Founded by legendary Russian ballet master Segei Diaghilev this ballet company is considered the leading ballet company of the twentieth century. The troupe toured Europe, North, and South America between 1909 and 1929. Even though their founder was from Russia the company never toured there due to the revolutionary chaos and after opening their first season in Paris the company did not base in the French city after the first year.
Most impressive is the list of works commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes that is the focal point of our blog today. The composers that sit on this list are legendary in the genre and we think this is the perfect place to begin.
Born on June 17, 1882 our first Ballets Russes composer is from a community just outside of St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was a famed bass singer at the noble Mariinsky Theatre. He has been noted as saying his childhood was solitary as he began lessons on the piano. Stravinsky also began composition at a young age and studied music theory.
After attending a showing of The Sleeping Beauty by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky worked hard and became an excellent piano player by becoming skilled at playing Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor. No matter how gifted he was his parents pushed him into studying law and he began classes at the University of Saint Petersburg in 1901.
The next year Stravinsky lived in Germany with leading Russian composer there Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov who convinced Stravinsky to study composition with him. Later that same year Stravinsky’s father passed away and his loyalty to law was diminished. He began focusing more on composing and less on his studies.
Diaghilev was first turned on to Stravinsky after he heard two orchestral works the composer wrote early in his career. Diaghilev, set introducing Paris to Russian ballet but commissioned the composer to create a full-length ballet. The results; The Firebird.
This ballet was an instant hit and the relationship between Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes to include more pieces specifically for the traveling company. In 1911 he composed Petrushka and in 1913 Stravinsky penned Le Sacre du printemps or The Rite of Spring. After the Ballets Russes premiered Stravinsky’s Pulcinella on May 15, 1920 less than a month later Stravinsky and his family moved to Paris.
From there the composer would eventually make his way to the United States and settle in Los Angeles. He would become a citizen in 1945. Stravinsky would eventually move to New York and live there until his death in 1971. He eighty-eight and is buried near Sergei Diaghilev, who used him as a primary commissioned composter for the Ballets Russes.
This French born composer would only be commissioned to do one work for the Ballets Russes but he composed four total. The ballet her composed for Diaghilev, Jeux, would be Debussy’s final orchestral work. It is said to hold some of his most unique harmonies and sounds.
Born on August 22, 1862 in Saint-Germain-en-Laye Debussy as the first of five children. His mother worked as a seamstress while his father ran his own business, a china shop. When his mother escaped the Franco-Prussian War with him in 1870 to his father’s aunts house in Cannes, France. It was while he lived there that Debussy started learning the piano at the age of seven. His instructor was Jean Cerutti, a middle-aged Italian violinist living in France.
After moving on to study with Marie Mauté de Fleurville, a self-proclaimed student of Chopin, Debussy went on to attend the Paris Conservatoire in 1872 at the age of ten. He would stay there for the next eleven years learning from educators like Ernest Guiraud, Louis-Albert Bourgault-Ducoudray, and Émile Durand and many more musical dignitaries of that day.
Debussy went on to produce a repertoire of notable works but only a few were ballets. The specific ballet Debussy wrote for Diaghilev, Jeux, was rejected by the composer at first. Diaghilev doubled his offer and Debussy, for lack of a better term, busted it out. In only one month’s time he had written the entire score.
Jeux premiered on May 15, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris and was conducted by Pierre Monteux. Unfortunately, it was overshadowed by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, which was also premiered by the Ballets Russes a couple weeks afterward.
It falls under the genre of “dance poem” and was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. According to the choreographers writings Diaghilev initially aimed for the work to tell the story of a homosexual meeting between three young men. Also, Nijinsky had hoped to work in an airplane crash. The final version consists of one boy, two girls, and a tennis game.
This composer lived a very immoral life by the standards of his time. He moved from one romantic relationship to another with his first relationship was with a married woman for eight years. From there he went on to live with another only to cheat on her and then leave her for her friend whom he married.
Yet, when his first wife’s beauty succumbed to age Debussy dumped her for the wife of a banker in Paris. He met the woman, Emma Bardac, when her son became his student. His second wife was shunned by her family for leaving her husband and Debussy’s friends all turned their backs on him for his careless lifestyle and immoral leanings.
The couple did not marry but ran to England for a while and finally returned for good to Paris where Bardac gave birth to their only child. Debussy’s daughter was named Claude-Emma but he playfully gave her the nickname “Chouchou” and she inspired one of his most famous works, Children’s Corner.
Debussy passed on at his home in Paris on March 25, 1918. He was only fifty-five years old and his daughter would die the next year. He is buried with his family in Passy Cemetery in Paris.
A dramatic and musical rendition of Debussy’s life portrayed through his own compositions – watch Debussy Alone on Stage!
As one of the most influential composers in the twentieth century, Prokofiev is the final composer on our list to have a ballet commissioned by the Ballets Russes. He was born in Russia and continued on after the Revolution to be a Soviet composter, conductor, and renowned pianist. He has composed pieces over many genres of the day including nine ballets.
Of the nine only four were commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes. The first being Ala I Lolli, which was based on a scenario by Sergey Gorodetsky, a Russian poet. Diaghilev wasn’t pleased when he saw a partial score and rejected the piece. So Prokofiev reworked it and it became the orchestral suite titled the Scythian Suite. Even though this ballet was never performed by the Ballets Russes, it was the first to be commissioned by Diaghilev so it counts.
The next work, which would be the first work for Prokofiev to finish for the Ballets Russes is also known at The Tale of the Buffoon. There is also a suite that is taken from the ballet and this piece is more widely performed than the ballet in its entirety.
Based on an Alexander Afanasyev folk tale it is said that the idea was first given to Diaghilev by Stravinsky. Once again Diaghilev was not happy with what Prokofiev had produced but this time he worked with the composer until he was happy. This would delay production for six years.
The next Prokofiev piece commissioned for the Ballets Russes was Le pas d’acier. The ballet master asked him to compose something after attending the 1925 exhibition of Russian contemporary artists in Paris. Prokofiev took this as his opportunity to “move towards a Russian musical language, not that of the Fairy Tales” that had become the norm. Still, critical accounts claim that the original form was changed and several Russian folk-lore scenes were included in the Ballets Russes productions.
The final work Prokofiev created for the Ballets Russes was the idea of George Balanchine. The libretto, written by Boris Kochno, was based on a lesson in the Gospel of Luke. It premiered in the last Paris season of the Ballet Russes and was performed at the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in May of 1929. The ballet impresario would pass on that same year and thus their collaboration ceased to exist.
Prokofiev would go on to compose four more ballets and many more pieces of music before his death in 1953 at the age of sixty-one. The composer died the same day as Joseph Stalin, which made it hard for the composers mourners to get his casket you of the Soviet Composers’ Union due to the many gathers arriving to mourn Stalin.
An atheist, Prokofiev’s was laid to rest in the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. Today, his compositions are performed more often than any other composer from the last century besides Richard Strauss. A great number of his works including operas, ballets, chamber pieces, and piano music are continually revisited by major companies from all over the world.