m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

N O V E M B E R   1 9 5 3

The Diaghilev I Knew
IGOR STRAVINSKY was born on the outskirts of St. Petersburg in 1882. His father was the leading bass singer at the Imperial Opera. At the age of nine the boy was allowed to take piano lessons, but his parents disapproved of a musical career and later sent him to study law at the University of St. Petersburg. Upon his graduation in 1905, he broke away to learn composition from Rimski-Korsakov; and by 1914 he had achieved international fame as a musical innovator with The Firebird, Petrouchka, and The Rites of Spring, which were commissioned by Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes. For nineteen years he was Diaghilev's favorite composer. This record of their friendship has been translated by Mercedes de Acosta.

by Igor Stravinsky

THE ever-growing interest shown by the American public in the art of the dance, the success with which the finest choreographic spectacles have met, and the increasing talent and skill of the performers give me an opportunity to recall the impressive figure of a man who not only contributed greatly to the world-wide spread of this art, but, by sheer inspiring energy and breadth of cultural initiative, raised the prestige of the ballet to undreamed-of heights. I am speaking of my late friend, Sergei Diaghilev.

Nineteen years of close collaboration, of affection and mutual friendship, enable me to draw a portrait far more accurate than the characterizations of some writers of questionable impartiality who knew him but slightly. I met Diaghilev in the autumn of 1909 when he approached me with the commission to compose music for The Firebird. Until then he had displayed in St. Petersburg a prodigious activity in the world of art, struggling stubbornly against the prevailing state of cultural ignorance and of provincialism. I had, of course, known for a long time about the magnificent results obtained by his excellent artistic publications and his brilliant exhibitions; however, our personal relations began only when he commissioned me to write The Firebird.
Return to "Redeeming the Rake"

Living in the same city, I naturally had more than one occasion to meet him, but I never sought these occasions. From all I had heard of him, I imagined him haughty, arrogant, and snobbish. To tell the truth, I found, after I met him, that the reputation people had given him was not entirely without foundation. He had many unsympathetic traits -- which, however, were not the essence of his nature. They were simply a defense that he felt was useful in order to protect himself from the stupidity of people and to keep them at a distance. But I never saw him rude to anyone. No matter with what class of people he chanced to meet, he was always very well bred. To use a Russian term, he behaved like a barin, which means a grand seigneur.

I think the expression "Russian barin" characterizes Diaghilev's nature and explains his amazing activity as the inspirer, promoter, and organizer of a long series of artistic events, such as the revue Mir Iskousstva, numerous art expositions, the historic exhibition of portraits at the Palais de Tauride in St. Petersburg, the Russian concerts at the Opera in Paris, the Russian operas -- especially Boris Godunov, given for the first time in Paris in 1908 -- and finally the creation of the Russian Ballet.

It is only by understanding the nature of a cultured barin such as used to exist in Russia (a nature generous, strong, and capricious; with intense will, a rich sense of contrasts, and deep ancestral roots) that we can explain the character and originality of Diaghilev's creations, so different from the average artistic enterprises. Apart from his intelligence, his culture, his extraordinary artistic flair, and his sincere enthusiasm, he possessed a will of iron, tenacity, an almost superhuman resistance and passion to fight and to overcome the most insurmountable obstacles. Born to command, he knew how to make people obey him by sheer prestige and authority, without recourse to violence. He displayed characteristics of the enlightened despot, of the natural leader who knows how to drive the most unyielding elements, at times using persuasion, at others, charm. His passionate devotion to the cause he served and to the ideas he was then promulgating and his complete disinterestedness and lack of personal ambition in all his enterprises won the hearts of his co-workers. Working with him, they realized, meant working solely for the great cause of art.


THERE are people who insinuate that Diaghilev's Ballets Russes were merely transplanted from the Imperial Russian Ballet just as it existed in St. Petersburg and Moscow before him; that Diaghilev's role was solely that of a clever impresario. This is not only a grave error but a flagrant injustice, revealing only the ignorance of whoever makes such an absurd statement. In Diaghilev's repertoire of about fifty works, only three ballets -- Le Pavillon d'Armide, Les Sylphides, and Carnaval -- had been produced in St. Petersburg before he began touring Europe; even these were entirely revised before he gave them during his first two seasons in Paris. Later, when he returned to the classical dance, he also revived two acts of Swan Lake and of Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Princess. Everything else in his repertoire was created by him with the help of collaborators of his own choice. It was he who selected subject, composer, decorator, choreographer, and cast. It was he who directed and supervised the entire production. To every spectacle his personal touch gave originality and value.

One must not forget that, at the time when Diaghilev made his first tour in Europe, the repertoire of the Imperial Russian Ballet consisted mostly of heavy productions in four acts and many scenes, where the worst mingled with the best. Composed in an old-fashioned manner on insipid subjects, presented with rich but conventional decor and costumes and without the slightest care for harmonious ensemble, they were, nevertheless, admirably executed by first-class soloists and corps de ballet. But the choreography of these ballets had congealed into immutable forms from which all attempts at renewal and all inspiration seemed excluded. As for the music -- with the exception of a few ballets by Tchaikovsky and Glazunov -- it was even less than mediocre and very often hopelessly banal.

The merit of Diaghilev was that he was able to breathe new life into the ballet, to change its form, to coordinate the different elements of which it was composed, to make it completely homogeneous, and to raise it to the highest degree of art. During the first years he was tremendously helped by the admirable staff of young Imperial artists that he could call upon, and among whom were already the great future stars. Who does not know the names of Karsavina and Nijinsky? And who does not know Bolm or Fokine? The latter had just made his debut as a choreographer in St. Petersburg, where conservatives of the old guard feared his audacious innovations. In Diaghilev's organization Fokine found a vast field of activity where he could use his talents to their fullest.

Later, at the beginning of the First World War, most of these artists were obliged to return to their country; and it was then that Diaghilev was forced to recruit a troupe of his own, which during those difficult years he trained with the aid of the celebrated Professor Enrico Cecchetti. Among this group of artists were Nemchinova, Sokolova, Massine, Woizikovsky, Dolin, and Lifar. When, after the Russian Revolution, some of the artists of the old Imperial Theatre succeeded in reaching foreign lands, Diaghilev met them with open arms as he had always been a fervent admirer of the classical school of the dance, which he considered an indispensable base for all choreographic art. It was then that he engaged the celebrated Olga Spessivtzeva for the leading role in The Sleeping Princess which he produced in London. He saw in her the pure incarnation of the classical dance. At this same time he engaged the charming Danilova and George Balanchine, whom he recognized at once as a great choreographer and who, in later years, produced most of his ballets.

I am relating all this to make it clear that the Ballets Russes are the creation of Diaghilev and his collaborators. Nothing of the kind ever existed before him and it is to him that we owe the recent development of choreographic art in the entire world and the universal admiration which it inspires. To confirm my statements let me say that up to the present moment Diaghilev's repertoire is still the foundation of most of the ballet companies which have tried to succeed him. And what a strange thing! These ballets are given in nearly every country in the world -- with the exception of Russia! As far as I know, only Petrouchka (produced there ten years after it was created) has remained in the repertoire. The Firebird and Pulcinello were also given, but not for long. Truthfully, no one is a prophet in his own country!

Like all great personalities, Diaghilev had devoted friends and at the same time violent enemies. He also had his own likes and dislikes, and never concealed the latter. What he detested most was banality, incompetency, and lack of savoir-faire. Often he showed these dislikes by his disdainful attitude. In his work he was an autocrat and hated to share responsibility. Nevertheless, he asked advice from his friends and from anyone whose judgment he admired. But once he made a decision, nothing could change him. This despotism, while it enabled him to achieve results he could not have obtained otherwise, often roused his co-workers to indignation. Quarrels were thus very frequent, at times turning into dramas.

He was incredibly jealous toward his friends, especially those of whom he was fondest. He would never permit them to work for anyone else. If they did he considered it treason. And yet he was always on the lookout for new talents, which he seemed to discover where no one else would have guessed their existence. He constantly changed his staff and collaborators. The old-timers felt hurt and frowned upon the newcomers, not realizing that they were taking the same jealous attitude which they had criticized in Diaghilev. All this caused much painful discord and prolonged ruptures. Fortunately they did not last forever.

Diaghilev knew how to create round him amazing activity and an artistic atmosphere that was like an electric current which stimulated all his associates into work, sharpened their fantasy, and made any task seem worth doing. One forgot effort and fatigue. Carried away by this fever of work, one became intoxicated with the sense of participation in a creation pure and disinterested.

As a result those among Diaghilev's co-workers who had left him dramatically would always feel a nostalgia for his laboratory, for that perpetually boiling caldron of work; and fascinated by its irresistible charm -- forgetting griefs and grievances -- they were always ready to return. As for Diaghilev, although his fits of temper could be terrible for the moment, he never held a grudge, and when his friends and artists returned to him, he always took them back as if nothing had ever occurred.

He loved music passionately and understood it very well. But his tastes varied and did not always agree with mine. He had certain preferences to which he always remained inwardly faithful, but sometimes he sacrificed them for the sake of opportunity. For instance, he did not dare for a long time to produce Tchaikovsky's ballets, although he adored his music, merely because the supposedly advanced set in Paris -- which, he felt, had to be considered -- held that composer, for reasons still mysterious to me, in disgrace and contempt. But he never made any concessions to the so-called great public. On the contrary, it often gave him pleasure to amaze and shock them.

If one were to ask me what music impressed him the most, I would say, without speaking of my own (the number of my works he produced speaks for itself), that he loved best old Italian music and that of Gounod and Tchaikovsky. It was with real joy that he used to study in the libraries -- especially in Italy -- old scores and manuscripts of Pergolesi, Domenico Scarlatti, and Cimarosa. What a thrill it was for him when he discovered in cimarosa's Le Astuzie Feminili a dance divertissement with Russian motifs entitled Ballo Russo! This was because Cimarosa had been for many years Master of the Chapel at the court of Catherine II. Diaghilev produced this opera in its entirety, later only giving one act, which he called Cimarosiana.

He became enthusiastic over Gounod when we went together to several performances of the opera Philemon et Baucis, which was produced in 1923 at the Theatre du Trianon Lyrique in Paris. This gave him the idea to bring back to the fore this delightful composer. Diaghilev did research among Gounod's forgotten works and I still remember with what delight he listened to Le Medecin Malgre Lui, which he found and which I played to him with as much pleasure as he had in hearing it. The following year he produced with great care these two operas in Monte Carlo, but his dream of a Gounod "revival" failed in the face of an indifferent and snobbish public who did not dare applaud the music of a composer not accepted by the avant-garde.

The time that I saw Diaghilev the most enthusiastic was when -- feeling that the moment had at last arrived when he could give to the public a composer whom he had never ceased to love -- he produced in London, with unprecedented splendor, Tchaikovsky's ballet The Sleeping Princess. I never saw him work with such ardor and love! After long and painstaking preparation, in which I also took an active part, the ballet was finally produced with a brilliant cast, including the most celebrated stars of the Imperial Ballet, and with magnificent sets and costumes designed by Bakst. But a catastrophe took place. At the end of the second act when the actors were meant to sleep, an enchanted forest:, with trees and foliage, was supposed to rise slowly out of the ground to hide the background. In St. Petersburg this was wonderfully arranged, thanks to the perfect machinery and competent stagehands. At the Alhambra in London, however, all the equipment was much more primitive. So, at the beginning of this scene, the audience suddenly heard a great cracking noise, the machinery stopped working, and the end of the act was completely ruined.

This unhappy occurrence no doubt contributed to the lack of success of the performance. Diaghilev was in despair. That night, probably because he had worked so hard and used so much vitality, he had a nervous breakdown. He sobbed like a child and all of us around him had difficulty calming him. With his usual superstition, he saw in this incident a bad omen and seemed to lose all confidence in his new creation, to which he had given so much of his soul and energy.


DIAGHILEV loved splendor, sumptuousness, and brilliance. He loved to do things in the grand manner. Unfortunately he never had adequate means to satisfy his tastes. How happy he was whenever he did have sufficient money! He had extreme pleasure in organizing a grandiose pageant in the palace at Versailles in the summer of 1923. A committee was formed in Paris to arrange a series of festivals in Versailles. Diaghilev was given the necessary funds to provide a spectacle in the chateau's celebrated Gallery of Mirrors to depict the court of Louis XIV. He immediately started work, building at one end a stage made almost entirely of mirrors. Even the staircases leading to it on both sides had steps made of mirrors. Diaghilev composed a magnificent program of dances and songs. Every performer was richly dressed in the Louis XIV style. The famous Gallery of Mirrors was flooded with light. The jewels of the top ladies of fine society sparkled under it. Every seat had been reserved long ahead of time. Everyone heard about this unique evening. It was talked about for months as the "event" of the season, never to be forgotten or duplicated.

Diaghilev was a worthy descendant of a long line of Russian barins who did not know the meaning of the word economy, and who, in order to satisfy their slightest whims, went into debt with nonchalance and inconceivable unconcern. He inherited their same generous nature, only his fancies led him into the realm of art and culture. Had he been a millionaire he would surely have ruined himself, but no doubt he would have enriched our artistic inheritance with accomplishments still more beautiful and grandiose than those he was permitted to produce. Alas! He never had enough money at his disposal. Before the war, when he was quite wealthy, he spent his money without concern but always on his productions. Later he went through very hard times, especially at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, when his compatriots were looked upon as though they had the plague. He lived in dire poverty with his troupe and was unable to leave Spain for a whole year. After that he became more careful of his expenditures.

Even during his most prosperous periods he never spent money on himself. During the last years of his life I always saw him living in a little modest hotel room, often without a bathroom. In former days he had a valet, but when he was without funds the valet left him and he never had another one. The few jewels he possessed had been given to him. As time passed he either lost or sold them. He never had a car. His suits were often shabby, and someone had to remind him to buy a new one or to order a new hat. (His head was so large that he had to have his hats made to order.) He never saved any money. Had he wished to do so, he could not have done it, as his undertakings always cost more than they made. Everything he did was idealistic. Commercialism was entirely foreign to his nature.

He was extremely obliging. I never remember his refusing a service to anyone, and they were asked of him very often. The well-known Russian hospitality was deeply rooted in him. When he had money he loved to keep "open house," and then his companions were indeed numerous. It would be difficult to count the number of people who took advantage of him and who lived on him. I know -- and I can prove it -- how often he came to the aid of friends, relatives, and even people who were not close to him. But he never spoke about these things, and as, in most cases, the people themselves never mentioned them, these facts remained unknown.

Diaghilev had remarkable health. His endurance and powers of resistance were incredible. Inactivity was torture to him. Resting or doing nothing depressed him deeply; for this reason he was always active. Because he depended upon his Herculean strength he overtaxed his health. When he was past fifty, and in spite of the advice of his doctor, he would not change his way of living. At the same time he had a terror of illness and old age, and of death. The slightest cold made him miserable. He was frightened out of his wits by a sea voyage. Even the Channel crossing frightened him. The one trip he made to the United States was a nightmare to him -- but then, it was during the war.

His fear of contagion was legendary and often made him ridiculous. For example, at the beginning of this century, when there were not yet any automobiles, there were in St. Petersburg a number of cases of a disease contracted from horses, the mere idea of which practically made him ill. He would not go out walking but always took a carriage and kept the windows closed. Venice became his favorite city because it had no horses. Luckily, when automobiles came in, he got over this nonsense.

One can gather, from all this, that Diaghilev was terribly superstitious. After several trips to Italy, and influenced by his Italian valet, he added many Italian superstitions to his already numerous Russian ones. His pockets were always full of little objects that were supposed to bring good luck or protect him against the "evil eye." They were usually coins or little pieces of horns or coral.

Less than two months before his death an accident happened which would have confirmed all his apprehensions. After the last performance in Paris, Diaghilev went to his usual restaurant for supper. Several artists were supposed to join him, among them Lifar, who remained behind at the last moment in his dressing room to find a package which he had left on the shelf, over the coat rack. As he did so, an object fell from the shelf and broke into a thousand pieces. It was a big mirror belonging to Lifar which someone had placed on the package. According to a Russian superstition, a broken mirror is an omen that a person very close to one will die. To prevent this, one must gather up the pieces and throw them into running water. This is what Lifar did -- he threw the pieces into the Seine. Naturally no one breathed a word to Diaghilev. If he had known!

Diaghilev died and was buried in Venice. He had the good luck to end his last days in the country which, after his own, he loved more than any other in the world and in the city which he preferred above all others. According to the people who were with him during his last moments, he became delirious from fever and suddenly began to sing. They were melodies of Tchaikovsky. Thus in delirium, and at the threshold of eternity, he unconsciously recalled that which he had loved the most and which he never ceased loving.

Copyright © 1953 by Igor Stravinsky. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1953; The Diaghilev I Knew; Volume 192, No. 5; pages 33 - 36.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture