francisco: San Francisco Press, 1988). The author was a long-time friend of the composer, but had never been to the United States himself. The book is not a biography, but rather offers  examinations of some of Milhaud’s compositions, with notated excerpts. Perhaps the most helpful part is the listing of works by genre, compiled with the assistance of Madeleine Milhaud, including dates of composition and premieres, conductors, choreographers, and commission information as well as instrumentation and publishers. For ballets, see pp. 320-24. For discussion of the best-known ballets see pp. 63-79.

One of the interesting comments made by Collaer (p. 64) was that in France “it became rather fashionable to create a scandal any time a new Milhaud work was performed.” It seems that at the premiere of L’homme et son désir, the catcalls of the audience actually drowned out the music. Apparently Milhaud found his American public quite different, glad to say!

The quotation from Cocteau about Le train bleu appears in translation in Collaer, p. 79.

In case you are wondering who Yvain was:,_the_Knight_of_the_Lion

Some of Milhaud’s 19 ballets not mentioned in the above essay in chronological order:

For Cocteau’s Les mariés de la tour Eiffel—several movements.
La bien-aimée, for Ida Rubinstein.
Suite provencale, for Ballets Opéra Comique
Moïse, for Ballet Theatre.
Les Cloches, for Ruth Page.
Adame miroir, for Roland Petit.
La rose des vents, for Roland Petit.

And there were others. Milhaud was a very prolific composer! This is among the most extraordinary research on one piece ever! Daniella Thompson introduces and analyzes every single tune in Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf sur le toit, showing where he borrowed the tunes from, plus information about the other composers. For some musicians, this has raised the questions about “quoting” the melodies of copyrighted music. Just how much can you do and avoid legal suits?  A long and informative obituary of Milhaud in The New York Times, June 25, 1974. Mills College has an archive of public material from the composer’s years teaching there.

The dance historian/artist Frank W. D. Ries offered perhaps more details than most people would want to know about the gnarled creation of Le train bleu, in his book The Dance Theatre of Jean Cocteau (Binsted: Southwold House: Dance Books Ltd. edition of the work first published in 1986). See chapter 5. And on p. 93 he suggests: “Cocteau’s involvement with Le train bleu, almost to the point of interference, was greater than Cocteau had ever dared before with Diaghilev.”

About the score, Ries wrote:

The music Milhaud produced is not profound, just as it was intended. Milhaud created the perfect accompaniment for Cocteau’s scenario of beach antics by stringing together a series of popular sounding tunes which just escaped recognition since they were all Milhaud originals. Milhaud took the style and rhythm of vernacular music, without directly plagarizing his sources. [p. 92]

So far, so good. But then, as Ries reports, things did not go well between Cocteau and the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, and “The revision rehearsals went on practically until the curtain was going up for the first performance.” The details about the ballet’s preparations are almost unbearable to read—but in the book for those who want to know. This is a very brief biographical article, but the best way to become acquainted with this composer is to listen to one of the many CDs of his delightful works!