Tag Archives: Vaslav Nijinsky

Rimsky-Korsakov’s magic “Scheherazade”

Warning: do not attempt to drive or operate heavy machinery while listening to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade for the first time. Said composition is known to have caused feelings of extreme uplift, a dreamlike state, mild disorientation and a disassociation with the mundane. Use with caution, not to exceed ten listens per day, unless ordered by your doctor.

Where to start? Shut your eyes as you listen to Scheherazade and the mind fills with vivid images: a turbulent ocean, eighteenth-century clipper ships with billowing sails, sailors and dashing sea captains saving the day. Musical colors and textures alert you, seduce you: the booming, ominous tones from the brass section (a tyrannizing Sultan) and the sweetest, most delicate violin presence possible (the lovely Scheherazade). These two voices help tell the story throughout the composition — which, although your ears want to tell you otherwise, is not a symphony, but a symphonic suite.

Allow me to share a teaser, before we delve into details about Rimsky-Korsakov and the story behind Scheherazade. Now, you might look at the title of the embed below and say, “Wait. That’s National Ballet of Canada performing John Neumeier’s Nijinsky. We’re here to learn all about Scheherazade and its composer, right?” Trust me here. It all connects in the end (in a way my ballet readers will love).

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade is a bit like the 2010 film, Inception. It’s a story inside a story, or more precisely, the medieval Arabic collection of stories (1001 Nights, also called Arabian Nights in English). It’s about a storyteller who tells the Sultan a story a night for 1001 nights and thus saves not just her life, but the lives of all the young women in the kingdom. See, the medieval Sultan, a rather difficult, vengeful dictator type, had decided, following his first wife’s infidelity and subsequent beheading, to marry a new virgin each day after beheading the previous day’s wife, to guarantee no further such infidelity (and bruised ego). Scheherazade, a young, intelligent, resourceful type, actually volunteered for the job. She was clever, and understood the power behind good storytelling. On her wedding night, she started her story and got the Sultan all wide-eyed and absorbed. As dawn broke in the eastern sky, she made sure to pause her story at a cliffhanging point. The Sultan begged her to continue, but she only smiled coyly and said, “Tonight.” The Sultan, so intrigued, decided not to behead her, so as to hear the story’s end. Of course once Scheherazade finished her story that night, she started a new one right up, which once again reached a cliffhanger plot point at dawn. And so on, for 1001 nights.

Now on to the composer, who had an unerring ability to take music and create a powerful sense of story with it, through it. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was born in 1844 to parents who’d surely thought they were done with parenting. His father, Andrey, was sixty and his mother, Sophia, was forty-two. Their only other child, a son named Voin, was 22, already established in a career as an officer in the Imperial Russian Navy. Andrey and Sophia probably looked at the gurgling little Nikolai and thought, “Yikes. What now?” Fortunately, Voin was charmed by the little fellow and agreed to be his godfather, a position he took quite seriously, becoming more of a third parent than a sibling. Since Voin’s career kept him away, often at sea, letter writing became common and frequent among the Rimsky-Korsakov family, all of which were diligently saved. Wonderful for us now, because facts and minutia are there in letters, archived, for us to glean countless details about young Nikolai’s young life. It’s not often we of the 21st century are privy to this intimate and thorough a glimpse of a composer’s early life. Music, we learn, was to only be a hobby for the young Nikolai. Everyone wanted him to follow in Voin’s (as well as his uncle’s and great-grandfather’s) footsteps, have a career in the navy. Nikolai, starry-eyed with admiration for his older brother, was happy to comply. Which meant leaving his doting parents behind in 1856 at age twelve for the Naval College in St. Petersburg. There, he coped with discomfort, homesickness, worked diligently, and followed Voin’s every directive.

Once Nikolai’s progress was deemed satisfying, with good grades and responsible behavior, he was given permission to indulge in piano lessons, which he’d started back home. Nikolai had an ear for music, a natural talent. Unfortunately his first tutor was a cellist, rather uninspired in both teaching and playing piano. When, in the spring of 1859, the tutor admitted to Voin that Nikolai had grown better than he on the piano, Voin found his brother a new tutor: Fyodor Kanille (also spelled Théodore Canillé), a talented pianist and teacher, who instantly recognized his new student’s gift. He and Nikolai thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company, the lessons, the boy growing ever more enraptured by music, the piano, even fledgling attempts at composition. But when his grades began to suffer, Voin stepped in and said, “Whoa, whoa, too much interest in music. Stick to your naval studies. That’s your career, and we expect you to make top grades in your studies. Music is not your future.” He canceled the music lessons, and Nikolai, bereft, being the obedient boy he was, complied. Fortunately, the grades went back up and months later, Voin cautiously agreed to lessons again.

One notable thing during Nikolai’s time with Uninspired Cellist tutor guy was that in the fall of 1857, one of Voin’s friends took Nikolai to see professional opera for the first time. A mere day later, the friend took him to a second, even more elaborate production. A fierce love for opera, this place where classical music meets story, took hold in Nikolai, a love for music and story that would power his future, his music-making, for the rest of his life.

Time to hear the music in question. You have a choice here. The first embed is one of Russia’s top conductors, Valery Gergiev, leading the Vienna Philharmonic (think: smooth, nuanced, old-world sound, performed by a whole lot of white men). The pace speeds along at a fast clip in a performance lasting 42 minutes. The first and third movements are amazing. Do NOT miss.

The next one is its musical opposite. It’s the Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra, apparently a youth orchestra, in Ljubljana. Slovenia. A really, really good performance. Ah, youth. Such beautiful faces and expressions (Gergiev is a tiny bit creepy to watch, I have to be honest, as much as I admire the man — and all those white male faces in the orchestra start to blur together). This version below, conducted by Nejd Bečan is quite slow (too slow?) and stretches to 51 minutes. The solo violinist here, Matjaž Bogataj, is divine.

There is so much more to share about Rimsky-Korsakov: his early career, both as a composer and a naval officer; meeting a quartet of fellow composers with whom he’d share a lifelong bond; his life with his soon-to-be wife, Nadezhda. My brain is whirring and I want to jam everything onto this document which, trust me, will not serve in your best interests. Instead I’ll go the other route, with the tried-and-true “10 interesting facts.” So, without further ado…

10 Interesting Facts About Rimsky-Korsakov

  1. He had no formal conservatory training, but in spite of that, at age 27, he was hired as a professor of musical composition, harmony and orchestration at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1871. Never one to look for a free ride, he educated himself thoroughly, for years, until he became a master of Western methods, incorporating them into his work.
  2. He was a member of “The Five” or “The Mighty Five”, a group of Russian composers (Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui), who, in a nutshell, rejected the compositions of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, etc, in favor of “Russian” classical music (largely composed by them), thus influencing the classical music that came out of Russia, imbued with nationalist identity and rich with folkloric elements.
  3. Nikolai’s brother Voin was, for quite some time, the better-known Rimsky-Korsakov, a respected navigator and explorer. There is a small archipelago in the Sea of Japan named after him. He died at age 49.
  4. His wife, Nadezhda, was very accomplished on the piano and played a far more important role in Nikolai’s life than history will likely ever give her credit for. Think Clara and Robert Schumann, minus the insanity.
  5. He maintained a career as naval officer and managed to compose and spend social, music-centric evenings with The Five. In 1873, the Imperial Navy wisely created the civilian post of Inspector of Naval Bands for him. This kept him on the Navy payroll but allowed him to resign his commission and stay put. He continued to serve in this position until late 1883.
  6. He was prolific in his composing and produced 11 symphonic works (which included Scheherazade, “Capriccio Espagnol” and 3 symphonies), 15 operas, 3 concertos, 79 Romances. He was prolific in the fathering department, too. Seven kids.
  7. He composed the “Flight of the Bumblebee,” originally for his opera, The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Its piano version is famous. Don’t ask for a link. It’s too busy and gives me a headache.
  8. He put countless hours into refining his fellow “Mighty Five” composers’ music posthumously, such as Borodin’s Prince Igor opera and Mussorgsky’s opera, Khovanschina, even to the extent that it deeply cut into his own creative time.
  9. His 1887 “Capriccio Espagnol” and, a year later, the dazzling Scheherazade, came after a lengthy absence of composing, a self-described period of low creativity (see #8). Which goes to show that sometimes writer’s block can be a blessing in disguise, because when you return, boy, do you return.
  10. By having a naval career, visiting exotic ports of call, not to mention harboring a lifelong love of the sea, he was able to skillfully recreate all of it musically, resulting in harmonies, textures and sounds infrequently heard in Western classical music up to that point. All of which is resplendently depicted in Scheherazade.

And now that earlier teaser to ballet dancers, about how National Ballet of Canada and Vaslav Nijinsky tie in to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Michel (or Mikhail) Fokine choreographed his own Scheherazade for the Ballets Russes, using Rimsky-Korsakov’s music, which premiered in Paris on June 10, 1910, at the Théâtre National de l’Opera. It’s the prologue of 1001 Nights, so it depicts the unfaithful first wife. Vaslav Nijinsky, as the Golden Slave, surely stole the show in a role that would dazzle all of Europe and cement Nijinsky’s place as one of the world’s most exciting male dancers. If you love watching ballet set to expressive music, you simply must, MUST check out this link. Or maybe you shouldn’t. Because once you glimpse the perfection of this Mariinsky Ballet performance by Svetlana Zakharova and Farukh Ruzimatov (forward to the part where the concubines bribe the eunuch-in-charge to unlock the door that frees the slaves, which starts around 11 mn), you will forever long to feel that same sweet ache that watching this will instill in your deepest bones. So… I’m sorry. And… you’re welcome.  (PS: the creator of the video hilariously spelled the title “Scherezade”. This is a typo.)

Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun”

 

When I listen to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” often referred to as simply “Afternoon of a Faun,” I’m reminded of the vertiginous feeling of gazing at a 3-D computer-generated picture, one that, once you’ve allowed your eyes and brain to shift slightly, draws you inside a world you previously hadn’t been able to see. Here, now, you’ve entered a phantasmagorical place, with spiraling, descending pathways and billowing shapes that your eyes can slide down or climb up, respectively. A world where the tried-and-true rules don’t apply. I don’t know about you, but I love the feeling, the sensations. It never fails to take me on an inner journey, far from my mundane thoughts, the dreary to-do treadmill of daily life.

It’s no surprise Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun”—or “Prélude à L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune” in its original French—is one of my favorite short pieces of classical music. It’s held me in its grips from the moment I first heard its opening solo flute notes, the responding call by a horn, a harp. Debussy was not a “follow the set rules” kind of guy. He was pretty much the opposite. In his compositions, the “rules according to my tastes” deliver volumes of sensation. A warm afternoon. A time long ago, back in the days of mythical creatures. Nymphs and fauns and lush foliage and shimmering waves of summer heat. Unexpected emotions rise, within the music and the listener both. Languor, sensuality, euphoria, curiosity, an awareness of the exotic. You are flung back to your own childhood, your adolescence, all awash in new experiences, colors, sensations. You are every place you’ve always wanted to be, your heart contracting and expanding, seemingly at the same time. For ten fleeting minutes, you let the music cradle you, transport you. Afterward, it leaves you disoriented and a little dizzy. You stumble away, back to the everyday world, your everyday life, and yet forever altered from the experience.

I like to imagine how the audience must have reacted in that opening performance in Paris, 1894. This was still the Romantic era, after all, with its conventions on tonality, scales, sequences. Audiences were used to hearing Beethoven and Brahms and maybe a little Wagner if they were feeling the urge for something turbulent. Chopin, a generation earlier, had dazzled with his pianistic originality, just as Saint Saens had managed to impart a touch of the exotic into his own compositions. But Debussy? He was young, still rather green, known to chafe against the constraints the masters before him, through the years, had mandated in musical composition. He loved literature and art, and for Prélude à L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune, he’d taken, as inspiration, a poem by one of France’s greatest poets at the time, Stéphane Mallarmé, and his 1876 creation, “L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune.” The poem was a work of art, having taken the poet a decade of deep searching, pondering, revising, to come up with a finished, published product that was, in his mind, music already. (Mallarmé was part of the “symbolist” movement of poetry, that, in a nutshell, strove to evoke, to illuminate, elaborate on the human condition,) So, here’s this 1894 concert hall audience, all expectant, knowing the poem: sensuous, story-like musings of a faun—mythical half man, half goat—and his erotic pursuit of two nymphs on a warm, drowsy afternoon. The lights in the concert hall darken, the musicians ready themselves, the conductor raises his baton, and you hear… this.

Stirred you, didn’t it?

If you’re like me, you might wonder what sort of mystical alchemy was involved, that Debussy’s music can do so much more than, say, Brahms, whose music is decidedly masterful and at the top of its craft. I think It has to do with the fact that, like the symbolist poets, there was a drive to consider the vast sprawling world of inner feelings, the human condition, the resolutely ineffable. It’s interesting to note that the French poets of this time, which Debussy so admired, considered music to be the pinnacle of art — not necessarily the music you hear in a concert hall, so much as the “music” that arises from the finest of art works. Mallarmé’s reaction to Debussy’s turning his poem into “real” music is debated–some say he was pleased, and complimented Debussy on the effort. Others say he mildly resented that his poem, so full of “music” already, was now eclipsed by Debussy’s music. The guy had a point. Who hears the title “Afternoon of a Faun” and thinks, “Ah, yes, that poem! Mallarmé’s opus!”

Care for 10 interesting factoids about Debussy? Here you go!

  • He was born Achille (pronounced as a “shhh”)-Claude de Bussy in 1862.
  • In spite of an aristocratic-sounding name, he came from a poor family and was schooled at home (while his siblings were shipped out), obtaining private piano lessons more by unexpected circumstances and good fortune more than planning and good funding.
  • He was accepted to the Paris Conservatory of Music at the age of 10, where, over the next eleven years, they would endlessly chide him for “courting the unusual” and encourage him to deliver something “more befitting of his great talent,” which was to say, the same old thing they’d been hearing for generations.
  • He was the 1884 recipient of the highly prestigious Prix de Rome, which gave him a four-year residence at Rome’s Villa Medici, which he hated, and was miserable, and [barely] lasted two years before returning to his beloved Paris, where he lived for most of his life.
  • While he resisted much of the traditional schooling that came his way, both in music and academia, as an adult, he read voraciously and enjoyed socializing with the literati. He was a frequenter of Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous Mardis (Tuesdays) salon, the place for poets, artists and literary minds to gather in 1890’s Paris.
  • His musical inspiration came frequently from poetry. I’ve shared, in past blogs HERE and HERE the way this shows up in the works, “Clair de Lune” and “Beau Soir.”
  • Debussy had originally planned for this work to be three part: a prelude, an interlude, and a paraphrase finale. Sidetracked by work on his opera after he’d completed the Prelude, he dropped the idea of two more parts.
  • Wagnerian opera, and Javanese gamelan music, fascinated and engaged the young composer, each playing a part in his artistic development, leaving an imprint that would resurface in his music.
  • Even though Debussy’s work was considered by many to be the peak representation of musical impressionism, he himself disliked that term, and saw himself as a “modernist.”
  • He died during the final year of World War I, unable to have a public gravesite funeral service because of the constant aerial bombing of the French capital by the Germans.

Above all, Debussy was a composer who defined a moment—that in which the classical music world would begin to question all rules of harmony and composition. “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art,” he once famously said. While he’s still considered by most to be a Late Romantic composer more than of the Modern school, you can see him and his style’s clear demarcation. Tchaikovsky and Brahms, Dvorák, Grieg, Liszt, all came before. Bartók, Prokofiev, Ravel, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Stravinsky all came after. Pierre Boulez famously pronounced Debussy’s “Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun” to be “the beginning of modern music.”

I find it so fitting that Debussy’s ground-breaking “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” should be utilized, eighteen years later, by another legendary, ground-breaking artist. In 1912, ballet phenomenon Vaslav Nijinsky, then with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, created his ballet, “Afternoon of a Faun.” He was the lead dancer; no one else could have done it justice. No one else could have so shocked the public, foretelling a new, modern realm of dance to come. The vitality, originality and willful disdain of long-held rules that Nijinsky brought to his art makes him seem like Debussy’s twin. And for Nijinsky, much like Debussy, the newness and overt sensuality of the opening performance in Paris shocked and disturbed some of spectators. This was not the art they’d come to know and had grown familiar with. This was new and vivid, with all sorts of new flavors and textures to consider. It didn’t just stir the soul, it stirred… other parts.

But we’ll leave this blog to Debussy. Not only does Nijinsky deserve his own blog, the National Ballet of Canada will be coming to San Francisco in April to perform “Nijinsky,” John Neumeier’s evening-length ballet about the man, his art, his madness. The Classical Girl is SO looking forward to this production. I’ll be posting a blog preview of the production in the week to come. (Editor’s note: it’s done and you can read it HERE.) In the meantime, however, I can’t resist giving you a flavor of what happens when Debussy and Nijinsky–and we mustn’t forget Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry–put their considerable talents together for an unforgettable “Afternoon of a Faun.” The dancer is Rudolf Nureyev, another legend that some day I’ll devote a blog to. This recording is old, which, in my mind, only adds to its sensuous, evocative allure. I can feel Nijinsky’s presence all the more clearly.

All right, I have to add one more. It’s taken from the 1980 Herbert Ross film, Nijinsky. So it’s Hollywood’s version of Nijinsky premiering “Afternoon of a Faun” in Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet. It’s really good, and allows you to see certain nuances up close. But, be warned. The end of the ballet is… racy. But so was Nijinsky. Pushing those borders. And so was Debussy. All for art. Give it a look, if you dare. (Warning, this music will stay in your head ALL DAY once you’ve left this page. My apologies.)

Okay, one last thing, and this time I mean it..

Mallarmé’s 1876 masterpiece poem is damned long. But it’s lush and sensuous, and, really, you sort of do need to read the poem in order to understand what both Debussy and Nijinsky were striving to put into music, and movement, respectively. This is one of several translations that exist from the original French. If you read and find it lacking, please do share a translation you feel is better.

L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune

These nymphs, I would perpetuate them.
So bright
Their crimson flesh that hovers there, light
In the air drowsy with dense slumbers.
Did I love a dream?
My doubt, mass of ancient night, ends extreme
In many a subtle branch, that remaining the true
Woods themselves, proves, alas, that I too
Offered myself, alone, as triumph, the false ideal of roses.

Let’s see….
or if those women you note
Reflect your fabulous senses’ desire!
Faun, illusion escapes from the blue eye,
Cold, like a fount of tears, of the most chaste:
But the other, she, all sighs, contrasts you say
Like a breeze of day warm on your fleece?
No! Through the swoon, heavy and motionless
Stifling with heat the cool morning’s struggles
No water, but that which my flute pours, murmurs
To the grove sprinkled with melodies: and the sole breeze
Out of the twin pipes, quick to breathe
Before it scatters the sound in an arid rain,
Is unstirred by any wrinkle of the horizon,
The visible breath, artificial and serene,
Of inspiration returning to heights unseen

O Sicilian shores of a marshy calm
My vanity plunders vying with the sun,
Silent beneath scintillating flowers, RELATE
‘That I was cutting hollow reeds here tamed
By talent: when, on the green gold of distant
Verdure offering its vine to the fountains,
An animal whiteness undulates to rest:
And as a slow prelude in which the pipes exist
This flight of swans, no, of Naiads cower
Or plunge…’
Inert, all things burn in the tawny hour
Not seeing by what art there fled away together
Too much of hymen desired by one who seeks there
The natural A: then I’ll wake to the primal fever
Erect, alone, beneath the ancient flood, light’s power,
Lily! And the one among you all for artlessness.

Other than this sweet nothing shown by their lip, the kiss
That softly gives assurance of treachery,
My breast, virgin of proof, reveals the mystery
Of the bite from some illustrious tooth planted;
Let that go! Such the arcane chose for confidant,
The great twin reed we play under the azure ceiling,
That turning towards itself the cheek’s quivering,
Dreams, in a long solo, so we might amuse
The beauties round about by false notes that confuse
Between itself and our credulous singing;
And create as far as love can, modulating,
The vanishing, from the common dream of pure flank
Or back followed by my shuttered glances,
Of a sonorous, empty and monotonous line.

Try then, instrument of flights, O malign
Syrinx by the lake where you await me, to flower again!
I, proud of my murmur, intend to speak at length
Of goddesses: and with idolatrous paintings
Remove again from shadow their waists’ bindings:
So that when I’ve sucked the grapes’ brightness
To banish a regret done away with by my pretence,
Laughing, I raise the emptied stem to the summer’s sky
And breathing into those luminous skins, then I,
Desiring drunkenness, gaze through them till evening.

O nymphs, let’s rise again with many memories.
‘My eye, piercing the reeds, speared each immortal
Neck that drowns its burning in the water
With a cry of rage towards the forest sky;
And the splendid bath of hair slipped by
In brightness and shuddering, O jewels!
I rush there: when, at my feet, entwine (bruised
By the languor tasted in their being-two’s evil)
Girls sleeping in each other’s arms’ sole peril:
I seize them without untangling them and run
To this bank of roses wasting in the sun
All perfume, hated by the frivolous shade
Where our frolic should be like a vanished day.

I adore you, wrath of virgins, O shy
Delight of the nude sacred burden that glides
Away to flee my fiery lip, drinking
The secret terrors of the flesh like quivering
Lightning: from the feet of the heartless one
To the heart of the timid, in a moment abandoned
By innocence wet with wild tears or less sad vapours.
‘Happy at conquering these treacherous fears
My crime’s to have parted the dishevelled tangle
Of kisses that the gods kept so well mingled:
For I’d scarcely begun to hide an ardent laugh
In one girl’s happy depths (holding back
With only a finger, so that her feathery candor
Might be tinted by the passion of her burning sister,
The little one, naïve and not even blushing)
Than from my arms, undone by vague dying,
This prey, forever ungrateful, frees itself and is gone,
Not pitying the sob with which I was still drunk.’

No matter! Others will lead me towards happiness
By the horns on my brow knotted with many a tress:
You know, my passion, how ripe and purple already
Every pomegranate bursts, murmuring with the bees:
And our blood, enamoured of what will seize it,
Flows for all the eternal swarm of desire yet.
At the hour when this wood with gold and ashes heaves
A feast’s excited among the extinguished leaves:
Etna! It’s on your slopes, visited by Venus
Setting in your lava her heels so artless,
When a sad slumber thunders where the flame burns low.

I hold the queen!

O certain punishment…
No, but the soul
Void of words, and this heavy body,
Succumb to noon’s proud silence slowly:
With no more ado, forgetting blasphemy, I
Must sleep, lying on the thirsty sand, and as I
Love, open my mouth to wine’s true constellation!

Farewell to you, both: I go to see the shadow you have become.