Jan 082021
 

Today is the birthday (1891 [O.S. December 27, 1890]) of Bronislava Nijinska (Polish: Bronisława Niżyńska; Russian: Бронисла́ва Фоми́нична Нижи́нская), a Polish ballet dancer, and an innovative choreographer. She was part of a well-known family of professional dancers, including her brother, Vaslav Nijinsky with whom she frequently collaborated.

She began her training in various dance techniques, which included traditional Slavic dances, ballet, and some circus acrobatics, at home with her parents. At age nine she entered the state ballet school in St Petersburg and in 1908 she graduated as an Artist of the Imperial Theatres. From there she followed her brother into the Ballets Russes, where he had become a virtual overnight sensation, and assisted him in his creations of L’Après-midi d’un Faune and Le Sacre du Printemps. It is, however, all too common for dance historians to write of Nijinska as “Nijinsky’s little sister” which, apart from its obvious sexist implications, seriously undervalues her contributions to dance throughout the 20th century.

Nijinska appeared in Sergei Diaghilev’s first two Paris seasons, 1909 and 1910, and became a permanent member of his company thereafter. Here initially she danced in the corps de ballet, e.g., in Swan Lake (the Czardas), in Les Sylphides (the Mazurka), and in Le Spectre de la Rose, but as she developed on the professional stage she was promoted, and eventually given significant parts. Her brother coached her for the role of Papillon [the butterfly] in Fokine’s Carnaval (1909), in part danced with feet and hands fluttering in a coordinated rhythm at an accelerated prestissimo tempo. She also transformed the role of the Ballerina Doll in Petruchka (1912) by changing the doll’s demeanor from theatrical in a tutu to realistic in street clothes, thus modernizing the role. She also steadfastly kept in character rather than slipping back into the default look of classical ballet.

In the 1912 production of Cléopâtre, she at first danced the Bacchanale (replacing Vera Fokine). Then she switched roles, being given Karsavina’s role of Ta-Hor. “Karsavina danced the role on toe, but I would dance it in my bare feet.” The next year she performed in her brother’s Jeux (Games), and then assisted him in the creation of Le Sacre du printemps. She helped create the Chosen Maiden role, but when she became aware she was pregnant, she told Nijinsky she’d have to withdraw and miss its opening performance, causing a rift between them.

Subsequently she worked on developing her own art in Petrograd and Kiev during the years of WW I, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war. During the war years she danced in experimental works as well as in classics. In Petrograd the 1915 theatre program listed her as “the prima ballerina-artist of the State Ballet.” The program included music by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Borodin. She performed in her own choreographed solos, Le Poupee or Tabatierr, and Autumn Song. Then in Kiev in addition to dancing, she established her ballet school and began to choreograph programs. She danced in solos while costumed in tunics, e.g., Etudes (Liszt), Mephisto Valse (Liszt), Nocturnes (Chopin), Preludes (Chopin), and in company performances, e.g., Twelfth Rhapsody (Liszt), Demons (Tcherepnine), March Funebre (Chopin). In 1921 she left Russia and never returned.

From 1921 to 1924 with Ballets Russes, Nijinska reprised several of her old roles including those she helped her brother create. More and more, however, she took prominent roles in her own choreographies and designs, such as, the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty (1921), the Fox in Le Renard (1922), as the Hostess in Les Biches (1924), as Lysandre in Les Fâcheux (1924), and as the Tennis Player in Le Train Bleu (1924).

Subsequently, for her own ballet companies and for others, she danced in roles of her own invention: in Holy Etudes, Touring, Le Guignol, and Night on Bald Mountain (all 1925); for Teatro Colón in Estudios religiosos (1926); in her Capricio Espagnole per Rimsky-Korsakoff in 1931; and in the 1934 ballet based on Hamlet per Liszt. Throughout the 1930s she played various roles in Europe and the Americas. As Nijinska reached her 40s, her performance career neared its end. What caused her trouble, and hastened the close of her performance art, was an injury to her Achilles tendon suffered in 1933 while at el Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.

Due to the outbreak of war in 1939 she relocated from Paris to Los Angeles where she continued working in choreography and as an artistic director, as well as teaching at her studio. In the 1960s she staged revivals of her Ballets Russes-era creations for the Royal Ballet in London. In her last years she assembled a life’s worth of notes which she began casting into her Memoirs, but on her death in 1971 she left 180,00 pages of notes for her daughter, Irina, to edit into a manageable volume.

In among Nijinska’s Memoirs are numerous references to food as a general topic, including her careful control of her brother’s diet because he tended to love carbs and gain weight.  She tried to keep him trim on steak and vegetables.  Once in a while she mentions exquisite banquets she had attended but rarely says more than something like, “the dishes were exquisite,” but spends page after page on describing the place settings, the room décor, the outfits of the footmen serving the food, and whatnot.  But she does describe one dinner in a palace in St Petersburg, and mentions that one of the hors d’oeuvres was marinated mushrooms.  That hint gives me a chink to widen into a recipe.  Marinated mushrooms are not an especially “exquisite” dish normally, but I would expect that in the Frenchified Russian court of pre-revolutionary Russia, the chefs would have taken pride in their offerings.  First, and foremost, I would imagine that these mushrooms were hand-picked wild mushrooms and not the tasteless, white, cultivated things that get called mushrooms in Western supermarkets.  These would have been rich, black, woodland specimens – morels even.  Certainly something with a robust flavor.  So, for this recipe hunt down the most succulent mushrooms you can find, and make sure they are small.  Here is Asia I am spoilt for choose – do your best.  Then turn your attention to the marinade.

Typical marinades begin with a 50-50 mix of oil and vinegar.  The oil part is no problem – the best extra virgin olive oil you can get your hands on.  More often than not I use lime or lemon juice (freshly squeezed) rather than vinegar because I do not care for the rough edges of most commercial vinegars.  I do use well-aged Asian rice-wine vinegars in my cooking and something of the sort would be all right here also, but citrus juice is my first choice.  Now consider your flavorings.  Finely chopped garlic is standard, as is chopped onion (which I use chopped leeks for).  Freshly ground pepper is also common.  After that the default is something like fresh thyme, rosemary, parsley and the like, but we can be adventurous.  I like freshly chopped young ginger root, a little allspice, and a hint of powdered cloves.

Preparation also varies considerably.  Blanching the mushrooms as a first step is common, but I find this process to be the opposite of what you want – extracting rather than adding flavor.  I add ½ cup of olive oil to my skillet, add in the mushrooms so that they form a single layer (you need a wide skillet, or other vessel), and then gently heat the oil over low heat.  Your goal is not to cook the mushrooms but to bathe them in warm oil for a few minutes.  Turn off the heat and add an equal quantity of citrus juice (or vinegar of your preference) to the oil, plus the seasonings of your choice.  Gently mix everything together, cover, and let cool.  Once cool, place the mushrooms and marinade in a suitable jar with a tight-fitting lid (with the marinade covering all of the mushrooms) and leave in a cool place for at least 24 hours. Longer is better.  These mushrooms can keep for a week or more.

May 292015
 

rite6

Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was first performed on this date in 1913. It was written for the 1913 Paris season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company; the original choreography was by Vaslav Nijinsky, with stage designs and costumes by Nicholas Roerich. When first performed, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the avant-garde nature of the music and choreography caused a sensation and a near-riot in the audience. Although designed as a work for the stage, with specific passages accompanying characters and action, the music achieved equal if not greater recognition as a concert piece, and is widely considered to be one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.

Stravinsky was a young, virtually unknown composer when Diaghilev recruited him to create works for the Ballets Russes. The Rite was the third such project, after the acclaimed Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911). The concept behind The Rite of Spring, developed by Roerich from Stravinsky’s outline idea, is suggested by its subtitle, “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts”; in the scenario, after various “primitive” rituals celebrating the advent of spring, a young girl is chosen as a sacrificial victim and dances herself to death. After a mixed critical reception for its original run and a short London tour, the ballet was not performed again until the 1920s, when a version choreographed by Léonide Massine replaced Nijinsky’s original. Massine’s was the forerunner of many innovative productions directed by the world’s leading ballet-masters, which gained the work worldwide acceptance. In the 1980s, Nijinsky’s original choreography, long believed lost, was reconstructed by the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles.

Stravinsky’s score contains many revolutionary features for its time, including experiments in tonality, meter, rhythm, stress, and dissonance. Analysts have noted in the score a significant grounding in Russian folk music, a relationship Stravinsky tended to deny. The music has influenced many of the 20th-century’s leading composers, and is one of the most recorded works in the classical repertoire.

rite10

In 1909 Stravinsky’s early work, Feu d’artifice, was performed at a concert in St Petersburg. Among those in the audience was the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who at that time was planning to introduce Russian music and art to western audiences. Having heard Feu d’artifice he approached Stravinsky, initially with a request for help in orchestrating music by Chopin to create the ballet Les Sylphides. Stravinsky worked on the opening “Nocturne” and the closing “Valse Brillante”; his reward was a much bigger commission, to write the music for a new ballet, The Firebird (L’oiseau de feu) for the 1910 season. Then came Petrushka (1911) to stunning acclaim. The Rite of Spring followed.

Analyzing The Rite adequately in a short piece such as this is impossible. But I’ll try to give a glimpse. I’m going to divide my comments into three parts: (1) the intellectual conception behind the overall work and the choreography, (2) the music itself, and (3) the premiere.

rite7

Let me start with the bad news first. Roerich’s vision of a “pagan” Russia where grave elders presided over fertility rites for the renewal of the earth in Spring which involved, among other things, the sacrifice of a virgin to the gods, is utterly without merit. It comes from a nineteenth century Romantic delusion conjured up by European folklorists and anthropologists (along with assorted mystical loonies) that has ZERO basis in historical fact. I have railed against this stupidity in my academic writing, as well as here, on numerous occasions (e.g.  https://www.bookofdaystales.com/may-daymay-morning/ . That a worthless intellectual and historical fantasy produced a masterpiece is a charming miracle.

rite1

I can’t really say a whole lot about the choreography as such because Nijinsky’s original is lost, and, although the Joffrey made a valiant effort to reconstruct it from Nijinsky’s notes, from what little I know of the reconstruction, it seems more Joffrey than Nijinsky.

The ‘knock-kneed’ Lolitas of the original Rite of Spring  rite3

The original costumes are laughable. They appear to be stylized versions of women’s clothing of Native Americans from the Great Plains (with suitable Russian embroidery) – a misguided allusion to them as “noble savages.” Equating “pagan” Russians with Native Americans stems from a, now thoroughly discredited, idea that ALL cultures evolved along the same path (although in different time periods), and, therefore, it was legitimate to take nineteenth century Plains Indians as models for ancient Russians. It is not.

Nijinsky’s choreography was apparently rooted to the ground, stomping in a parody of actual ritual, but quite natural given that the whole piece was about the worship of the earth. It was not, however, received well by audiences used to the sylphs in tutus of the classic ballet soaring high in the air. Stravinsky later described the dancers as “knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas.” Nonetheless, Stravinsky did praise Nijinsky’s work. To Maximilien Steinberg, a former fellow-pupil under Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky wrote that Nijinsky’s choreography had been “incomparable: with the exception of a few places, everything was as I wanted it.”

rite9

Addressing the technicalities of the music is a gigantic task I am not qualified to undertake (and you can skim if you wish). Just a few words. To begin, whether you know anything about how revolutionary this piece was or not, it is staggering to listen to. I first heard it (in somewhat altered form) as a teenager via Disney’s Fantasia. The Rite segment of the film depicts the Earth’s prehistory, leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Among those impressed by the film was Gunther Schuller, later a composer, conductor, and jazz scholar. The Rite of Spring sequence, he says, overwhelmed him and determined his future career in music: “I hope [Stravinsky] appreciated that hundreds—perhaps thousands—of musicians were turned on to The Rite of Spring … through Fantasia, musicians who might otherwise never have heard the work, or at least not until many years later.” Audiences were not ready for Rite in 1913; they were in 1940. An excerpt:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-tBd-Xp5tA&index=2&list=PLFA60BA1ED2A9BAA3

According to musicologist Stephen Walsh the great innovation of The Rite is not the dissonance or the immobility of the harmonic progression because both of these ideas were in practice before Stravinsky’s work. Walsh cites Debussy’s Et la Lune Descend Sur le Temple Qui Fut (1907) as being both discordant and harmonically static. The true innovation was Stravinsky’s use of musical fragments and compelling rhythms to provide a structure to drive the dramatic action.

What nobody seems to have done before the Rite of Spring was to take dissonant, irregularly formed musical ‘objects’ of very brief extent and release their latent energy by firing them off at one another  like so many particles in an atomic accelerator.

Stravinsky’s method of composition for The Rite was to arrange and layer small cells of music. These musical fragments often consist of as few as four notes, but they are repeated and reoriented to create ostinati (constant repetitions), or stacked to generate chords, or embellished to create melodic material. The Rite was originally thought to contain only one true folk tune: the high bassoon part which begins the introduction. Later investigation into more of Stravinsky’s sketches in 1969 revealed complete folk melodies copied from published collections Although, after being thoroughly worked, reorganized and chopped up by Stravinsky very little of the actual tune remains intact: just a faint whiff.

rite13

According to Pieter Van Den Toorn another strong adhesive component in the work is the ubiquitous use of the octatonic scale and its derived chords. Stravinsky not only employed the octatonic scale as others had before, he redefined its use and context completely. By using long streams of octatonic chords and adding chunks of diatonic material, Stravinsky created a new sound. The octatonic scale is an eight note scale consisting of the pattern / H / W / H / W / H / W / H / W / [H= half step, W=whole step]. Thus,

. . . symmetrically defined units no longer succeed one another, harmlessly, as they do in the operas of Rimsky or in the early Stravinsky passages cited above. These units are now superimposed—played simultaneously. And this is an invention from which startling implications accrue not only in pitch organization but, as a consequence, in rhythm and instrumental design as well. It radically alters the conditions of octatonic confinement, opens up a new dimension in octatonic thought that Stravinsky, beginning with Petrushka and The Rite , was to render peculiarly his own.

Enough technicality. To put it in my own simplistic words, tonal music (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc.) appears to be going “somewhere.” It starts off in the home key, progresses in various ways, and then returns home. Atonal music can leave you with the sense that it is going nowhere. Stravinsky magically managed to compose atonally and yet leads you “somewhere.”

The conductor Pierre Monteux had worked with Diaghilev since 1911, and had been in charge of the orchestra at the premiere of Petrushka. Monteux’s first reaction to The Rite, after hearing Stravinsky play a piano version, was to leave the room and find a quiet corner. Although he would perform his duties with conscientious professionalism, he never came to enjoy the work; nearly fifty years after the premiere he told enquirers that he detested it. On 30 March Monteux informed Stravinsky of modifications he thought were necessary to the score, all of which the composer implemented. The orchestra, drawn mainly from the Concerts Colonne in Paris, was, with 99 players, much larger than was normally employed at the theater, and had difficulty fitting into the orchestra pit.

After the first part of the ballet received two full orchestral rehearsals in March, Monteux and the company departed to perform in Monte Carlo. Rehearsals resumed when they returned; the unusually large number of rehearsals—seventeen solely orchestral and five with the dancers—were fitted into the fortnight before the opening, after Stravinsky’s arrival in Paris on 13 May. The music contained so many unusual note combinations that Monteux had to ask the musicians to stop interrupting when they thought they had found mistakes in the score, saying he would tell them if something was played incorrectly. According to Monteux, “The musicians thought it absolutely crazy”. At one point, a climactic brass fortissimo, the orchestra broke up in nervous laughter at the sound, causing Stravinsky to intervene angrily.

rite12

The premiere of Rite was held in Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, a new structure which had opened on 2 April 1913 with a program celebrating the works of many of the leading composers of the day. The theater’s manager, Gabriel Astruc, was determined to house the 1913 Ballets Russes season, and paid Diaghilev the enormous sum of 25,000 francs per performance, double what he had paid the previous year. Ticket sales for the evening, ticket prices being doubled for a premiere, amounted to 35,000 francs. The program for 29 May 1913 also included Les Sylphides, Weber’s Le Spectre de la Rose and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.

At the time, a Parisian ballet audience typically consisted of two diverse groups: the wealthy and fashionable set, who would be expecting to see a traditional performance with beautiful music, and a “Bohemian” group who, the poet-philosopher Jean Cocteau asserted, would “acclaim, right or wrong, anything that is new because of their hatred of the boxes” (i.e. the rich). Final rehearsals were held on the day before the premiere, in the presence of members of the press and assorted invited guests. According to Stravinsky all went peacefully. However, the critic of L’Écho de Paris, Adolphe Boschot, foresaw possible trouble; he wondered how the public would receive the work, and suggested that they might react badly if they thought they were being mocked.

rite8

What actually happened at the premiere is a matter of ongoing debate. Were things thrown at the orchestra? Were the police called? Did Diaghilev deliberately plant rowdies in the audience with the specific intent of creating a “sensation,” etc. etc. Eyewitness reports vary wildly. On the evening of the 29 May the theater was packed: Gustav Linor reported, “Never … has the hall been so full, or so resplendent; the stairways and the corridors were crowded with spectators eager to see and to hear”. The evening began with Les Sylphides, in which Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina danced the main roles. Rite of Spring followed. Some eyewitnesses and commentators said that the disturbances in the audience began during the Introduction, and grew into a crescendo when the curtain rose on the stamping dancers in “Augurs of Spring”. But music historian Richard Taruskin asserts, “it was not Stravinsky’s music that did the shocking. It was the ugly earthbound lurching and stomping devised by Vaslav Nijinsky.” Marie Rambert, who was working as an assistant to Nijinsky, recalled later that it was soon impossible to hear the music on the stage. In his autobiography, Stravinsky writes that the derisive laughter that greeted the first bars of the Introduction disgusted him, and that he left the auditorium to watch the rest of the performance from the stage wings. The demonstrations, he says, grew into “a terrific uproar” which, along with the on-stage noises, drowned out the voice of Nijinsky who was shouting the stepping count to the dancers (which they had great difficulty with because of Stravinsky’s unusual rhythms). The journalist and photographer Carl Van Vechten famously recorded that the person behind him got carried away with excitement, and “began to beat rhythmically on top of my head”, though Van Vechten failed to notice this at first, his own emotion being so great.

rite5

Monteux believed that the trouble began when the two factions in the audience began attacking each other, but their mutual anger was soon diverted towards the orchestra: “Everything available was tossed in our direction, but we continued to play on”. Around forty of the worst offenders were ejected—possibly with the intervention of the police, although this is uncorroborated. Through all the disturbances the performance continued without interruption. Things grew noticeably quieter during Part II, and by some accounts Maria Piltz’s rendering of the final “Sacrificial Dance” was watched in reasonable silence. At the end there were several curtain calls for the dancers, for Monteux and the orchestra, and for Stravinsky and Nijinsky before the evening’s program continued.

Among the more hostile press reviews was that of Le Figaro‍ ’​s critic, Henri Quittard, who called the work “a laborious and puerile barbarity” and added “We are sorry to see an artist such as M. Stravinsky involve himself in this disconcerting adventure”. On the other hand Gustav Linor, writing in the leading theatrical magazine Comoedia, thought the performance was superb, especially that of the lead Maria Piltz; the disturbances, while deplorable, were merely “a rowdy debate” between two ill-mannered factions. Emile Raudin, of Les Marges, who had barely heard the music, wrote: “Couldn’t we ask M. Astruc … to set aside one performance for well-intentioned spectators? The composer Alfredo Casella thought that the demonstrations were aimed at Nijinsky’s choreography rather than at the music, a view shared by the critic Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi, who wrote: “The idea was excellent, but was not successfully carried out”. Calvocoressi failed to observe any direct hostility to the composer—unlike, he said, the premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902. Of later reports that the veteran composer Camille Saint-Saëns had stormed out of the premiere, Stravinsky observed that this was impossible; Saint-Saëns did not attend. Stravinsky also rejected Cocteau’s story that, after the performance, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Cocteau himself took a cab to the Bois de Boulogne where a tearful Diaghilev recited poems by Pushkin. Stravinsky merely recalled a celebratory dinner with Diaghilev and Nijinsky, at which the impresario expressed his entire satisfaction with the outcome.

On 18 February 1914 The Rite received its first concert performance (the music without the ballet), in St Petersburg under Serge Koussevitzky. On 5 April that year, Stravinsky experienced for himself the popular success of The Rite as a concert work, at the Casino de Paris. After the performance, again under Monteux, the composer was carried in triumph from the hall on the shoulders of his admirers. The Rite had its first British concert performance on 7 June 1921, at the Queen’s Hall in London under Eugene Goossens. Its U.S. premiere occurred on 3 March 1922, when Leopold Stokowski included it in a Philadelphia Orchestra programme. Goossens was also responsible for introducing The Rite to Australia on 23 August 1946 at the Sydney Town Hall, as guest conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Here’s an acceptable rendering:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWotpIy0uTg

For a recipe today I have chosen Russian honey cake because of this story:

Stravinsky and Rachmaninov had been contemporaries in St Petersburg but they did not actually meet until they started dining together in California in the 1940s. Although in opposite camps when it came to modernism, Rachmaninov very much wanted to be friends with his fellow composer. One night Stravinsky had gone to bed late after working on his orchestral suite, Four Norwegian Moods. To his surprise he heard footsteps on the porch outside. There towering over him – as he did over most people – was the lugubrious figure of Rachmaninov bearing a very large jar of natural honey. The explanation? At a recent meal Stravinsky had announced how much he loved honey and this determined Rachmaninov to bring some round, regardless of the hour.

rite11

I can’t do better for an actual recipe than this fabulously detailed one:

http://www.melangery.com/2014/02/russian-monday-medovik-honey-cake.html

It is complete with step-by-step instructions and photographs.