Riccardo Drigo – Part One

by Irina Sorokina
translation: Stephanie Lewis

An internationally renowned pianist, musicologist and historian, Irina Sorokina specialises in the history of the Imperial Russian Ballet. In the first of a 6-part blog, she writes about the influence of the Italian composer Riccardo Drigo.

“We imagine the classical ballet of Saint Petersburg a poem, a myth or simply a story of moments of purity in life.  Everyone knows this but there will always remain these moments, fleeting” (Vadim Gaevsky, Russian critic – 1). The art of classical ballet, where the idea of absolute beauty is incarnated with great force and presence, where there is perfection of the soul through perfection of the body, has had few centres in which to thrive and only one place where it was nurtured by power. Saint Petersburg, that strange city, almost unreal with its fragile balance between dreams and reality, planted amongst the marshes of Peter the Great. It was there, in the second half of the 18th century, at a time of great difficulty for European classical ballet, by then fallen low and transformed into the impulsive féerie, that ballet again began to flourish, reaching a level never before witnessed. “Ballet is a serious art, in which there must dominate a plasticity of beauty rather than gratuitous jumping, twists and turns, and legs over the head. That is not art but, and here I repeat myself, clownery. The Italian School has ruined ballet. It corrupts its public, distracting them with féerie, leaving serious ballet behind (…) I consider the Saint Petersburg Ballet the best worldwide. It preserves this serious art, an art which has disappeared elsewhere”. These words come from Marius Petipa in an interview of 1896 in the closing years of his extremely long career (2).

In 1881 at La Scala, the Italian choreographer Luigi Manzotti staged the féerie Excelsior, a work which represented the battle between civilization and ignorance. Whilst nowadays the absurdity of combining illuminist ideas with relatively abstract art, ‘bringer’ of the eternal values of beauty and grace, is straightforward in conception, back then, time was needed in its acceptance. Petipa himself was aware of this artistic trend staging the ballet-féerie Le pillole magiche (1886, music by Ludwig Minkus). Nonetheless, given his cultural ‘baggage’, the result was uneasy.  

In Europe, the ballet-féerie genre mutated into music hall acts. In Russia the same genre was preserved, or rather developed, by academic traditions. Ballet was furthermore adored and protected by the Russian imperial court, had massive subsidies and attracted the best interpreters.

This all led to the Saint Petersburg Ballet becoming world leaders in classical dance. Its activities in the second half of the 19th century are remarkable by their intensity and quantity. Clearly, ballet’s saviour from total decadence was the Saint Petersburg company and their celebrated choreographers, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, a plethora of brilliant dancers and an extremely prepared ballet corps. 

Classical dance however is difficult to describe, to conserve, to catch hold of. It is hardly surprising that the above-mentioned Gaevsky compares it to a myth. This beautiful art is capable of annihilating itself, it can be ungrateful toward its artists thanks to its fragility, its transiency.  This sensation of perfect balance, the image of an achieved ideal exists only for as long as the show’s duration and probably only occasionally appears during daily practice.  

There is little left of the genius of Marius Petipa. Photos of the period show the legendary characters of Aspiccie, Nikie, Aurore, Odette – lead roles of La Fille du Pharaon (music by Cesare Pugni, 1862), La Bayadére (music by Ludwig Minkus, 1887), Sleeping Beauty (music by Tchaikovsky), Swan Lake (again by Tchaikovsky with choreography in collaboration with Lev Ivanov). Interpreted by the best ballerinas of the time, these photos show plump, almost awkward-looking, characters.

The position of composers, too, was somewhat awkward.  Already in that era, they and their music were overshadowed by the primadonnas, favourites of the nobility and often members of the imperial family.  Their ballet works generally rest in theatre archives though are occasionally ‘dusted down’ at some gala evening. There are no in-depth studies nor books dedicated to these composers and yet, though often treated disrespectfully or, at best, with indulgence by music historians, they were serious musicians whose contribution to classical dance was, and remains, priceless.

Petipa started his career at a time when the imperial theatres had an ‘in-house’ composer who wrote dance music as commissioned by the choreographer. We find at that time, for example, the Italian Cesare Pugni, composer of 312 full ballets. Then there’s the Czech Ludwig Minkus, especially well known for his two major works Don Quisciotte and La Bayadére. Almost always, however, amongst these names, you will find Riccardo Drigo, another Italian who was to surpass his colleagues both in terms of his importance regarding the Russian ballet and as regards his musical brilliance.

  1.  V. Gaevskij. “The girl of Turgenev in the 21st Century”. “Moscow Observer” N. 10, p.44
  2. “From an interview regarding the state of ballet in Russia and overseas””, 2 December 1896.  Marius Petipa. Materials, memories, articles. Edition “Art”, Leningrad, 1971, p.123