'...What mad Nijinsky wrote
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.'
From: '1 September 1939' by W H Auden (1907-1973)
On the evening of 29 May 1913, the composer Igor Stravinsky went for supper with the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev and his then lover, the star of the Ballets Russes, Vaslav Nijinsky. They had had something of an evening already. The Théâtre de Champs Élysées had just been the scene of - if not a riot then let us at least call it rowdy behaviour, between two factions of the audience. The two factions were what Cocteau called the ‘boxes’ – where sat the upper class, more conservative element, and the Bohemian avant-garde types in what John Lennon would have called ‘the cheap seats’.
The reason? A ballet. But not just any ballet, the first performance of the stupendous, ‘Rite of Spring’, produced by Diaghilev, choreographed by Nijinsky – with a radical score written by Stravinsky. I wonder what they ate? And what they talked about? Did they wait up for the early newspapers and look avidly for the reviews? Did they realise what a succès de scandale they had on their hands?
The evening started peaceably enough. There was a decorous performance of ‘Les Sylphides' and an interval. When Stravinsky’s pulverising beat of a score began, all hell broke loose. Anyone who was anyone was there, and lots of people, like Coco Chanel and Saint-Sëans, might not have been there, but later claimed they were present. We do know that in the audience were Jean Cocteau, Maurice Ravel (the only person who really understood the music) Gertrude Stein, Alice B.Toklas, Pablo Picasso. Marie Rambert was dancing in the chorus. Was Marcel Proust there? We don’t know, but we do know Henri Matisse missed it, because he was in Morocco.
People got totally carried away and not just insults were thrown. The noise, the stamping of feet and the catcalls were so deafening neither the audience nor the dancers could hear the music. Stravinsky slid out of his seat and stood beside poor Nijinsky the wings whilst he shouted the moves to his dancers, who bravely carried on dancing whilst being deafened by the noise from the auditorium. It must have been awful for them. The choreography, which involved lots of counter-intutive movements, was difficult enough, but to dance it with your ears full of heckling and the stage covered in thrown objects must have been a nightmare.
I was astonished to see the costumes. These poor girls look like extras from a very bad cowboy film. The music might still feel pretty contemporary, but the designs look as though they came out of the ark.
It’s a sexy piece of music even now, full of rhythmic dissonance, and it was a complete antidote to the dreamy impressionistic music of the time. In a dark primitive forest in northern Europe a young girl dances herself to a frenzied death as part of a pagan ritual to celebrate the coming of spring. This is what Stravinsky himself said later, in his 1936 autobiography.
‘One day (in 1910), when I was finishing the last pages of ‘L'Oiseau de Feu’ in St Petersburg, I had a fleeting vision ... I saw in my imagination a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watching a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the God of Spring. Such was the theme of the Sacre du Printemps’
Russian folk tales and mythology fascinate me. I guess it was too many readings at an impressionable age of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Old Peter’s Russian Tales’. But I’ve also been reading recently ‘Gossip From the Forest’ by Sara Maitland about the origins of European folk tales and their relationship with the great northern forests of folk memory. It’s fascinating stuff.
So the Rite of Spring engages on every level. I love the music, I’m interested in that whole early twentieth century European avant garde. I’m fascinated by Russian culture. I just wish I wish I’d been there. When someone finally invents time travel, I’ll be the first up to buy a ticket.
Anyway it’s spring. Time for asparagus. They might have been serving this in the restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne on the 13 May 1913....
Gratin of Asparagus
A bunch of asparagus trimmed and the bottom of the stalks peeled if necessary.
Slices of procuitto or black forest ham
A crust of stale bread and about an ounce of parmesan, blitzed together to make cheesy crumbs.
Cream – about 3-4 tablespoons
Nutmeg and black pepper
A shallow gratin dish.
Boil the asparagus for 3-4 minutes and let it cool. Lay out the ham on your work surface and then lay on top of each slice 2 or 3 asparagus spears – depending on their thickness. Roll them up and lay in a buttered gratin dish. Pour over the cream and season with grated nutmeg and black pepper. Sprinkle with the crumbs and bake for about 25 minutes at 180c until lightly browned. Serve as a starter or add a hearty salad to make a main course.
Apologies it doesn't look as pretty as it might - I was very hungry!
In everything I want to touch
the very essence.
In work, in seeking the path,
in heart’s turbulence.
For the meaning of days past,
for their cause,
for foundations, roots,
and their inner cores.
I want to grasp the threads,
of events and histories,
live, think, feel, love,
From: 'In Everything I want to Touch' by Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)