The Scythians and The Rite of Spring: Stravinsky and Roerich


Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (in French, Le Sacre du printemps) – the third ballet which Stravinsky composed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, after The Firebird (1910) and Petrushka (1911) – was written for the 1913 Paris season, and premiered just over a hundred years ago, on 29 May, in the newly-opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The centenary of this most notorious premiere is the occasion for numerous celebrations: new performances, revivals, and festivals which will extend across the next year. The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is hosting a range of balletic and orchestral performances, in a programme led by Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet. In Moscow, four choreographies of the work have been shown by the Bolshoi Ballet over the last two months; with their performance of Pina Bausch’s interpretation set to travel worldwide. The Barbican and the Southbank Centre in London will feature orchestral performances of Stravinsky’s music. Carolina Performing Arts at Chapel Hill have devoted the next year to various showings of the work.

In Amsterdam, as part of the Holland Festival, the Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei has produced a new version for Het Nationale Ballet. The Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel – which houses the Stravinsky archive – and Boosey & Hawkes are publishing a three-volume centenary edition comprising essays and an annotated facsimile of the score. In Zurich, David Zinman – who studied under and served as assistant to Pierre Monteux, the conductor of The Rite of Spring premiere – will investigate the musical and literary facets of the Rite with the Tonhalle Orchestra on 8 and 9 June. It is something of this endeavour which this piece will also attempt: an exploration of the cultural currents in Russia, centring on conceptions of the East, which led to the development of The Rite of Spring.

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The influence of Asiatic art on Russian art, especially in the realm of music, became increasingly evident from the middle of the nineteenth century. Russian folk music had only recently become the subject of study, with the first collection of Russian folk songs assembled by Nikolai Nikolai Lvov and Ivan Prach in 1790, but for Mikhail Glinka, the father of Russian classical music, the folk tradition had formed an indelible part of his childhood growing up in Smolensk. In Ruslan and Lyudmila (1842), an opera in five acts based on Pushkin’s poem, Glinka incorporated folk melodies along with related elements of chromaticism and dissonance, becoming credited for the creation of a uniquely Russian sound that shared characteristics with the music of the East. Following Glinka’s lead, Mily Balakirev began combining folk patterns with the received body of European classical music.

Promoting a national manner, utilising syncopated rhythms, in Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia Orlando Figes argues that Balakirev’s key innovation was the introduction into Russian music of the pentatonic scale. The pentatonic scale has five notes per octave, in contrast to the heptatonic scale, which has seven and characterised much of the European music of the common practice era between 1600 and 1900. While the pentatonic scale has been diversely used, it is prominent in South-East Asian music, and is a facet of many Chinese and Vietnamese folk songs. Figes asserts that Balakirev derived his use of the pentatonic scale from his transcriptions of Caucasian folk songs, and writes that this innovation gave ‘Russian music its ‘Eastern feel’ so distinct from the music of the West. The pentatonic scale would be used in striking fashion by every Russian composer who followed […] from Rimsky-Korsakov to Stravinsky’.

Balakirev was the senior member of the group of composers also comprising Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and César Cui – known variously as The Five, The Mighty Handful, and the kuchkists, ‘handful’ in Russian being ‘kuchka’ (кучка). Beyond Balakirev’s technical prowess, the central philosophical force upon this group was Vladimir Stasov, who as a critic relentlessly forwarded a national school in the Russian arts. Balakirev’s King Lear (1861), Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (1874), and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko (the name for a tone poem of 1867, and for the opera of 1896) and Scheherazade (1888) were all dedicated to Stasov.

From the 1860s, Stasov researched and wrote a series of studies demonstrating how the influence of the East was ‘manifest in all the fields of Russian culture: in language, clothing, customs, buildings, furniture and items of daily use, in ornaments, in melodies and harmonies, and in all our fairy tales’. His extensive study of the byliny, traditional Russian epic narrative poems, led him to conclude:

‘these tales are not set in the Russian land at all but in some hot climate of Asia or the East […] There is nothing to suggest the Russian way of life – and what we see instead is the arid Asian steppe.’

Positing the influence of the East was one thing, but stating that these traditional Russian poems were in fact not Russian, and had instead originated entirely elsewhere, drew for Stasov considerable criticism. As Russian art negotiated its relationship with Asiatic art across the 1800s, the debate became entwined with other cultural movements and political events. There was the emergence of orientalism after Russia’s annexing of Crimea in 1783, and as the Caucasian War continued between 1817 and 1864, which gave Russians a new appreciation for the south and impelled Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time; the persistent influence of Western Europe, encouraged in literature by the critic Vissarion Belinsky and in music by Anton Rubinstein; and Slavophilism, which opposed the predominance of the West, seeking instead a truly distinct Russia rooted in a sense of its own past. Slavophilism gained momentum after the Crimean War of 1853-1856, which Russia lost to an alliance of the British, French, and Ottoman empires. It was inextricably linked with the Russian Orthodox religion, bore the related pochvennichestvo ‘native soil’ movement, and implicated in different ways Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

These complexities are encapsulated in a piece Dostoevsky published in A Writer’s Dairy – a periodical he wrote and edited, containing polemical essays and occasional short fiction – in 1881. Dostoevsky, an ardent Slavophile for much of the second half of his life, advocates for the progress of Russia through an engagement with Asia which will, at the same time, revitalise Russia’s strained ties with Europe:

‘It is hard for us to turn away from our window on Europe; but it is a matter of our destiny […] When we turn to Asia, with our new view of her, something of the same sort may happen to us as happened to Europe when America was discovered. With our push towards Asia we will have a renewed upsurge of spirit and strength […] In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, while in Asia we shall be the masters. In Europe we were Tatars, while in Asia we can be Europeans.’

This is the long background to The Rite of Spring. The Symbolists who would achieve a ‘Silver Age’ of Russian literature were reared on a curious blend of orientalism, folk tales, European literature, their Russian forebears, and some of those philosophers and mystics who were a product of the heady religious atmosphere that was so much a part of Slavophilism. The philosopher Vladimir Soloviev – a close friend of Dostoevsky – has been characterised by D. S. Mirsky as ‘the first Russian thinker to divorce mystical and Orthodox Christianity from the doctrines of Slavophilism’, thereby establishing a metaphysics apart from nationalist sentiment. Mirsky depicts Soloviev as leaning towards Rome in matters of theology, and politically as a Westernising liberal. Yet he too was fascinated with the East. An important figure for Andrei Bely – whom Mirsky places alongside Gogol and Soloviev as the three ‘most complex and disconcerting figures in Russian literature’ – and for Alexander Blok, Blok’s The Scythians takes for its epigraph two lines from Soloviev’s 1894 poem ‘Pan-Mongolism’, which read:

‘Pan-Mongolism! What a savage name! / Yet it is music to my ears’

The Scythians was Blok’s last major poem, completed at the beginning of 1918, in the same month as The Twelve. Mirsky calls it an eloquent piece of writing, but ‘on an entirely inferior level’ compared with the ‘musical genius’ of The Twelve. Yet conceptions of the Scythians, which typically cast them as the ancestors of contemporary Russia, were so prevalent by the 1910s that an offshoot group of Symbolist writers, including Bely, Blok, and Razumnik Ivanov-Razumnik, began styling themselves as ‘Scythian’.

As an ethnographic group the Scythians were those nomadic Iranian-speaking tribes who inhabited the Eurasian steppes around the Black and Caspian seas between the eighth and first centuries BC. Herodotus wrote about them in Book IV of the Histories, believing that after warring with the Massagetae, they left Asia and entered the Crimean Peninsula. In literature, ‘Scythian’ had become a derogatory term to describe savage and uncivilised people. Shakespeare refers to ‘The barbarous Scythian’ in King Lear, while Edmund Spenser sought to declaim the Irish by positing that they and the Scythians shared a common descent.

Alexander Pushkin used the term more warmly in his poetry, writing ‘Now temperance is not appropriate / I want to drink like a savage Scythian’, and in the Russia of the late nineteenth century, it came to be used to infer those qualities of the Russian people which marked them apart from Western Europeans. Abetted by the large-scale archaeological excavations of Scythian kurgans (burial mounds) undertaken by Ivan Zabelin and Nikolai Veselovsky, which stretched from the banks of the Dnieper in modern Ukraine through Central Asia to Siberia, a shared heritage with the Scythians was hypothesised as ‘Scythian’ became a byword for Russia’s ancient past, for Russian character, Russian otherness, and thereby also for Russia’s future.

Emphasising the conflux of Eastern influences in The Rite of Spring, Orlando Figes argues that Stravinsky’s ballet ought to be viewed as a manifestation of this interest in all things Scythian. The painter Nicholas Roerich had initially trained as an archaeologist, and in 1897 he worked under Veselovsky during the excavation of the Maikop kurgan in southern Russia. The Maikop kurgan was dated as far back as the third millenium BC, and revealed two burials, containing rich artifacts including a bull figurine made of gold. An adherent of Stasov, when he conceived a series of paintings inspired by his archaeological studies and depicting the early Slavs, Roerich sought Stasov’s advise in matters of ethnographic detail. Stasov advised him that wherever there was a lack of local evidence, it was appropriate to borrow artistic and cultural details from the East since:

‘the ancient East means ancient Russia: the two are indivisible.’

Though his orientalism and the specifics of his background were not entirely fluent with the group’s more cosmopolitan outlook, Roerich forged a close relationship with Sergei Diaghilev’s World of Art. He designed the stage sets for The Polovtsian Dances, a ballet excerpted from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor with choreography by Michel Fokine, which featured during the Ballets Russes first season in Paris in 1909. Then he went to work with Stravinsky devising the concept, setting, and costumes for The Rite of Spring.

The idea for The Rite of Spring had emerged by 1910. Petrushka premiered a year later, two years before The Rite of Spring, and was the product of a slightly different sensibility. Diaghilev quickly became the prominent figure in the movement – owing to his appetite for knowledge, his ability to synthesise the arts, and an entrepreneurial personality which drove the publication of the magazine of the same name from 1899 – but the World of Art, in Russian Mir iskusstva (Мир иску́сств), originally comprised a group of Petersburg students around Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst. Mirsky describes Benois as:

‘the greatest European of modern Russia, the best expression of the Western and Latin spirit. He was also the principal influence in reviving the cult of the northern metropolis and in rediscovering its architectural beauty, so long concealed by generations of artistic barbarity […] But he was never blind to Russian art, and in his work […] Westernism and Slavophilism were more than ever the two heads of a single-hearted Janus.’

The World of Art embodied these two poles, and was part of an energetic and diverse avant-garde in Russia in the first decade of the 1900s. This avant-garde included the Symbolists in literature, and Alexander Scriabin in music, an influential composer who experimented with atonal forms and was much loved by Stravinsky. Following Diaghilev’s successes staging Russian opera and music in Paris towards the end of the decade, he formed the Ballets Russes. Bakst produced the scenery for the company’s adaptation of Scheherazade in 1910, while Benois designed the sets for many of its earliest productions. His influence was particularly strong towards Petrushka. Mirsky suggests that not only the set design but the very idea of the ballet ‘belongs to Benois, and once more he revealed in it his great love for his native town of Petersburg in all its aspects, classical and popular’. Both Scheherazade and Petrushka were again choreographed by Fokine.

When it comes to locating the genesis of The Rite of Spring, Richard Taruskin and Lawrence Morton have asserted the influence on Stravinsky of Sergey Gorodetsky’s mythological poetry collection Yar, published in 1907. Stravinsky set two of the Yar poems to music between 1907 and 1908, with another poem depicting the sacrifice of a maiden to the sun god Yarilo. Stravinsky would later claim that the idea for the ballet came to him as a vision, of a ‘solemn pagan rite’ in which a girl danced herself to death for the god of spring.

Yar and Stravinsky’s own vision for the ballet certainly seem to have shifted the course of The Rite of Spring, but Figes argues that the concept was originally Roerich’s, and that ‘Stravinsky, who was quite notorious for such distortions, later claimed it as his own’. Thomas F. Kelly, writing a history of the ballet’s premiere, has argued much the same.

In 1898, Roerich had published evidence of human sacrifice among the Scythians, and in a 1909 essay ‘Joy in Art’, he described ancient Slavic sacrificial rituals. He had studied Herodotus, and had sketched a bust of the historian in 1893, while in addition to Gorodetsky’s Yar, he appears to have drawn inspiration from the Primary Chronicle, an eleventh-century account of early Kievan customs, and Alexander Afanasiev’s The Slav’s Poetic View of Nature, a study of folklore and paganism which was published between 1866 and 1869. Pulling together these various sources, Roerich initially conceived a midsummer ritual based on the Kupala festivities, which are celebrated in early July. As Francis Maes has noted, in August 1910 Roerich said:

‘The new ballet will give a series of images of holy night among the ancient Slavs […] The action will begin with a summer night and finishes immediately before the sunrise, when the first rays begin to show.’

As Stravinsky and Roerich met from May 1910 to discuss the forthcoming ballet, they quickly settled on a provisional title, ‘The Great Sacrifice’. Stravinsky spent much of the next year working on Petrushka. Then in July 1911, he visited Roerich at Talashkino, an artist’s colony presided over by the patron Princess Maria Tenisheva, where the scenario for the Rite – ‘a succession of ritual acts’ – was fully plotted. While Stravinsky composed the ballet, Roerich worked on the sets and costumes, which were rich in ethnographic details, drawing from his archaeological work, from medieval Russian ornament, and from Tenisheva’s collections of traditional peasant dress.

The Rite of Spring premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29 May 1913. The controversy of the ballet’s premiere has often been conveyed as Stravinsky’s. He wrote in his autobiography of the mockery of some members of the audience upon hearing the opening bars of his score, which built upon Lithuanian folk songs, and the orchestra were littered with projectiles as they performed. However other critics have forwarded Roerich’s costumes as the ballet’s most shocking aspect. And others still, including the composer Alfredo Casella, felt that it was Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography which most drew the audience’s ire. Figes writes:

‘the music was barely heard at all in the commotion […] Nijinsky had choreographed movements which were ugly and angular. Everything about the dancers’ movements emphasised their weight instead of their lightness, as demanded by the principles of classical ballet. Rejecting all the basic positions, the ritual dancers had their feet turned inwards, elbows clutched to the sides of their body and their palms held flat, like the wooden idols that were so prominent in Roerich’s mythic paintings of Scythian Russia.’

Nijinsky had been a leading dancer for the Ballets Russes since the inaugural 1909 season. His first choreographic enterprise came with L’après-midi d’un faune, based on music by Debussy, which premiered in 1912. Nijinsky’s choreography for the ballet proved controversial, as among otherwise mixed responses to the premiere, Le Figaro‘s Gaston Calmette wrote, in a dismissive front-page review, ‘We are shown a lecherous faun, whose movements are filthy and bestial in their eroticism, and whose gestures are as crude as they are indecent’. Nijinsky’s second choreographic work, again after Debussy, was Jeux, which premiered just a couple of weeks before The Rite of Spring.

Nijinsky and Diaghilev had become lovers after first meeting in 1908. In the aftermath of Nijinsky marrying Romola de Pulszky in September 1913, while the Ballets Russes – with Diaghilev absent – toured South America, Diaghilev fired Nijinsky from his company. He reappointed Michel Fokine as his lead choreographer, despite sensing that Fokine had lost his originality. Fokine refused to perform any of Nijinsky’s choreography. A despairing Stravinsky wrote to Benois:

‘The possibility has gone for some time of seeing anything valuable in the field of dance and, still more important, of again seeing this offspring of mine.’

When Fokine returned to Russia upon the onset of the First World War, Diaghilev began to negotiate for Nijinsky to return to the Ballets Russes. But Nijinsky was trapped in Vienna, a Russian enemy under house arrest, and his release was not secured until 1916. In that year, Nijinsky choreographed a new ballet, Till Eulenspiegel, and his dancing was acclaimed, but he was showing increasing signs of the schizophrenia that would rule the rest of his life, and he retired to Switzerland with his wife in 1917. Without Nijinsky to offer guidance, the Ballets Russes were incapable of reviving his choreography for The Rite of Spring. This choreography was considered lost until 1987, when the Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles performed a reconstruction based on years of painstaking research. Meanwhile, after the 1913 premiere, Stravinsky would continue to revise his score over the next thirty years.

Nicholas Roerich is perhaps best known today for his own paintings, and as a spiritual guide and cultural activist. His interest in Eastern religion and in the Bhagavad Gita flourished through the 1910s, largely inspired by his reading of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Emigrating to London in 1919, then to the United States in 1920, in 1925 Roerich and his family embarked on a five-year expedition across Manchuria and Tibet. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times, while the Roerich Pact – an inter-American treaty signed in Washington in 1935 – established legally the precedence of cultural heritage over military defence. His art and his life is celebrated by the Nicholas Roerich Museum, which holds more than 200 of his paintings, located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Figes, O. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia (London; Penguin, 2003)

Gibian, G. (ed.) The Portable Nineteenth Century Russian Reader (Penguin, 1993)

Kelly, T. F. First Nights: Five Musical Premieres (Yale University Press, 2001)

Maes, F. A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar (University of California Press, 2002)

Mirsky, D. S. A History of Russian Literature (London; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968)

Taruskin, R. Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions (University of California Press, 1996)