Riccardo Drigo – Part Two

by Irina Sorokina
translation: Stephanie Lewis

In the second part of her blog, Irina writes about the early years in the life and work of Italian composer Riccardo Drigo. Read Part One here.

Drigo was born into a well-heeled family on 30th June, 1846 in Padua (Veneto). His father, Silvio Drigo, was a lawyer and his mother Giovanna Lupati, a noblewoman of Adria, was the sister of the patriot Bartolo Lupati. Indeed, she too was noted for an especial interest in the politics of the time. No-one in the family had ever demonstrated aptitude, let alone inclination, for music and yet Riccardo went on to “write” an entire page into the annals of music history!

At the age of 5 he started the piano with a family friend, Antonio Jorich. As a young adolescent, he was already admired for his virtuosic technique, continuing his studies at the Venice Conservatory under the tutelage of the Donizetti-influenced Antonio Buzzolla. At only 16 years old Drigo took to the stage as conductor. His greatest desire was to become an opera composer and in 1868 at Padua’s Teatro Nuovo he debuted Don Pedro di Portogallo (libretto by A. Gasparini). Ultimately however, unable to realise his ambition, he dedicated himself to the role of conductor, in Padua, Vicenza and Milan, acquiring in the process a vast repertoire, from Donizetti to Marchetti. Critics of the time referred to him as an able maestro.

In 1879, with the arrival in Italy of the director of the Saint Petersburg imperial theatres, Baron Karl Karlovic Kister, Drigo’s life radically changed direction. Kister, on the hunt for new artists for Moscow’s Italian lyric company, heard Drigo conducting L’Elisir d’amore and immediately offered him a six-month contract. “I was appointed conductor and in autumn of that year I went to Russia for the first time, distant and unknown, a country which later was to become my second home” (3). And indeed this was the case and explains why in Russian sources, beside Drigo’s Italian name, you will also find the Russian equivalent, Ricard Evgen’evic. 

Drigo was conductor of the Italian lyric company up until its abolition in 1884, concluding that year with the opera La moglie rapita. 1886 likewise saw great changes in Russia’s artistic scene. After 34 years of service at the Mariinskij Theatre, renowned throughout Russia for its prestigious and brilliant dance company, both Aleksej Papkov and Ludwig Minkus, respectively director of dance and official composer, retired. Indeed, the latter’s withdrawal effectively ended the position of in-house composer, a decision made by the director of the imperial theatres Ivan Aleksandrovic Vsevolozskij. He, in turn, offered Drigo the position of conductor of ballet at the Mariinskij and with generous compensation too.

Boris Asaf’ev, renowned music critic and himself composer of ballets which became popular during the Soviet era (The Fountain of Bakhcisaraj and The Flames of Paris) wrote, “Drigo was a great musician, serious. He came to ballet quite by accident” (4). To be fair, Drigo, with his Italian opera background, initially did not have a clear understanding of classical ballet.  He had had, however, already seven years residency in Saint Petersburg and increasingly felt great affection for his new country. With such affinity for all things Russian, it is no surprise that Drigo’s first attempt in conducting a ballet, Petipa’s La figlia del faraone, was a success. The work itself remained in theatres from its initial debut in 1886 until 1928. “Little by little I started to acquaint myself with the art of ballet and the characteristics of dance music. (…) The demands and aesthetic of the audience were relatively mediocre. The only absolute was the ‘danceability’, that is a clear and regular rhythm. Naturally most of the ballets were defined by a series of polkas, marches, and waltzes, primitive, banal and disconnected.” (5)

Only after hearing Delibes Coppelia did Drigo begin to clearly see what was needed in authentic classical dance and how the music should be moulded for illustrating the fluidity of drama and the gracefulness of dance. “In all future work, Coppelia became my ‘polar star’ and with all my strength and potential I sought to capture this ideal of ‘danceable’ music”.

It was a crucial moment for the corps of the imperial ballet. Important happenings were afoot and not just for Russian ballet but for the future of dance, both in Europe and throughout the world. Four years were to pass before the arrival of the first Encyclopedia of Classical Dance (6), a joint academic effort by Tchaikovsky and Petipa.  The innovative ideas of Vsevolozskij who abolished the role of theatre composer, Petipa in the prime of his career notwithstanding his exceptional old age, the public’s changing taste thanks in part to Saint Petersburg’s ‘ballet-mania’.  It was the latter which led to a flowering of danceable music with contributions from Petr Il’icTchaikovsky – it is interesting to note the public’s mixed reception to his Swan Lake –  and Aleksandr Konstantinovic Glazunov. Amongst these big names was Riccardo, or rather Ricard Even’evic Drigo as he was by then known.

  1. “From the memoirs of Riccardo Drigo”. From 1918-1920 Drigo dictated his memoirs to an archivist of the Imperial Theatres D.I.Leskov.  Publication by Ju. Slonimskij”. “Musical Life”, 1973, N23, p.15
  2. B. Asaf’ev. “Tchaikovsky’s Memoirs”. Chapter “The interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Ballets”. Moscow-Leningrad, 1948, p.96
  3. “From the memoirs of Riccardo Drigo”, p.15.
  4. Coined by Ju. Slonimskij.  Quote by M. Konstantinova.  “Sleeping Beauty”.  Edition “Art”, Moscow, 1990, p48