Exploring Music: Remarkable Skill,
The MHS Review 392 Vol. 11 No. 14 1987
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David M. Greene
You have no idea what wild goose chases, what sleeveless errands writing these blurbs can send one off on. An hour or so ago, reading a note on the work under consideration, I found Sergei Diaghilev commenting in a letter that the star of the premiere, Ida Rubinstein, was a disaster, having grown "old as the devil." "Oh, come now," I thought, "she wasn't all that old." And I proceeded to seek her vital statistics.
I had come across her name with some relative frequency in 50 years of reading about music and allied arts. But I realized that I knew nothing about her. I soon discovered that, if the writers of likely reference works had anything to do with it, I wasn't about to know anything more.
She is not in Grove or Grove's 5. She is not in two editions of the Britannica, in one of a lesser encyclopedia, or in several standard dictionaries. She is mentioned en passant in two books on the ballet repertoire and its history, but that is all. At last, about to give up, I turned to my battered 1939 edition of the Hughes-Taylor-Kerr Music Lovers' Encyclopedia, and there was a thumbnail sketch which erroneously showed her to be 46 at that time. A bit later, bored by Admiral Poindexter's umpteenth day of evasion, I pulled down (fortuitously) a picture book called Ballet Art (Mary Clarke and Clement Crips, NY, 1978) and learned that Rubinstein died in 1960.
Putting together the bits and pieces (Ballet Art calls her "one of the most mysterious figures in the ballet of the 20th century"), here is what emerges. She was born into wealth in Kharkov in 1885. She developed into a woman of stunning and exotic beauty. On the way she took some dance lessons with Mikhail Fokine, who, in 1909, cast her opposite Nijinsky in the premiere of his Scheherazade with the Ballets Russes.
She apparently never qualified as a great ballerina, her art being closer to mime. In Scheherazade her big moment came when, Salome-like, she was divested of most of her garments; two nude portraits in Ballet Art explain her success. Later Rubinstein headed up her own company and commissioned a number of important ballets (e.g. Ravel's La valse) for her use. The year 1928, when she was 43, brought forth two such: Bolero and the work under consideration.
It may come as something of a shock to learn that the dancer put no conditions on Stravinsky. By 1928, the latter had long since doffed the mantle of Rimsky-Korsakov, and abandoned the primativistic stance of Le sacre du printemps. He was now the leader of the neoclassical movement, which, abstract and formal, seemed at the farthest remove from 19th-century romanticism. Yet he deliberately chose Tchaikovsky, perhaps the most emotional of all major composers, as his source and model. His argument was that he had, as a child, once seen Piotr Ilyich, and that it was just 35 years since that event and Tchaikovsky's death.
The sources are, except for the song "None but the lonely heart," not obvious ones. Drawn from the piano pieces and songs, they have not even all been identified. As scenario, Stravinsky adapted Hans Christian Andersen's The Ice Queen, in which a little boy, kissed in his cradle by that fairy, is later claimed by her as he is about to wed.
Stravinsky maintained that this was appropriate, since Tchaikovsky was nipped untimely (age 53) by some supernatural force. But let us not push the analogy too far. That the work sounds remarkably like both composers is testimony to Stravinsky's skill and force of personality. Though it has been rechoreographed by such as Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine, the work has not survived as ballet.
The Tchaikovsky Pas de deux was a repertoire piece of the American Ballet Theater. The company's forces reduced by the needs of World War II, it commissioned Stravinsky to reorchestrate it for small orchestra, which he had to do from a piano score, no orchestral score being at hand.
Review of Igor Stravinsky: (The Fairy's Kiss) Allegorical Ballet in Four Scenes and "Bluebird" Pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty