stravinsky, picasso and a drunken pillow fight -- 11/18/16

Today's selection -- from When Paris Sizzled by Mary McAuliffe. Igor Stravinsky, whose most famous works include Petrushka, The Firebird, and especially The Rite of Spring, is regarded as perhaps the greatest composer of the 20th century. Yet in 1921, eight years after the premier of his most famous composition, he found himself beset by financial difficulties, especially given that his frequent employer, Sergei Diaghilev -- ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes -- was having difficulties of his own in the bleak post-war years:

"[By 1921, Stravinsky's] income had plummeted, thanks to the war and the Russian Revolution, while his family responsibilities had grown. He now supported a flock of destitute Russian in­-laws as well as his own ailing wife and their four children. Diaghilev's finan­cial woes with the Ballets Russes during the war years meant that Stravinsky could expect little help from that quarter. As late as 1919, with the excep­tion of a single performance of The Soldier's Tale, Stravinsky had not enjoyed a major premiere since before the war.

Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Spain, 1921

"Oddly, it was a combination of Diaghilev's postwar comeback and the sup­port of Coco Chanel that now brought Stravinsky the help he so desperately needed. Diaghilev had originally turned to Manuel de Falla to arrange music by the eighteenth-century Italian composer, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, for a commedia dell'arte-inspired ballet about the character Pulcinella (Punch). But de Falla was otherwise occupied, and so Diaghilev, despite a history of emotional arguments with his fellow Russian over money, turned in Stravin­sky's direction. Even with the prospect of much-needed income, Stravinsky did not immediately jump at the offer: he did not think much of Diaghilev's choice of music ('I thought he must be deranged'). Moreover, he was not accustomed to taking on other people's projects on hire, still less what he termed a 'rush-order commission.' Still, once he looked at Pergolesi's music, he 'fell in love.'

"The great Diaghilev-Stravinsky partnership was once again in action, and in testimony to this, Diaghilev in early 1920 presented Parisians with a ballet version of Stravinsky's 1914 opera, The Song of the Nightingale, with Henri Matisse as set and costume designer and Paul Poiret brought in at the last minute to work with Matisse on the difficult costumes. Matisse had been a reluctant participant in this venture, but Diaghilev was an indefatigable persuader. Diaghilev was 'charming and maddening at the same time,' Matisse told his wife. 'He's a real snake -- he slips through your fingers -- at bottom the only thing that counts is himself and his affairs.' Picasso, on the other hand, was stung by Stravinsky's collaboration with Matisse: 'Matisse! What is a Matisse?' he demanded. 'A balcony with a big red flowerpot falling all over it.'

"Unfortunately, The Song of the Nightingale was not well received, largely because of Massine's choreography. But the May 1920 premiere of Pulcinella, with choreography by Massine and scenery and costumes by Picasso, was ev­ery bit the success that Diaghilev and Stravinsky had hoped for. The guests were therefore in a celebratory mood as they headed into the suburbs for the after-performance party, a memorably over-the-top affair given by Prince Fir­ouz of Persia. According to the painter (and Victor Hugo's great-grandson) Jean Hugo, who regularly hung out with the in-crowd, it was held in an enticingly disreputable spot -- a suburban dance hall run by an ex-convict friend of Cocteau's. The revelers, including the Picassos, the Serts, [Jean] Cocteau, and [others] arrived in a caravan of automobiles, guided by hired hands with flashlights. Prince Fir­ouz, according to Hugo, was 'un hôte magnifique,' who generously lubricated his guests with vast quantities of champagne. Not surprisingly, the party got a bit out of hand after a very drunk Stravinsky perched himself precariously on the balcony that ran around the huge dance floor and hurled cushions and bolsters from the adjoining rooms onto the guests below.

Scene Design for "Pulcinella" -- Picasso

"This led to a pillow fight that lasted until three in the morning. In a more sober state, Stravinsky was as pleased with Pulcinella as with its favorable reception. 'It is a new kind of music,' he told an interviewer, 'a simple music with an orchestral conception different from my other works.' 'Pulcinella was my discovery of the past,' he later wrote, 'the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible.' It marked, in fact, the beginning of Stravinsky's Neoclassical period.

"As for the role Coco Chanel played in the Stravinsky story, two things are known: Chanel provided the funds for a December 1920 revival of Rite of Spring, and she provided a home to Stravinsky and his extended family after they left Switzerland for Paris."


Mary McAuliffe


When Paris Sizzled: The 1920s Paris of Hemingway, Chanel, Cocteau, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, and Their Friends


Rowman & Littlefield Publishers


Copyright 2016 Mary S. McAuliffe


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