Cesare Pugni – genius or scoundrel?

The tireless worker
of the Ballet Factory

by Irina Sorokina
translation: Tamara Tempera

2020 marks 150 years from Cesare Pugni’s death. Irina Sorokina tells the story of his genius.

Image: Cesare Pugni La Fille du Pharaon (Ballet in three acts) A scene from the performance. Andrei Sitnikov as Pharaon. Svetlana Zakharova as Aspicia. Kristina Kretova as Ramze. ©Photo by Mikhail Logvinov/ Bolshoi Theatre.

Pugni or Puni, with the stress on the last syllable? Cesare or Cezar’? So, Cesare Pugni or Cezar’ Puni? The latter perhaps belongs to him more… The Genoese composer spent most of his life in the Palmira of the North, as the literary world often calls St Petersburg, the former capital of the Russian Empire. And in St Petersburg he found his final home, although no trace remains of it.

In our short essay, we will call him Pugni, obviously. He has often been treated with arrogance by the authors and historians of classical ballet. But he was a true worker, a labourer one could say, and a stakhanovite of ballet. At the time, there was a special position at the imperial theatres, that of the resident composer – always at disposal of the choreographer, who (in turn) had to satisfy the needs of the prima ballerina. Pugni’s catalogue lists 312 compositions for ballet, but not all of them are full-length works. He was a sort of hero, if one just thinks about the actual time that was necessary to write all those notes by hand!

A hero, but with many personality traits that led him to ruin, despite the decent fees and royalties. He is remembered, yes – he made history, but he could have had wider acknowledgments from the ballet historians. Let’s start from the beginning, though.

We do not know the exact date of birth of this surprisingly prolific composer. Some fonts indicate the year 1802, others 1805, but there is no doubt about the day – May 31st. We accept 1802, like the majority of the historical fonts. He was born in Genoa, under the name of Cesare, in the family of a watchmaker who owned the shop near the Duomo in Milan. Some fonts, in fact, indicate the Lombard capital as Pugni’s birthplace. As a child, he showed an exceptional musical talent, and from a very early age. There is mention of a symphony he composed aged 7 (!) – it would seem little Pugni had nothing to envy the great Mozart.

He had an outstanding musical education. Alessandro Rolla, who had Niccolò Paganini amongst his pupils, taught him violin; Bonifazio Asioli, composition and counterpoint; Carlo Solina, music theory. It was soon spoken of how quickly young Pugni could compose – it would be his peculiarity for his entire life. It was only natural that a boy growing up in the shadow of the Duomo in Milan would frequent La Scala, also close to his father’s shop. It was only natural that he would absorb the ideas and fashions of the time and produce his first ballet on a subject by Walter Scott, an arrangement of themes from other composers, as it was customary at the time. The title was Kenilworth Castle, and the work was choreographed by Gaetano Gioja, also known as the dance teacher of the famous Austrian star Fanny Elssler. Those of you who are familiar with belcanto will remember the homonymous opera by Gaetano Donizetti which would be presented at Teatro San Carlo in Naples shortly afterwards. Three years later, Pugni composed his first original ballet, Elerz and Zulmida, with choreography by Louis Henry. No doubt Henry was satisfied with the work of young Pugni since he commissioned him three more ballets.

Pugni’s career continued quite well. He presented four operas, The Swiss Deserter at Cannobbiana Theatre in 1831; The Vengeance at La Scala in 1832; The Smuggler in 1833 and An Episode at St Michael’s in 1834, both at Canobbiana Theatre. In addition to those, he composed several instrumental works and obtained the post of harpsichordist at the famous Milanese theatre. It seemed the composer had found his home at La Scala, but things did not go as planned.

In 1834 he had to leave Milan; he had to flee, most probably for misappropriation, which was not a surprise – his inclination for gambling and alcohol was well known and the misappropriation happened because of his debts. He left for Paris with wife and children. In Paris, the world capital of culture, he got the post of copyist for the Théatre Italien. The year was marked by an unpleasant event with Vincenzo Bellini, who was also in Paris for I Puritani, the opera which was destined to be his last. He asked Pugni to copy the parts of the score adapted for Maria Malibran, who was due to sing it at the San Carlo Theatre. Pugni, in secret, made a second copy and sold it for a high price to the theatre in Naples. It is not hard to imagine how Bellini reacted. He was indignant and upset not just for the money lost but also for the cowardice of his collaborator whom he had often helped with money for the family and clothes for him and his wife.

The year after Bellini’s death, Pugni’s career went on successfully. He linked his activity to Paris Opéra where he remained until 1843 and where he was appreciated for his excellent qualities, especially the rapidity in composing and orchestrating. Louis Henry wanted to use numbers from Pugni’s ballet The Siege of Calais (whose Scottish Dance was hugely popular) for Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Pugni also worked for the Casino Paganini, but in those years his vocation became clear. His presence became vital for the Opéra. He was almost like a “musical ghost writer”: Pugni was there, but no one could see him, at least not always. He gave definite form, edited and orchestrated music written for dance by other composers. We will never know how many works Pugni edited and adapted to the needs of the interpreters – the role of the resident composer at the services of choreographer and prima ballerina was born.

After Milan and Paris, London was Pugni’s next stop, as if destiny wanted him to leave a mark in many European capitals. Thanks to the impresario Benjamin Lumley, he was introduced to Jules Perrot, the talented dancer and choreographer. In 1843 Pugni moved to London for the post of composer of ballet. There he created many famous ballets, some of which are still known. Jules Perrot, to whom nature had denied the gift of beauty, most important for the career of a dancer, left a lasting mark in the history of dance especially as a choreographer. He was the king of Her Majesty’s Theatre where he created Ondine, ou la Naiade (1843), La Délire d’un paintre (1843), Esmeralda (1844), Eoline, ou La Dryade (1845), Pas de Quatre (1845), Catarina, ou la Fille du Bandit (1846), Le Jugement de Paris (1846), Lalla-Rookh (1846). Perrot was the creator of the Romantic Dance Drama as a genre. His ballets were rich; they combined pantomime with dance; the characters were humanly profound. These works were performed by some of the most acclaimed stars in Europe: Fanny Cerrito, Carlotta Grisi, Lucille Grahn, Amalia Ferraris. In 1845 in London a miracle happened: the impresario Lumley managed to convince the “divine” Maria Taglioni – who created the role of the Sylphide – Grisi, Cerrito and Grahn to perform together in a short piece. The famous Pas de Quatre was created, which is also in today’s repertoire with choreography by Anton Dolin.

For all of Perrot’s masterpieces, the music was composed by Pugni but with Pas de Quatre he secured his place in the history of ballet. In 1845, for Her Majesty’s Theatre he wrote the music for Rosida, ou Les Mines de Syracuse, starting a collaboration with Arthur Saint-Léon, which would continue in St Petersburg. In 1848, Pugni’s music was heard for the first time in the Russian capital in the occasion of the performance of Esmeralda with the Austrian star Fanny Elssler in the title role. Her interpretation made the warm Russian audience delirious.

With Arthur Saint-Léon, who was choreographer of the Académie Royale de Musique – that is, Paris Opéra, while in London, Pugni produced some memorable works, such as: La Fille de Marbre (1847, very similar to Perrot’s ballet Alma, ou la Fille de Fée, 1842, with music by Michael Andrew Costa; Pugni adapted the original score); La Violon du Diable (1849, new version of the ballet that the violinist Tartini premiered at La Fenice in Venice in 1848, music by Giovanni Felis and Saint-Léon for the violin solos; Pugni made the adaptation of the score); Stella, ou Les Contrebandiers (1850). In the same years, tireless Pugni also worked with Paolo (Paul) Taglioni, brother of the famous Maria, who was choreographer at Berlin’s Hofoper. Worth a mention: Coralia, ou La Chevalier Inconstant (1847); Théa, ou La Fée aux fleurs (1847); Les Plaisirs de L’Hive, ou Les Patineurs (1849); Les Metamorphoses (1850). Paul Taglioni regarded Pugni’s skills very highly. Similar to Saint-Léon, Pugni worked at a very rapid pace and in addition to full-length and one-act ballets, he wrote an incredible number of other pieces to be performed during the interval. His works also appeared at La Scala: in 1845 Esmeralda and in 1847 Catarina and Lalla-Rookh.

Clearly, Jules Perrot was happy with the collaboration with Pugni, so much so that when he was invited as Premier Maître de Ballet at the Imperial Theatre Bol’šoj Kamennyi in St Petersburg from the season 1850-51, he brought Pugni with him as composer. In Russian his job would be called štatnyj kompozitor which would translate as “staff composer”. In short, a musician always at the theatre’s disposal, available for the choreographer and the prima ballerina / soloist ready to compose new music or adapt existing pieces. Usually the music was written during rehearsals or the following night. Bol’šoj’s prima ballerina, Ekaterina Ottovna Vazem, before performing the role of Nikija in La Bayadère, described the role: “At the old times, ballet music was not given great importance. Music for ballet had a secondary role, it accompanied silent scenes and dances, but it was not supposed to draw the audience’s attention. The first requirement was “danceability”, music had to be easy to dance and expressive enough to mime. Therefore, within the theatre’s staff it was necessary to have a specialist composer” (11, p. 30).  Cesare Pugni, or – as the Russians called him – Cezar’ Puni had this position for 20 years, working closely with three great choreographers: Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Léon and Marius Petipa.

Perrot worked in St Petersburg for 11 years and brought to the stage about 20 productions. These included the revivals of the ballets premiered in Milan, Paris and London: L’Ondine, Le Délire d’un pientre, Esmeralda, Catarina, Eoline, Faust, La Filleule des fées (the music for all these ballets was composed by Cesare Pugni but the last one, by Adolph Adam, the composer of the famous Giselle). Despite being revivals, these productions were never exact copies of the originals; Perrot adapted the story and structure for the theatre in St Petersburg and worked hard to give as much space as possible to the dances.

Perrot’s new works for the Imperial Theatre Bol’šoj Kamennyiin were: La Guerre des femmes, ou Les Amazons du neuvième siècle (1852), Gazelda, ou Les Tziganes (1853), Marcobomba (1854), Armida (1855), La Debutante (1857), La Petite marchande de bouquets (1857), L’Ille des muets (1857), all of them with music by Pugni. Faust (1854), which premiered in Milan in 1848 should be included in the list; Perrot created a brand new version of the ballet and Pugni adapted the original score by Giacomo Panizza, Niccolò Bajetti and Michael Andrew Costa.

The year 1858 was very important for the history of ballet. In St Petersburg Perrot brought to the stage the spectacular Corsaire, which had premiered in Paris in 1856 with choreography by Joseph Mazilier, and which the beautiful Empress of France, Eugénie de Montijo, loved. Perrot no doubt presented his own version of the ballet: the poster for the show noted the name of Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges as the librettist, Adolph Adam as the composer and Jules Perrot as the choreographer. For the new version of Le Corsaire, Pugni composed all of the additional music which served as the basis for all future versions of the ballet; only Petipa reworked it as choreographed by Mazilier in 1863, 1868, 1880 and 1899.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of Jules Perrot in St Petersburg as Premier Maître de Ballet for the Imperial Theatres. Everything and everyone started from him and from there. With everything and everyone, we mean the development of new forms in choreographies as well as the work of his contemporaries, Arthur Saint-Léon and Marius Petipa. In his first years in the Russian capital, Perrot contributed to the development of the main structures of ballet, such as the scene dansante and pas d’action in the so called dance of action, and the pas d’ensemble and grand pas in the pure – or abstract – dance. Later on, he worked on the development of the musical and chorographical forms which brought to the so called grande spéctacle, the codification of which would develop in the years following Perrot’s departure from St Petersburg, particularly in the ballets by Petipa. The new version of the ballet Eoline, ou La Dryade created in London in 1845 and completely reworked for St Petersburg in 1858 is an example: at the Bol’šoj Kamennyj the ballet was expanded to four acts, to make it really grand and spectacular, and many dances were included. Every act was an example of perfect harmony between elaborated miming scenes, and rich and engaging dance suites. In all those 11 years, Pugni had always been at the side of Perrot, the last Romantic, as the Russian historian Vera Mikhajlovna Krasovskaja called him (13, p. 336).

Perrot’s career at the Imperial Theatre ended badly. After all, it had to be expected. For many years there had been talks of his fight with the director, Andrej Ivanovič Saburov. The research of the Russian historian Ol’ga Anatol’evna Fedorčenko proved that the French choreographer was fired because the director was unhappy with his dilated working rhythms and huge fees, which weighed on the budget. In comparison, the guest choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon’s fees were half those of Perrot. Perrot was an excellent and meticulous artist, but he did not possess commercial acumen. To create a ballet, he had to be involved, inspired. He was a true “Romantic” artist, who would live and breath of art only. He naively believed that an inspired work would speak for itself, and he was soon considered to be “difficult”. This would be fatal to his life and work in St Petersburg. His relationship with the company and the most influential people declined; the rich Saburov could not stand him. His dramatic ballets, once loved, were now liked less and less. Sometimes Perrot would sit quiet in rehearsals the whole time, just to say at the end: “I am sorry, today I am not inspired” (25, p.56). Perrot was fired on December 1st, 1859, and went back to his homeland where he would live 30 more years without creating anything of importance. Some of Edgard Degas’s paintings remain as testimony of the final years in the life of the “last Romantic”, who used to teach at the famous Foyer de la Danse at Paris Opéra on the Rue Le Peletier.

Perrot left St Petersburg, but Pugni stayed. Marius Petipa, Perrot’s cautious assistant, hoped to take the place of the Maître but it did not go that way. Arthur Saint-Léon was invited instead, who was faster and cheaper than Perrot, and Petipa had to wait longer. Pugni had already worked with Saint-Léon, so very little changed for him. The last ten years of the life of the most prolific composer for ballet were marked by financial struggles, engagements not fulfilled, deadlines not met and unlikely stories to justify his continuous delays. But despite it all, he created the most wonderful scores.

The democratic Russian critics of the time first, and the ballet historians of the Soviet era such as Jurij Alekseevič Bakhrušin and Vera Mikhajlovna Krasovskaja then, did not commend the work of Arthur Saint-Léon and his imperial theatre. The truth is that Saint-Léon was one of the best choreographers of the Nineteenth century and has been recognised as such in recent times by the new generation of Russian historians, too. The opposite of Jules Perrot, he put at the centre of his work the ideas of surprising and entertaining the audience. In one of his ballets, roasted pigeons fly away, prawns drag themselves, a pig head yawns, and in another one a ballerina was made to dance on the strings of a musical instrument… We can only imagine what sort of surprises awaited audiences on stage! Not to mention his most famous ballet for the Russian stage, The Little Humpbacked Horse. “In the underwater world, for example, there was an enormous whale that swam, moved tale and mouth, and showed other signs of the theatrical life. Even red prawns were part of the dances – it was never clear where boiled prawns like those on a pub sign would come from, but at the time the general opinion was that if the ballet was fantastic then people could fantasise about whatever they wanted (12, p. 68) – remembered Karl Fёdorovič Val’c, who for 65 years was scenographer and stage technician at the imperial theatres. At the time of the Soviet Union, the famous dancer Nikita Aleksandrovič Dolgušin with a great sense of humour compared the scene of the underwater world to the as much famous fishmonger Eliseevskij in the centre of St Petersburg, where the officials of the communist party used to buy their food from. Saint-Léon certainly did not lack in imagination. He was a man of great knowledge and spirit, he was curious, resourceful, tireless, a polyglot, always interested in the dance heritage of other cultures and, if this was not enough, a virtuoso of the violin and the inventor of the dance notation system. In his ballet Le Violon du Diable, where he interpreted the main role of Urban, he composed the solos for the beloved instrument and accompanied his wife Fanny Cerrito on the violin. Marius Petipa, who is considered the father of the classical ballet, observed and treasured Saint-Léon’s work for many years. The phenomenal choreographer, who wore the mask of the good man but was often egocentric, died of a broken heart soon after the return to his homeland and the premiere of the renowned Coppélia, one of the milestones of the repertoire. His death, at only 49 years of age, was probably due to a fast paced lifestyle and an exhausting job, always travelling between various European capitals. Of his conspicuous choreographic production, nothing remains apart from the Pas de six from La Vivandière, which he had annotated himself. After his death in 1870, the post of Premier Maître de Ballet in St Petersburg went to Marius Petipa. After more than 20 years of hard work, patience and hope in the shadow of Perrot and Saint-Léon, he became principal choreographer of the Imperial Ballet.

For eleven seasons, Saint-Léon managed to divide his time between Russia (St Petersburg and Moscow) and France (Paris). Perrot had not been fired yet that Saint-Léon had already presented his first ballet for the imperial theatre – Jovita, ou Les Boucaniers Mexicans (1859, music by Théodore Laborre). In Saltarello, ou La Passion de la danse (1859) he showed off even more than before: he was librettist, composer, choreographer, interpreter of the main role, and violinist. In short, Arthur Saint-Léon was an all-round artist and sought after by all European theatres. Other works followed: Graziella, ou Les Dépits amoureux (1860), Paquerette (1860), Météore, ou La Valle des stelles (1861), Nymphes et Satyre (1861), Théodolinde l’orpheline, ou Le Lutin de la vallée (1862), La Perle de Séville (1862), Fiammetta, ou l’Amour du Diable (1864), The Little Humpbacked Horse (1864), La Fiancée valaque, ou La Tresse d’or (1866), Le Poisson dorée (1867), Le Lys (1869). The majority of the music was composed by Pugni, with the exception of Paquerette (music by François Benoist), Météore (Santos Pinto and most probably Saint-Léon himself), Fiammetta, ou l’Amour di Diable (Ludwig Minkus), La Fiancée valaque, ou La Tress d’or (Massimiliano Graziani and Rodolfo Mattiozzi), La Poisson dorée and Le Lys (both by Ludwig Minkus). For the Russian versions of Paquerette and Météore, Pugni wrote the additional music. If one pays attention to the list of Saint-Léon’s works, it will become evident how the choreographer started working more closely with Minkus, probably because of Pugni’s growing unreliability.

Saint-Léon was very different to Perrot, the creator of dance dramas. The man, who united so many artistic qualities, had very little interest for dramas. “The most important element in Saint-Léon’s ballets was dance. Subjects were written only to link, more or less successfully, a long series of dances, for a solo, more dancers or the corps de ballet. Saint-Léon’ ballets were divertissements. Saint-Léon did not have any expectations for interesting and meaningful stories. The dramatic aspect of his ballets had the tendency to be weak, but this was compensated by a waterfall of picturesque dances. In his creations he showed exceptional knowledge of the possibilities of classical ballet and his choreographies were always very musical. A brilliant creator of variations, Saint-Léon was also very capable with group scenes” (11, p. 14). Alongside all such qualities, Saint-Léon was able to create choreographies of great effect based on various folkloristic dances – Scottish in Météore, Hungarian in Markitenka (as La Vivandière was named in Russian), Wallachian in La Fiancée valaque. Later on, this dance form would be called “character dance” and would have an extraordinary development in Russia.

As customary at the time, the majority of both Perrot’s and Saint-Léon’s works was presented for the first time in London, Milan and Paris – and Lisbon in the case of Saint-Léon – and only afterwards they were introduced to the Russian audience.

The year 1864 was momentous in the history of Russian ballet: two foreigners, Saint-Léon and Pugni, who had little knowledge of the culture of the country they were serving and where they were entertaining both the imperial court and ballet enthusiasts, were entrusted with the creation of the first national ballet. The genre, a western product which had landed on the immense Russian plains during the reign of Anna Ioannovna (1731-41), had never before brought on stage national stories and characters. Saint-Léon chose The Little Humpbacked Horse, by the young Pёtr Pavlovič Eršov, a tale which was admired and approved even by the great poet Aleksandr Sergeevič Puškin. The huge success of the work he created on Pugni’s music led to an endless controversy, and only in recent times has the work of a French and Italian in Russia been valued in a balanced and historically accurate way.

The Soviet historians Bakhrušin e Krasovkaja were not benevolent towards the ballet by Saint-Léon and Pugni. In their books, both titled The history of Russian ballet, published respectively in 1977 and 1978, they criticised The Little Humpbacked Horse for the lack of ethnographic authenticity, the use of clichés and traditional structures of ballet and character dance, the use of pre-existing models for entrées and mimes, and the other fantastic scenes still used in the first romantic ballets. Pugni’s music was also criticised. The historians recognised it possessed a generic Russian flavour (the entra’act of act three reminded of the theme of the famous aria by Mikhail Ivanovič Glinka, Lark and no 12 of the score was called Character Dance on themes from the popular Russian songs Solovuško and Na ulice mostovojNightingale and On the pavement) but they said it lacked originality. Pugni’s piece of resistance was no doubt the final divertissement, which included dances from 22 (!) peoples of the Russian Empire; amongst them was The Urals Dance, which was often criticised because many different peoples populated the Ural region…

Despite the progressive critics of the democratic journalists of the Nineteenth century, like Mikhail Evgrafovič Saltykov-Ščedrin and Nikolaj Alekseevič Nekrasov, and the soviet historians, The Little Humpbacked Horse remained in the repertoire for one hundred years. In 1912 it was reworked by Aleksandr Alekseevič Gorskij who added several musical numbers to the original score, but it was only in 1960 that the eminent Russian composer Rodion Konstantinovič Ščedrin presented his own interpretation of Eršov’s tale. The original Little Humpbacked Horse, which was first performed in 1864, during Saint-Léon’s reign, miraculously survived. In the Soviet era, a tv movie was produced about the piece, mixing the narration with Gorskij’s choreography. Numbers such as the pas de quatre Frescos (music by Pugni) and the Pas de trois of the Ocean and Pearls (music by Andrej Fёdorovič Arends) are still danced daily by professional dancers and students all around the world and are often included in ballet galas.

The authors Saltykov-Ščedrin and Nekrasov treated the phenomenon of the imperial ballet with superiority, anger and disdain. This was due to their progressive political views and an unconditional love for the homeland – Holy Russia, which in the second half of the Nineteenth century was rather undeveloped if compared to other European countries, having maintained the institute of serfdom until 1861. In their writings, full or resentment – and rightfully so – they expressed the pain for the condition of their people and the totalitarian power of the tzars. In War and Peace, Lev Nikolaevič Tolstoj addressed ballet in quite a few sections and always with real anger; Saltykov-Ščedrin described it in these words: “I like ballet for its consistency. New countries are created; new people arrive; new events happen; ways of life change completely; science and art follow these changes, only ballet hears nothing and does nothing… Ballet is conservative, to abandon” (25, p. 41). Nekrasov was outraged when Marija Sergeevna Surovščikova, a very beautiful ballerina, the first wife of Petipa, appeared on stage dressed as a Russian male farmer. He advised her “to dance La Fille de Danube and leave the mužik alone” (this was the traditional term to describe a farmer).  

This judgement shows how the writers lacked understanding of the nature and substance of ballet in the second half of the Nineteenth century. Both Saltykov-Ščedrin and Nekrasov knew little about it, in fact. Looking at the list of Petipa’s ballets, it is clear that each production was developed at the same time of important political and cultural events: La Fille du pharaon (1862) took audiences to Egypt where the Suez Channel was being built; La Bayadère (1877) reflected the audience’s interest in the Indies; Rocsana, ou La Bèautè du Montenegro (1878) remembered the Russian heroes who fought alongside the Slavic brothers for the Independence; La Fille de Neiges (1879) was inspired by Nils Nirdensjold’s artic expedition. Since its arrival in Russia in the first half of the Eighteenth century, the genre of ballet lived under the wings of the courts and by the courts was widely financed. It was not an intellectual art, but a commercial and accessible form of entertainment: melodramatic subjects; luxurious scenes and costumes; spectacular choreographies performed by beautiful dancers who showed their “small feet”; often a famous foreigner as the principal female character. It was the genre of the grande spectacle, which in the years 1860-70 replaced Jules Perrot’s dramatic ballets. La Fille du pharaon (1862) and Le Roi Candaule (1868) already were les grande spectacles and even more so were Petipa’s late masterpieces, such as Sleeping Beauty (1890), Swan Lake (1895) and Raymonda (1898). For all of these great shows, the Imperial Theatre’s direction spent dreamlike budgets; the stories brought on stage were rarely tragic; and these ballets were a sort of pleasure therapy for a privileged and rich audience.

What was considered the nature of ballet itself voided the critics. It was an art that could not be considered democratic. “Ballet is expensive. Prime ministers are taken to ballet to show off the greatness of the country. Ballet requires inequality, it’s antidemocratic by nature, it’s the art for those who own land, a house on the French Riviera, a Bentley and send their daughter to Oxford” (16).

The democratic Russian historians’ expectations were simply absurd. And absurd were the critics to Pugni for The Little Humpbacked Horse or to Minkus for Le Poisson dorée – these foreign composers had an outstanding musical knowledge and were extremely hardworking, but they could not compose something truly Russian, truly authentic. It was just too early for a “Russian” ballet to be created.  

While Saint-Léon was at the Imperial Theatres, Marius Petipa was also at the services there and he also collaborated with Pugni. Their allegiance was marked by the great success of La Fille di pharaon (1862) and Le Roi Candaule (1868), but the last part in the composer’s life coincided with that stage in Petipa’s career when he created short and light ballets. The aim of the majority of those ballets was to highlight the skills and charm of his first wife, Marija Sergeevna Surovščikova. All these works were on music by Pugni: L’Etoile de Grenade (1855), Un Mariage au temps de la Regénce (1858), La Marché des innocentes (1859), Le Dahlia bleu (1860), Terpsichore (1861), La Bella du Libane, or La Genie de la montagne (1863), La Danseuse voyageuse (1865), Florida (1866), Titania (1866; in the ballet, inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mendelsohn’s music was also used), L’Esclave (1868).  

Comparing Saint-Léon’s and Petipa’s work during the same period 1860-69, it is evident how the Premier Maître de Ballet, a workaholic by nature, always travelling between St Petersburg, Paris and Moscow, preferred full-length ballets and dancers with exceptional technique, especially for point work. After all, his favourite in the Capital of the North was Marfa Nikolaevna Murav’ёva, who was not beautiful but could draw perfect lace with her feet. Petipa, on the other hand, mostly worked to promote his wife Marija, appreciated by the members of the imperial family and so beautiful to make Otto Bismark fall in love. Such was the competition between the two dancers, that the ballet enthusiasts divided between “petipists” and murav’ists”. The diplomatic Petipa used Murv’ёva in his creations, too, particularly the comic ones performed in the palaces (Terpsichore, Titania, L’Esclave) but the true star was always Marija Sergeevna Surovščikova-Petipa, who was also admired by the Great Duchess Elena Pavlovna. Petipa created La Rose, la Violette et le Papillon, a short ballet on music by the amateur composer Prince Peter II Oldenburg, a relative of the imperial family. He presented the work in one of the tzars’ summer residencies to a small entourage, A few years later, a pas de deux from La Rose, la Violette et le Papillon was included, under the name of Pas d’esclave, in the first revival of La Corsaire, realised by Perrot in 1858. Today most do not know the name of the composer of the music – nevertheless it survived until today thanks to this repertoire piece.

During Saint-Léon’s direction, Petipa came back to Le Corsaire, now no longer by Adam-Mazilier, but by Adam-Perrot. In 1863 Saint-Léon wanted to revive the ballet and entrusted the Second Maître with the task. The result was an entirely renewed version of the work, the score also revisited by Pugni. Medora had a new variation, Finesse d’amour, which Pugni composed in 1848 for Praskovja Prokhorovna Lebedeva, the protagonist of the ballet Satanilla, revival of Le Diable amoureux, choreographed by Mazilier. The Pas des Odalisques was expanded and transformed into the Pas des trois des Odalisques, which included entrée, three variations and coda. This number became renowned and was kept in all subsequent version of Le Corsaire – the entrée and the third variation were by Adam, the other two variations by Pugni. In addition to this, Pugni revisited the ouverture of act one, too.

Five years later, in 1868 Petipa revived Le Corsaire again, this time by adding rich and beautiful choreographies on Pugni’s music: the Danse des Forbans for the corps of male and female pirates, also known as the Mazurka of the Corsairs, which remained in all later version of the ballet; Le Petit Corsaire, a pretty character dance for Medora en travesti performed by Marija Sergeevna Surovščikova. The famous Pas des evéntails of the original Mazilier’s version was replaced with a Pas de six for Medora, Conrad and four odalisques. The number included a variation for Medora performed by the magnificent German dancer Adèle Grantsow and a dance for four odalisques.

The final years in the life of Cesare Pugni were marked by great financial difficulties. After all, since his youth he had shown irresponsible behaviour, a passion for gambling and alcohol and a tendency to deceit. In his memoires, Petipa mentions a letter the composer sent him: “I beg you to give me money. I have nothing” (3b). The letter also included a few fresh pieces of music for the ballet Le Dahlia bleu (1860). In Russia Pugni had to maintain two families, one with the English wife Marion Linton, the other with a Russian woman, Dar’ja Petrovna (her surname is unknown). A prolific composer, he was also a prolific father – he had seven children with the English woman and eight with the Russian. The eminent Russian composer Anton Grigor’evič Rubinštejn helped Pugni by hiring him at the Conservatoire of St Petersburg as a teacher of composition and counterpoint. The earnings were not much, but the position was very prestigious. Saint-Léon left a letter addressed to Charles Nuitter, the librettist for Coppélia, where he described something terrible that happened to Pugni because of his debts: “Pugni has almost died. He was found in the woods, 16 km from the city, because of a debit of 300 roubles he owed to a merchant. The Court Minister paid the sum, and the ballet company put together 200 roubles to buy food for him, his wife and eight children, five of whom are very young. His debts amount to 5,800 roubles, despite having received in the past twenty years 1,200 francs a month in royalties and benefits for the scores performed in Paris!” (4b). In another letter dated 1868, Saint-Léon predicted the end of Pugni’s career: “Pugni composed the music for Le Roi Candaule by Marius Petipa. I think it is going to be the last full-length score by Cesare Pugni” (4b). In this final period in the composer’s life, Petipa was often unhappy with the delays and the missed deadlines; Pugni would always tell incredible stories to justify his behaviour. When Petipa had the idea to create a ballet from Cervantes’s Don Quixotte, he thought of Pugni. Eventually the task was entrusted to the Austrian Ludwig Minkus – the result was the most performed ballet around the world.

Two years after the third revival of Le Corsaire and the year after the premiere of Don Quixotte, both the French and the Italian passed away, guilty of having created the first ballet on a national Russian subject – The Little Humpbacked Horse. The year 1870 was crucial for the Russian Imperial Ballet. The fact that both Pugni and Saint-Léon died only a few months apart, is curious. The composer died on January 14th (26th) and the choreographer on September 2nd, the first affected by most serious financial problems and now replaced by the more reliable Ludwig Minkus; the second, at the top of a brilliant career, after the creation of his best ballet, Coppélia, on music by Léo Delibes, for the Imperial Theatre of Paris Opéra. It was an end of an era.

Saint-Léon and Pugni died, but Petipa was still there. After the success of La Fille de pharaon, he was promoted Premier Maître. He still had many years ahead, to live and choreograph, but he would have had to carry on without his loyal collaborator, Cesare Pugni. Ekaterina Ottovna Vazem, first ballerina of the Bol’šoj Kamennyj, described the collaboration between Petipa and Pugni as follows: “Usually Pugni composed the music for the various choreographies directly during rehearsals, where his presence was compulsory. He would just write a variation and the violinist – repetiteur would play it. If Petipa did not like it, he would write another one. Sometimes the composer did not agree with the choreographer and they would fight. The passionate Italian was not afraid to shout at Petipa – “Don’t busy yourself with things that are not your responsibility if you don’t understand music!” and the choreographer had to give up. Overall, Pugni worked with uncommon ease and the conditions under which he wrote some of the great ballets are just unbelievable” (11 p.30). It would suffice to remember that he wrote the score for La Fille de pharaon in just six weeks. In short, Cesare Pugni was a genius.

Because of the life he was forced into, he often had to repeat himself, borrow from his own scores and sometimes even plagiarise others. In The Little Humpback Horse even an amateur would recognise the tune from Glinka’s Lark; in the same ballet, many blamed him for using a popular children’s song, An old lady had a little grey goat, (although the author of this essay has not been able to find it in the original score as available online). Music critics and historians of all times did not admire him: “Of Mr Pugni’s music we cannot say anything good; alas, it is monotonous and borrowed from others’” (15 p.21).

We want to make Cesare Pugni justice. He was an adventurer, he was arrogant, irresponsible and was incapable of looking after his own life, especially his finances – all of which led to his ruin. But to understand the stature of Pugni and his relevance in the history of ballet, one needs to have a full understanding of what was required of a ballet composer before Čajkovskij and the so called symphonic dance.

For most of the Nineteenth century the composition of ballet music was entrusted to a specialised musician and in fact both Pugni and Minkus distinguished themselves mainly in this field. Theirs was “applied” music, subject to the requirements of the choreographer, which limited their creativity. In the creation of a ballet, choreographer and composer walked hand in hand: the maître invented the combinations of steps, the musician composed straight away the accompaniment, which had to perfectly fit the character and the rhythm of the choreography. This type of work required very high skills; the composer had to be alert and aware of the desires expressed by the choreographer. The goal of the musician’s work was the total union of the musical accompaniment with the choreography. Ekaterina Ottovna Vazem testified to this in her Memoires of a ballerina at St Petersburg’s Bol’šoj Theatre with regards to the collaboration between Petipa and Pugni. And so did the scenographer Karl Fёdorovič Val’c in his book 65 Years in Theatre. Describing another collaboration, that between Arthur Saint-Léon and Ludwig Minkus, he wrote: “More than once I watched Saint-Léon whistling a tune to Minkus and the latter translating it immediately into musical notes” (12 p. 69)

A curiosity – Val’c called the resident composer “sworn composer”, just like a translator for example. It was not a mistake. To some extent, all the composers for ballet hired at the imperial theatres were “sworn”. They swore loyalty to the choreographer, were at his service 24/7. And to some extent, no composer was “more sworn” than Cesare Pugni – he fully understood the dynamics of the various dance steps and was able to translate them into his music. None of his colleagues possessed a hand as fast as his, none spent sleepless nights in the studio editing existing music and adding new pieces. Ludwig Minkus, who replaced Pugni in 1873, despite being more reliable and trustworthy, was not as fast, composed much less and never attended rehearsals. Vazem, whose career happened mostly at the time of the resident composers, compared Minkus and Pugni, and preferred the latter: “Dancers and audiences were satisfied with Minkus’ music, but in my view, despite its danceability it was inferior to that of Pugni for lightness and spontaneity” (11, p.30).

But there is more. Pugni’s music was capable of materialising the steps of classical ballet. An expert of music theory applied to dance, Galina Aleksandrovna Bezuglaja, the director of the Music Department at the prestigious Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, has described with great clarity the idea of musical incipit in classical ballet: “it is the first phrase of the musical text, which allows to recognise the steps without showing them” (10, p.72). “The Russian and Soviet choreographers such as F. Lopukhov, K. Sergeev, I. Bel’skij paid attention to the fine link between the lite-musical themes and the lite-dance steps of the main roles in the repertoire. When a character is shaped, the musical line gives the moves and steps which are typical for that kind of character – it materialises them in music” (10, pp.75-76). An example of musical incipit are the first bars of Nikija’s variation from La Bayadère, choreography by Petipa, which suggest grand fouetté effacée. Another example are the opening bars of the solo variation in Pas de trois des Odalisques (Le Corsaire by A. Adam-C. Pugni, choreography by M. Petipa), which suggest the pas brisée at the start of the number. The theme for the entrée of the Jewels in Čajkovskij’s Sleeping Beauty with Petipa’s choreography, is linked in melody and rhythm to the pas poisson. The start of Odette’s variation from Swan Lake, choreography by L. Ivanov, indicates the double rond on point (10, pp. 75-76). The list of pieces that Pugni composed for the different ballets and choreographers suggesting from the start the steps used in the choreography could be endless.

We have all reasons to believe that Petipa was happy with the collaboration with Pugni and Minkus, Vazem said that the father of classical ballet lacked musicality. He enjoyed working with the two sworn composers first and with Riccardo Drigo later, when he was “unofficially” entrusted with the same role, although when he was asked to produce a ballet on Čajkovskij’s music became nervous. This is testified by the articulate plan put in place for the great Russian composer, hired by the new director Ivan Alekseevič Vsevoložskij to compose the music for Sleeping Beauty. Petipa perfected his work so much that he suggested Čajkovskij not just the character of the piece, but the exact number of bars needed. Petipa di not like and indeed feared “serious composers”. He preferred those who knew the art of writing pure music for ballet, with rhythms comfortable to dance, with the usual clear gestures which helped the dancers to act and the audience to understand the scenes” (25, p.97). When he had to choreograph Čajkovskij’s second ballet score, Nutcracker (1892), he prepared the plan and wrote the libretto but never put it on stage – he asked his deputy Lev Ivanovič Ivanov to do it (many erroneously indicate Petipa as the choreographer of the first Nutcracker). The Swan Lake (1895) we know is not at all the ballet that Čajkovskij wrote. Petipa collaborated with the Italian Riccardo Drigo, who had unofficially been nominated “sworn composer” (the role was officially abolished in 1886) and for twenty years directed the ballets at the Mariinskij Theatre in St Petersburg. The choreographer reworked the original score with a very heavy hand – he almost amputated it: many important numbers were deleted, and others moved in a different order, others were replaced with Čajkovskij’s piano music, op. 72. Drigo wrote a new orchestration and Lev Ivanon choreographed the “white acts”. Petipa and Drigo were criticised for the work on the original score, but it has to be said that they turned it into an actual ballet, the symbol of classical ballet itself.

Coming back to Pugni, he was buried in St Petersburg’s catholic cemetery, in the eastern part of the city – Vyborgskaja storona (Vyborg side). But his tomb was not destined to be respected and honoured. Fifty years after the composer’s death, in the chaos and cruelty that marked the years following the October Revolution of 1917, the cemetery and its 40,000 tombs were ransacked by the soldiers of the Red Army. They desecrated the coffins and threw the bodies in the mass graves. Twenty years later, in 1940, it was decided to dismantle the cemetery altogether. In the atheist Soviet Union, ancient cemeteries were of no importance. The remains of only four people were transported to another cemetery, Literatorskie Mostki (Little bridges of Literati): general Konstantin Karlovič Danzas, second in the duel where the great Russian poet Aleksandr Sergeevič Puškin died; the renowned Italian soprano Angiolina Bosio; two poets of Italian origins, Fёdor (Fidelio) Bruni, who painted the majestic cathedral of St Isaac, and Ludwig (Luigi) Premazzi, famous for his frescos and as a teacher. Nobody thought to save the tomb of Cesare Pugni, or Cezar’ Puni.

We do not have his tomb, but we can say with certainty that he lives in eternity. Every ballet class, whatever the level, features at least one or two of his pieces: the march from The Little Humpback Horse for the sauté at the start of centre work; the entrée of the Pas de six from Vivandière for the sissonne fermée; the opening Waltz from Les Néréides for a diagonal of pirouettes; the coda from La Fille de pharaon for tour piqué. And what about the fragments of his variations, which offer perfect rhythmical figures to accompany the exercises, such as the mentioned variation of the First Odalisque in Le Corsaire – an expert ballet pianist will not fail to use Pugni’s music.

2020 marks 150 years from Cesare Pugni’s death. Several of his ballets are still in the repertoire of dance companies all around the world (L’Ondine, Esmeralda, Pas de six de la Vivandière, Pas de deux de Le Carnaval de Venise, La Fille du pharaon, many fragments from Le Corsaire), and ballet pianists play his music for classes. And there is more – Pugni is still talked about. Ballet enthusiasts in Moscow will still remember the scandal in 2000, when the famous musician Gennadij Nikolaevič Roždestvenskij, recently appointed at the Bol’šoj, decided to cancel from the season La Fille du pharaon in the reconstruction of Pierre Lacotte because of Pugni’s “mediocre” music. The decision was opposed by Aleksej Nikolaević Fadeečev, director of ballet, who was fired. At the end of the season, Roždestvenskij also left but La Fille du pharaon did not disappear. Ten years later, it was revived at the Bol’šoj, to the delight of enthusiasts and “normal” audience.

Three of Pugni’s descendants also left their mark in Russian culture and science. The composer had three sons, Cesare, Ettore and Alberto. The first one did not choose a musical career but his son, Cezar’ Cezarevič (1868-1951) was one of the first Russian dentists; it was the dentist’s son, though, Cesare’s grandchild, to achieve fame, Avksentij Cezarevič Puni (1898-1985), the founder of sports psychology.

Ettore, who died in 1889 and whom the Russians called Viktor, played flute in the orchestra of the Mariinskij; he composed good tunes but often did not put them on paper and many published them under their own name. Viktor (Ettore) Cezarevič had a famous son – Aleksandr Viktorovič Širjaev (1867-1941), born from his relationship with Ekaterina Ksenofontovna Širjaeva, ballerina at the Mariinskij. Growing up in the theatre, Aleksandr became a brilliant interpreter of character dance, choreographer, director of movies and animation films. With Andrej Vasil’evič Lopukhov and Aleksandr Il’ič Bočarov he wrote the text Basics of Character Dance (1939).

Alberto Linton-Pugni (1848-1925) was the son of Pugni’s second wife, the English Marion Linton. After his conversion to the orthodox faith, he became Andrej, which is the reason why some of his descendants took the patronymic Albertovič, others Andreevič. His son, Ivan Albertovič Puni (1892-1956), was a vanguard painter, in the circle of the great Russian painter Il’ja Efimovič Repin. He was also a writer and author of children’s books, and one of the creators of the crest of the Russian Federation. He lived in Berlin from 1920 and in Paris from 1924, leaving behind a remarkable artistic legacy.

For better or for worse, the name of Cesare Pugni – child prodigy, worker of the ballet factory, victim of bad habits, prolific father and grandfather of famous and talented grandchildren – is mentioned every day and every day his music is played. He deserves it.

Notes from the author

  1. There are different ways to transliterate Russian names, because of the phonetic richness of the language. In this essay I opted for the scientific transliteration of Cyrillic.
  2. The titles of ballets are used in the original French; only the most famous ones are translated.
  3. All the names of people of Russian nationality include name, patronymic, surname.
  4. In the citation of some quotes, authors are mentioned only with the initial of the name and the surname, as customary in Russian,
  5. The bibliography in Russian is mentioned in the original Cyrillic.
  6. Some historical events, such as the episode between Pugni and Bellini, are told differently depending on the fonts.
  7. The same applies to the list of works by Perrot, Saint-Léon and Petipa.
  8. The name of the Theatre Bol’šoj Kamennyj in St Petersburg means Great Theatre of Stone. Some fonts erroneously mistaken it for the Mariinskij. The Bol’šoj Kamennyj was built in 1783 by desire of the Empress Catherine the Great, on a project by the Italian architect Antonio Rinaldi. From 1784 to 1886 was used for opera and ballet. The Mariinskij was built on the same site as the Circus Theatre which caught fire in 1859, projected by the architect Alberto Kavos and named after the Empress Maria Aleksandrovna, wife of Albert II. The imperial ballet left the building of the Bol’šoj Kamennyj after it was closed down and transformed in St Petersburg’s Conservatoire. From 1886 onwards, all ballets were performed at the Mariinskij.

Bibliography (on paper and online) – in English, French, Italian, German, Russian

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  2. Ivor Guest. The Romantic Ballet in Paris. London, Dance Books LTD, 1966, 1980.
  3. Marino Palleschi. La lettura di Petipa de Le Corsaire di Mazilier (I parte). In: balletto.net. Data del consulto: 27. 12. 2007.
  4. petipasociety. com. a) Petipa’s ballets. b) Petipa’s colleagues – Cesare Pugni. Date di consulto – 23. 03-20.04.2020.
  5. Giselle Roiz Miranda. Cesare Pugni (1802 ca.- 1870). Il grande dimenticato tra i compositori di balletto dell’Ottocento. In: GB Opera, 23. 10. 2017. Data di consulto: 25. 05. 2020. 
  6. Walter Sorell. Storia della danza. Arte, cultura, società. Bologna, Il Mulino, 1994.
  7. Wiener Staatsballet. Le Corsaire. 2016.
  8. Irina Sorokina. Riccardo Drigo: il collaboratore indispensabile di Marius Petipa, l’amico del balletto russo ed un nome da scoprire. In.: Musicus Discologus. Musiche e scritti per il 70-mo compleanno di Carlo Marinelli. A cura di Macchi, Gallucci, Scimone. Monteleone, 1997.
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  22. И. А. Пушкина. Александр Ширяев в воспоминаниях современников. Вестник Академии Русского Балета им. А. Я. Вагановой. N. 2 (61), 2019.
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  25. О. А. Федорченко. Творчество Жюля Перро в Петербурге (1848-1859): к проблеме формирования музыкально-хореографической структуры академического балета. Автореферат дтссертации на соискание ученой степени кандидата искусствоведения. Санкт-Петербург, 2006.

Ю. Яковлева. Создатели и зрители. Русские балеты эпохи шедевров. Москва, «Новое литературное обозрение», 2017.