The 1911–1912 seasons of the Ballets Russes saw the premiers of two of the twentieth century’s greatest scores — Stravinsky’s Petroushka and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé. But, while Petroushka was a great success and (for non-musical reasons) the Ravel considerably less so, it was two smaller works that seemed most to capture the public imagination in these seasons.
Le spectre de la rose took as its subject a poem by Théophile Gautier and used music written by Weber (The invitation to the dance) and orchestrated by Berlioz. It was designed as a vehicle for the athleticism of Nijinsky and culminated in a spectacular leap through a window that, apparently, left audiences breathless and queuing up for more.
The second work, L’Après-midi d’un faune was also based on a poem, this time by Stéphane Mallarmé. In 1894 Debussy had composed an extraordinary orchestral piece (Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune) conjuring the atmosphere of Mallarmé’s poem (and, in the process, changing irrevocably the whole vocabulary of music!); it was this Prélude that provided the score for the ballet. The production, however, became famous (notorious?) for a different reason: its overt eroticism was too much even for (some) French sensibilities. Gaston Calmette, editor-in-chief of Le Figaro used the front page(!) of his newspaper to air his view that L’Après-midi was
‘neither a pretty pastoral nor a work of profound meaning. We are shown a lecherous faun [Nijinsky again], whose movements are filthy and bestial in their eroticism, and whose gestures are as crude as they are indecent.’
a scandal ensued.
You can judge both ballets for yourself: Rudolf Nureyev recreates two of Nijinsky’s most famous rôles:
Le spectre de la rose
Soulève ta paupière close
Qu’effleure un songe virginal ;
Je suis le spectre d’une rose
Que tu portais hier au bal…
[Lift your closed eyelids
Brushed by innocent dream;
I am the ghost of a rose
That you wore last night to the ball…]
Théophile Gautier (1811–1872)
L’Après-midi d’un faune
wwwwwwwwwwww…Non, mais l’âme
De paroles vacante et ce corps alourdi
Tard succombent au fier silence de midi :
Sans plus il faut dormir en l’oubli du blasphème,
Sur le sable altéré gisant et comme j’aime
Ouvrir ma bouche à l’astre efficace des vins! …
wwwwwwwwwwww[…No, but the soul
Void of words, and this heavy body,
Succumb to noon’s proud silence slowly:
With no more ado, forgetting blasphemy, I
Must sleep, lying on the thirsty sand, and as I
Love, open my mouth to wine’s true constellation!…]*
Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898)
* Translation © A. S. Kline
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