Prélude а l'Aprиs-midi d'un faune
Pictures at an Exhibition with Ravel's arrangement
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“All is distinct to us – including the sharp, Gallic sense...”
For several centuries, French culture was one of the most important central elements of Russian culture, and of the St Petersburg style in particular. “It was Petersburg, during the construction of which the city plan outlined by Frenchman LeBlanc was used, a city adorned with the "necklace" of suburban palaces and estates akin to Versailles, a city where Catherine II received Drigo and where Pushkin used the French epigraph of "the encyclopaedia of Russian life" to open his novel Eugene Onegin, that was to become a Russian city that most deeply and assimilated the Gallic spirit, while at the same time as its exterior image and general cultural ambience was greatly enriched by other European cultures.” (Valery Smirnov)
The most active points of contact between Russia and France in music began during the reign of Peter I, when French dance became an integral part of Court “assemblies”. Under subsequent Russian rulers, French music became even more widespread: under the reign of Elisabeth, Petersburg saw the opening of the first ballet school, whose founder, the Frenchman Lande, said that the exemplary execution of the French minuet can be seen only when one comes to Russia.
Catherine the Great, being a great devotee of musical theatre and even appearing as the author of several libretti, issued a decree in 1762 on the extraction from France of the comic troupe, which went on to form the basis for Russia’s permanent French opera company, its home being the widely accessible Stone Theatre in St Petersburg. One true oasis of French musical theatre was the so-called “lesser court” of Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich (later Emperor Paul I) and his wife, Maria Fyodorovna. Pavel Petrovich, from his adolescent years, had loved French theatre, which for him was the standard-bearer of good taste. During travels abroad incognito (under the title of the Count and Countess Severny, or North) the Grand Ducal couple discovered French opera at the theatre in Paris, and later followed its premieres with rapt attention. In their residences in Pavlovsk and Gatchina, the couple regularly arranged musical performances – in so doing, creating three French operas by the Russian composer Bortnyansky were written.
From the late 18th century, the charm of French l’esprit increasingly captivated Russian society. The nation became immersed in French literature and language, the ideals of the Great French Revolution, France’s economic successes and the achievements in education, gastronomy and perfumery. In the early 19th century, in St Petersburg there were renowned representatives of French music – the composer Boildieu and the ballet master Didelot, of whom we read a delighted reference in Pushkin’s Onegin. The incoming French included numerous architects, painters and musicians who founded entire artistic dynasties. They included the Benois and the Petipas, as well as the Villains, who produced the pianist Alexandre Villain, tutor of the brothers Anton and Nikolai Rubinstein, founders of the first Russian conservatoires in St Petersburg and Moscow.
Starting in the mid 19th century, Franco-Russian musical links not only became stronger, they in fact became solidly mutual in character. It is well known that one of the first performers of Mikhail Glinka’s music in Europe (and one of few who saw the founding father of Russian classical music off on his final journey) was the French composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, who turned to the Russian theme in his work in the opera Étoile du Nord based on the life of the young Peter I. In 1878 Nikolai Rubinstein gave three Russian symphony concerts in Paris, and soon Cui published the book La musique en Russie in the French capital, where he focuses on the principles of the composers of the “New Russian School”, in whose works there was already great interest in France – Saint-Saëns procured a score of Boris Godunov during a trip to Russia, while music historian Bourgault-Ducoudray called on French composers to study folklore, as Russian composers had been doing, citing Rimsky-Korsakov and Balakirev as examples.
From the late 1890s within the Russian World of Art association, the idea took root of “cultural expansion” in Europe, in Paris, with the aim of showcasing the achievements of Russian art. This idea, conceived by Alexandre Benois, was brought to fruition by Sergei Diaghilev. Diaghilev’s Saisons russes were the culmination of Franco-Russian collaboration in art, marking an entire era in the history of 20th century culture in France. Essentially they began with the “Historic Russian Concerts” (1907) with Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, Rakhmaninov and Chaliapin, whose aim was to create a broad panorama of the history of the Russian school of music. They included performances of works by Glinka, Musorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, Tchaikovsky, Cui, Glazunov, Scriabin and Rakhmaninov. In 1908 the demonstration of the achievements of Russia’s composers continued with tours by the Russian Opera: it opened to a furore with a production of Boris Godunov with Chaliapin in the title role. From 1909 there began performances by the Russian ballet – there came Le Pavillon d’Armide by Nikolai Tcherepnin (together with his son, the composer Alexander Cherepin, who emigrated to France in 1921), Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances and Cleopatra to music from Arensky’s Nuits d’Égypte. Russian ballet took Paris by storm with the artistic and decorative look of its productions (Benois, Golovin, Bakst), the brilliant artistic talents (Pavlova, Karsavina, Nijinsky) and the innovative principles of the choreography (Fokine). A veritable revolution in the world of music came with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps, which heralded the start of a new era in music. In addition to commissions for ballet music by Russian composers – Lyadov and Prokofiev (who lived and worked for over ten years in France) – Diaghilev attracted eminent French musicians such as Debussy, Ravel, Schmitt and Poulenc among others to collaborate with him. So the Saisons russes not only provided an incentive to the development of French production and choreographic culture, they also revived French composers’ taste for ballet.
The main Russian idols in French music were Rimsky-Korsakov, Musorgsky and Stravinsky (who went to France and in 1934 took French citizenship). Rimsky-Korsakov naturally impressed French composers, who had traditionally directed much attention towards the orchestra, with the brilliancy of his instrumental writing and the refined embodiment of the Orient – the orchestral style of Ravel’s Schéhérazade (1903) is notable for the undoubted influence played by Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterpiece of the same name. Aficionados of Musorgsky, starting with Saint‑Saëns and Debussy, included many outstanding representatives of France’s musical culture. One particularly deep admirer of his genius was Maurice Ravel, who had made a minute study of Musorgsky’s The Marriage (“the only prototype” of Ravel’s opera L’Heure espagnole), songs and Musorgsky’s The Nursery, which had an influence on his chamber and vocal works. One the eve of World War I, Ravel and Stravinsky were working on the instrumentation of Khovanshchina, and in 1922 he completed an orchestral version of Pictures at an Exhibition, congenial to Musorgsky’s piano original. The name of this great Russian composer featured in the dedication of Francis Poulenc’s opera Dialogues des Carmélites, the latter also considering himself (like his French co-composers in the group of Six) the “spiritual son” of Stravinsky and standing on a friendly footing with Prokofiev.
The “Russian line” runs through the life and works of major 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen, weaving red threads, the composer including Rimsky-Korsakov (pantheistic regard of nature), Musorgsky (melody) and Stravinsky (rhythm) in his own list of musical maestri. Brilliant critiques of Schéhérazade, Boris Godunov, Le Sacre du printemps and Les Noces never failed to be present in courses of analysis – “courses on super-composition” as they were known by Messiaen’s students, the future leaders of the musical avant-garde Boulez, Stockhausen, Xenakis and Murail – which the composer taught initially privately, and subsequently at the Paris Conservatoire. Messiaen had a high regard for and frequently analysed the works of Russian émigré composers of Scriabin’s type in his class – Nikolai Obukhov and Ivan Wyshnegradsky (in 1945 he even organised a concert of their works with the participation of his students). Warm relations emerged between Messiaen and Edison Denisov, whose art, widely acclaimed and popular in France, he was one of the first to welcome.