31 May 2016

Russian Orientalism and Rimsky-Korsakov

My late mother, a knowledgeable lover of C19th Russian music, left me booklets on Rimsky-Korsakov by Yvonne Frindle 2009 and by Jane Jones 2014. Many thanks to these two authors, and to my mother for her own notes. This is a guest blog from the heavens :)

Geographical proximity had always given the Rus­sians exposure to Eastern peoples, although this contact was sometimes unwilling, as in the case of the early Mongol invasions. As a result of the centuries spent under the Tatar yoke, Russia was often viewed by the West as more Asiatic than European eg “scratch a Russian and find a Tatar”. The Russians must have agreed that the Orientalist vein ran through Russian literature and music of the C19th. The traditional kaftan worn by Russian noblemen and the opulent splendour of the Kremlin interior reflected Asiatic style and proved the historical influence.

Scheherazade performed by Les Ballets Russes,
starring Vera Fokina & Mikhail Fokine, 1914.
The costumes were designed by Leon Bakst

The emergence of Romanticism in early C19th Russian literature popularised exotic settings and The East became a popular choice with many writers, artists and musicians. But while the English and French looked to faraway, even imaginative lands, such as India, Turkey, Egypt and North Africa, Russians found inspiration in their own backyard. The East was contiguous with Russian territory! Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) and Mikhail Lermontov all spent time in the Caucasus*, providing authentic detail to their works. [*The isthmus connects Russia to the Middle East. Today the Russian north contains Chechnya, Dagestan, Ossetia while the south includes independent Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia].

And not just cultural contacts. Tsarist military ambitions of the early 1800s brought Russians close to the fierce tribes men of the Caucasus. Russian conquest of Central Asia in the mid-C19th added wild Turkestan to the empire.

A special group of Russian composers known as The Five loved the idea of bringing East­ern influence in their works. The group, who met from 1856 to 1870, included the leader Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), Alex­and­er Borodin (1833-1887), Modest Muss­org­sky (1839-81) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). These men agreed that the trait that made Russian Orient­alists different from those in Western Europe was a pre-existing sense of ident­ific­at­ion with the East. The Russian composers were not fly-in fly-out visitors to exotic and remote destinations. So they attempted to capture Tur­kic, Persian and Caucasian elements in their music, to set their Russian music apart from stagnant Western-oriented composers.

Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov
first published in 1887.

As well as authentic Eastern melodies, Russian Orientalism added another element. Eastern musical conventions made it possible to write music on subjects normally considered a bit risky eg political themes and erotic fantasies. It also became a means of expressing Russian domination, right at the time that the empire was expand­ing under Tsar Alexander II (reigned 1855-1881).

Nowhere was domination better reinforced than through anti-woman symbolism — the rational, active and moral Western man Vs the irrational, passive and immoral Eastern woman. A work dominated by Arabia’s Orientalism was Rimsky-Korsakov's symphony Antar which used two different styles of music: Western/ Russian and Eastern/Arabian. The first theme, Antar's, represented both masculinity and Russian character. The second theme, Queen Gul Nazar’s, represented both femininity and Eastern character. Frindle acknowledged that Rimsky-Korsakov wanted to moderate the implicit misogyny somewhat. However with Queen Gul Nazar taking Antar's life in a final embrace, the venomous nature of Oriental female sensuality won. 

In 1887, while Rimsky-Korsakov was working to complete Alexander Borodin's unfinished opera Prince Igor, he wrote an orchestral piece called Scheherazade. It was based on pictures from One Thousand and One Nights. I am not sure how much of Scheherazade was about Sinbad the sailor, Ali Baba and Aladdin, but the composer definitely wanted the listener to hear his work as an Oriental-themed symphonic music that evoked a sense of the fairy-tale adventure. In the end it was a treasure glittering with musical jewels, swirling with the sounds of the sea, pulsating with the unbridled joys of celebration.

Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov
first performed in Paris in 1910.
The blue and green set was designed by Leon Bakst

Decades later, the Russian Orientalism of earlier generations would find new interpretations on the concert stage. Between 1909-12, the Ballets Russes was the legendary company that enchanted the world with its port­rayals of forbidden harems and passionate love. They premiered six Oriental ballets in Paris: Polovestian Dances from Prince Igor, Cleopatra, Scheherazade, Les Orientales, Le Dieu Bleu and Thamar (1909-12).

Ballets Russes provided Paris with brilliant Russian dancers, composers, choreographers & theatrical designers, collaborating to create a dazzling vision of the exotic East. So early C20th notions about Eastern dance came not from the Arab world, but from Russia. And the impact of the Eastern ballets on the Parisian public soon swept waves of Orientalism across the fashion and art worlds.

Cleopatra premiered in Paris in June 1909, with the title role played by Ida Rubinstein. Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina were cast as Cleopatra’s slaves. Mikhail Fokine and Anna Pavlova were the requisite doomed lovers — a common theme in these oriental ballets. The score combined works by various C19th Russian composers: including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mikhail Glinka, Modest Moussorgsky and Aleksandr Glazunov. The staging was spectacular. Cleopatra’s magnetic beauty won the attention of Pavlova’s fickle lover, Amun. He begged for a night of passion with the queen. She granted his wish, on the condition that he drank poison in the morning.

Thamar was set in Caucasian Georgia. Leon Bakst drew on Georgian architecture for inspiration in designing the set for Thamar’s castle. Mikhail Fokine used elements of traditional Georgian dance in the choreography. Once again, it was the vision of a decadent and sadistic East that so captivated audiences in St Petersburg, Odessa and later Paris.

Almost as an aside, let me mention a very cruel tale of anti-woman violence in the Orient that emerged in Eugène Delacroix’s (1798-1863) painting The Death of Sard­anapalus (1827). Delacroix took the story from the 1821 play of the same name by Lord Byron. According to the story, Sardanapalus was the last king of Nineveh, a city in between the Mediterranean Sea and the Caspian Sea (present day Iraq). Aft­er learning that his city was under attack by a rebellious enemy group, Sardanap­alus decided that instead of facing a humiliating defeat, he would destroy his prized possessions. The king lounged apathetically on his bed watching while his beloved concubines, horses and slaves were all burned alive on a funeral pyre.

But note that Russian composers known as The Five met from 1856 to 1870. It seems that Byron’s play and Delacroix’s painting were too early to be influenced by Russian Orientalism.

28 May 2016

Gabriel Astruc - Paris' special theatrical impressario

In all our discussions about the Belle Epoque in lectures, it was been the impact of Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes that fasc­inated the students most. In 1906 Diaghilev took a major exhibition of Russian art to the Petit Palais in Paris, the first of many trips to France. He loved it, so I could understand why Diag­hilev wanted to travel to the Paris Opéra with six performances of Muss­org­sky's opera Boris Godunov in 1908. But why did he move his entire company from St Peters­burg to Paris permanently the next year?

Gabriel Astruc (1864–1938) was born in Bordeaux, the son of the ex-Chief Rabbi of Belgium. His family had no money, so young Gabriel had to begin his career working for a Polish publisher and book shop owner in Paris, Paul Ollendorff. In 1890 Astruc founded an art journal, l'Amateur.

Loving Montmartre's modernist Le Chat Noir cabaret, Astruc became friends with young Erik Satie and wrote critiques of theatre performances. Then his career began to diversify. In 1897 Astruc founded a music publishing company with his father-in-law Wilhelm Enoch, soon to be followed 1900 by a luxury magazine Musica. By 1904 Astruc was identifying himself as a concert promoter.

The Belle Epoque years leading up to WW1 were a revelation to Astruc. He brought every musical talent that he could attract to Paris to create his Great Season of Paris. Imagine the excit­e­ment for Parisians who saw, for the first time in 1905, a season with the Italian Enrico Caruso, Arthur Rubinstein or the Australian sop­rano Nellie Melba. Or the production of Salome, conducted by Richard Strauss in 1907. Or the Metropol­itan Opera conducted by Arturo Toscanini in 1910. And Debussy knocked their socks off doing Le martyre de Saint Sébastien in 1911.

Gabriel Astruc, 
director of Théâtre des Champs Elysées 

Astruc and Marcel Proust (1871–1922) were close, Astruc having helped proof read the first edition of Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, Swann's Way in 1913. Proust was delight­ed and in return, he helped Astruc prepare his memoirs, Le pavillon des fantômes.

But the greatest achievement for Astruc occurred when he encouraged Diaghilev to bring the Ballets Russes to Paris permanently in 1909. Was there any indicat­ion that French audiences would respond warmly to an “invasion” of foreign culture? Jewish financial supporters were recruited by Astruc, Diaghilev’s producer, to underwrite the ballet. And educated, cultivated Jewish ballet fans were excited to fill the halls. Ast­r­uc’s Jewishness apparently connected him to the great Jewish audien­ces that established the success of the Russian ballet in Paris. These audiences seemed eager to associate with the new vogue from the East; even Chagall understood the marketing potential of his own origins. 

Astruc's and Diaghilev's favourite composer was Igor Stravinsky. And once they heard Fireworks, they quickly asked Stravinsky to arrange some music for the Ballets Russes. The first score comm­issioned from Strav­insky was The Firebird 1910, Pet­rushka 1911, The Rite of Spring 1913 and Pulcinella 1920. Together with the best set and costume designers in Europe, Leon Bakst and Pablo Picasso, the team in Paris was unstoppable.

Theatre des Champs-Elysees
Designed by Astruc and opened in 1913

Before WW1, Astruc produced his next huge project, the modernist Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Ave Montaige. Astruc needed a venue that would be suitable for opera, symphonies, drama and any other art form that he would, in time, be producing and integrating. His theatre opened its doors in March 1913 for the inaugural celebration and the first of six performances of Hector Berlioz’s long lost opera Ben­venuto Cell­ini.

After a dazzling and scandalous first season, Astruc started to lose money, probably not helped by the infamous riot at the premiere of The Rite of Spring. Apparently the audience believed Nijinsky’s choreography, and the set designs and costumes, were far too suggestive.

Léonide Massine, Léon Bakst and Igor Stravinsky

There was an even worse price to pay. Léon Daudet and his brothers in the Action Française heaped anti-Semitic vitriol on the rabbi’s son from Bordeaux eg “The Jew behind the Grand Season of Paris is demolishing the Parisian season, as his ilk demolishes the French forest completely. Poverty, then ruin. A curse on the sedentary population. When Astruc is finished ruining Paris, he will do the same with Vienna or Berlin”. But Daudet was wasting his poisoned breath; nothing would stop Paris’ love affair with the Belle Epoque, especially the cultural activities produced by Gabriel Astruc.

After WWI Astruc worked in radio and advertising, and later served as the manager of the Théâtre Pigalle for Philippe de Rothschild. Over the decades Astruc had been an agent, theatre impresario, creator of a leading periodical, producer of music stage and ballet, music publisher. And he worked with many of the best-known and most important cultural figures of Belle Epoque Paris, both French and foreign-born. Not bad for one ambitious and talented Frenchman, working his way up the creative arts ladder.


Born into an educated Jewish family in Angers, Zacharie Astruc (1833–1907) was a French author of several novels, short stories and plays. He became an important figure in the cultural life of France in the later C19th as a painter, and participated in the first landmark Impressionist exhibition of 1874. As a sculptor his reputation was even greater, and won him medals at the Salons of 1882-1886, as well as at the Universal Exposition of 1889. In 1890 Zacharie Astruc received the Cross of the Legion of Honour.

Fantin-Latour, 1870 
Un atelier aux Batignolles 
Musée d'Orsay

As an art critic, Zacharie was a strong defender of Courbet, and was one of the first to recognise the talent of Manet, Monet, Whistler and Fantin-Latour. Perhaps to thank him, Zacharie appeared in Henri Fantin-Latour's signature work, Un atelier aux Batignolles.

In the atelier, Édouard Manet concentrated on the man sitting in the other chair Zacharie Astruc. Standing around and watching the artist at work were some of his friends. At the left of the painting was the German painter Otto Schölderer and Auguste Renoir in his hat. To the right of the painting were Emile Zola, Edmond Maître and Claude Monet. The tall man with the beard was Frédéric Bazille.

Was Zacharie Astruc an uncle to Gabriel Astruc?

24 May 2016

John Osborne and Look Back in Anger (1956)

The Angry Young Men were a group of British writers who came to fame in the 1950s, especially John Osborne and Kingsley Amis. They were young males, often from working class families in post-WW2 Britain.

In once sense, this was not a good time for families who had been let down in the past by traditional British society, its education system, the economy and class structure. In another sense, the post war era (1950s) was the first time the working class had some disposable income and a degree of cultural respect. Unemployment was very low and young people could move out to a bed-sit or a shared flat, instead of living with mum and dad.

Osborne’s famous play Look Back in Anger 1956 was attracting attention to a new style of drama. He strongly expressed anger at what Britain had become post-war, deliberately provoking other people to also be dismayed about their previously proud nation. Literary works began to deal with lower class themes for the first time in ages.

My late mother, a child of the Russian Revolution and a Labour Party die-hard, admired the working class lads who became the Angry Young Men enormously. But in 1956 I was more interested in the Melbourne Olympic Games and the Christmas pantomimes than I was in the play Look Back in Anger. Now a new book caught my eye: “John Osborne: Anger is not About..” written by Peter White­brook (Oberon Books, 2015).

Why did John Osborne (1929-94) turn into an angry, insec­ure adult with an unstable career and a hopeless history of wives, girl friends and lovers? He married actress Pamela Lane in 1950, actress Mary Ure in 1957; novelist and screen writer Penelope Gil­liatt in 1963; actress Jill Bennett in 1968; and arts journalist Helen Dawson in 1978. For long periods of time, Osborne also went out with a myriad of other women including actress and writer Stella Linden, designer Jocelyn Rickards and writer Doris Lessing. He had only one child of his own, treated her abusively when she was an adolescent and never spoke to her again. In almost every relationship, he eventually treated his women with anger, hatred and punishment. Osborne’s hate knew no bounds.

John Osborne, 
Chelsea 1958

The crisis that made Osborne a subject of national scandal was learned at his mother’s knee. In his autobiography “A Better Class of Person” (1981) Osborne wrote that his mother Nellie Beatrice Osborne, was an uneducated Cockney barmaid who rained withering contempt on her son throughout their arid life together. She attacked him for his timidity, his spindly looks and his bed-wetting. His loving father, an adman with literary yearnings, died of TB when Osborne was only ten, leaving the boy alone with the grabbing, uncaring crone Nellie. A hateful mother would make anyone full of self-hatred and insecurities!

It was good (or bad) timing that Osborne became a celebrity at the start of an age of tabloid press intrusion. He showed publicly his impatience with the status quo, his refusal to be co-opted by a bankrupt society and an instinctive solidarity with the lower classes. But I still could not tell if he truly hated British society then, or if he was just using the tabloid press to whip up interest in his work.

To me his anger seemed very real. In his most important and provocative play, the working class character Jimmy Porter was indeed represented as an embodiment of the young, rebellious post-war generation that questioned the state and its treatment of the working class. But Jimmy was also brutal and abusive to his young and pregnant wife.

The author Peter Whitebrook chased every contemporary source of information. He read the playwright's own memoirs of course and those of many others in Osborne’s life back then, plus he recently held interviews with any of the playwright’s close colleagues who were still alive. Yet I realised half way through the book that Whitebrook and I were going to come to different conclusions.

Whitebrook's publishers wrote that here was a playwright from the wrong side of the tracks whose career rose very quickly and very early. Only in his mid 20s, his dazzl­ingly high-octane performance and in a succession of increasingly ambitious plays written in the late 50s/early 60s, he was able to unite a profound intelligence with a caustically honest depth of feeling. By refusing to submit to caution, he laid bare in some of the most poetic and incendiary language heard in the C20th theatre, not only his own struggles and contradictions but those of the era. Almost single-handedly, he made the theatre important again.

Mary Ure, Alan Bates, Helena Hughes and Kenneth Haigh, 
first night's performance of Look Back in Anger, 
Royal Court London 1956

But did he really revolutionise British theatre? Yes he did, but it was not overnight. Look Back In Anger was written in seventeen days while sitting in a deckchair on Morecambe pier. The legend is, of course, that Osborne’s play was an immediate success and in a flash British theatre was changed forever. Replaced by plays set in drab working class northern bed-sits, the posh drawing-room dramas from playwrights like Terrence Rattigan and Noel Coward, were seemingly banished overnight.

Unfortunately Osborne's play was generally initially dismissed by most of the critics, took in very little money and the production was seen pretty much as a miserable failure. Only when the BBC decided to broadcast a short excerpt of the play one evening did listeners like what they heard, and decided to go and see the play for themselves. Takings immediately doubled at the box office. The effect snowballed and the play eventually transferred to the West End. Not an overnight success, but Osborne had now become a very famous angry young man indeed.

Osborne’s only musical, The World of Paul Slickey (1959), was not a success. When the angry audience booed Osborne out of the theatre, they followed him down the street yelling. Osborne escaped but the following morning, he read the newspaper critics’ terrible reviews. "The ordeal lasts for 3 boring hours" and "extraordinary dullness", wrote the Manchester Guardian, The Times and Daily Telegraph. Osborne proclaimed that the critical assault was exactly what he would have expected from ignorant London theatre reviewers. Soon Osborne got out of Dodge with the show’s costume designer, the two of them running away to France.

On a personal level, Whitebrook acknowledged that few drama­tists felt compelled to reveal so much of their own flaws, anx­ieties, passions and hatreds as John Osborne did. But Whitebrook exposed Osborne as a mixture of generosity and cruelty; charm and gracelessness; organised energy and chaos; sex appeal, depression and alcoholism – and about that, I am not so sure. I did not see any generosity or charm in Osborne’s life.