William Sterling

Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes


This was a chronological examination of the great impresario’s touring opera and ballet company, particularly concentrating on the many works he commissioned from Stravinsky, Ravel, Satie, Prokofiev, De Falla, Poulenc, Milhaud and others. No one has done more to advance the development of music who was not themselves a composer or performer than the great Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. For twenty years from 1909 to 1929 he promoted the finest opera and ballet, often of the most revolutionary nature with outstanding performers like Chaliapin and Nijinsky using choreographers like Massine and Fokine and designers like Matisse and Picasso. Stravinsky’s career was made by Diaghilev who premiered such works as The Firebird, Petrushka, the Rite of Spring, Les Noces and Oedipus Rex. Among the many other composers to benefit from his patronage were Ravel, de Falla, Satie, Poulenc, Milhaud and Prokofiev.

The course ran through the programme of operas and ballets staged by Diaghilev from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in 1908, season by season with special attention to the ballets performed in Paris but also in London, Monte Carlo and elsewhere, right up to his death in Venice in 1929, the year that saw the première of Prokofiev’s ballet The Prodigal Son. Composers whose works inspired the ballets include Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chopin, Schumann, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud, Satie, Auric, Lord Berners, Constant Lambert, Debussy, De Falla and even Handel. Operas covered include Boris Godunov, Prince Igor, Russlan and Ludmilla, Le Coq d’Or, Mavra and Oedipus Rex. The ballets include Les Sylphides, Carnaval, Scheherezade, Petrushka, Spectre de la Rose, Firebird, L’apres-midi d’un faune, Daphnis and Chloe, Rite of Spring, Jeux, Parade, Legend of Joseph, La Boutique Fantasque, Three Cornered Hat, Pulcinella, Les Noces, Les Biches, Triumphs of Neptune, Apollon Musagete and The Prodigal Son.

I ran this course at Crayford Manor (Bexley College) January-March 2003.  I based the course at the City Lit in March 2010 on it as well using the following description.

Before Diaghilev, Russian ballet had become safe and predictable. With dancers like Nijinsky, designers like Bakst and composers like Stravinsky, Diaghilev transformed it into one of the most exciting and most influential forms of theatre ever. The impact of the impresario Diaghilev, on the music of Russia in the early C20th and how he spread this round Western Europe through the media of opera, and more importantly, Ballet. The course examined the works produced by Diaghilev’s company in Paris and elsewhere chronologically and included the ballets of Stravinsky such as Firebird, Petrushka, Rite of Spring, Pulcinella and Les Noces, as well as composers such as Ravel (Daphnis and Chloe), Satie (Parade) and Poulenc (Les Biches). The course also looked at the stormy relationships between Diaghilev and his stars such as Nijinsky and the adventures of the company on tour.

Diaghilev Chronology

Below is a set of spreadsheets I created to use for these coures.

Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes