As Taruskin puts it, with the World of Art ballet enterprise, Stravinsky met his destiny. The two creative ideas, mentioned previously, that went into shaping this project were "synthesism," a uniting of various artistic media in an all-embracing theatrical manifestation, and "neonationalism," stylistic renewal through the professional assimilation of motifs derived from folk and peasant arts and handicrafts. The Firebird is the result of a complex array of artistic influences including these and others.
The state monopoly on theaters was rescinded in 1882 which led to the presentation of private productions of opera among which the most important were those staged by the railroad tycoon Savva Ivanovich Mamontov (1841 - 1918). His Russian Private Opera productions always featured sets and designs by prominent painters instead of mere artisans. Most of Rimsky-Korsakov's late operas would be premiered by this group which included the participation of the young Chaliapin. These productions placed more importance on the visual presentation than any previous Gesamtkunstwerk.
"National character," particularly in those nations whose character could be seen as exotic, was an important late 19th century artistic value, especially in theater. But composers of Rimsky-Korsakov's generation scorned the undoctored and unidealized folk music of the ordinary people. Russian composers might have loved folk music but they did not trust it, preferring instead the forms and methods derived from conservatory courses in harmony and voice-leading. Pre-Firebird, this was Stravinsky's attitude as well.
The re-discovery of the Russian native traditions really began, ironically, with a book by Stasov published in 1872 that was a compendium of ornamental motifs from peasant handicrafts. One other area in which the neonationalist movement began was in architecture with gallery facades in an archaic Muskovite style. One outstanding example of the style is the Church of the Resurrection in St. Petersburg completed in 1907:
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Nothing neoclassical about that!
Peasant art was celebrated from an explicitly modernist perspective by artists like Nikolai Roerich who, we will see, had an important role to play in the genesis of the Rite of Spring. Beginning with a huge exhibition of Russian painting in 1906, Diaghilev devoted his energies to the promotion of Russian culture in Paris. In May 1907 he presented a musical retrospective at the Grand Opéra that consisted of five concerts of celebrated Russian singers and virtuosi including Rachmaninoff, Chaliapin and Rimsky-Korsakov conducting his own works. In February 1908 Diaghilev was ready to present in Paris (at the Palais Garnier) a spectacle grander than any seen in Russia: the Russian opera par excellence, Boris Godunov. It was to represent the confluence of synthesism, neonationalism and the aesthetics of the World of Art. The leading role was played by Chaliapin, which made his career:
Diaghilev's production went back to the original sources, Musorgsky's manuscripts in the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg, and restored several passages that Rimsky-Korsakov had omitted in his 1896 revision. The emphasis was to be on the title role, theatrical grandeur and momentum. Diaghilev was more interested in the visual impact than in a literary one. The next step, logically, was to eliminate the verbal altogether, which takes us to ballet.
To end this post, we should have a listen and look at the great opera by Musorgsky, Boris Godunov. This is the Mariyinsky Theater production of 2012, conducted by Valery Gergiev:
Isn't it interesting that, like the Rite of Spring, Boris Godunov begins with a bassoon solo? Sorry about the French sub-titles.