31 May 2016

Russian Orientalism and Rimsky-Korsakov

My late mother, a knowledgeable lover of C19th Russian music, left me booklets on Rimsky-Korsakov by Yvonne Frindle 2009 and by Jane Jones 2014. Many thanks to these two authors, and to my mother for her own notes. This is a guest blog from the heavens :)

Geographical proximity had always given the Rus­sians exposure to Eastern peoples, although this contact was sometimes unwilling, as in the case of the early Mongol invasions. As a result of the centuries spent under the Tatar yoke, Russia was often viewed by the West as more Asiatic than European eg “scratch a Russian and find a Tatar”. The Russians must have agreed that the Orientalist vein ran through Russian literature and music of the C19th. The traditional kaftan worn by Russian noblemen and the opulent splendour of the Kremlin interior reflected Asiatic style and proved the historical influence.

Scheherazade performed by Les Ballets Russes,
starring Vera Fokina & Mikhail Fokine, 1914.
The costumes were designed by Leon Bakst

The emergence of Romanticism in early C19th Russian literature popularised exotic settings and The East became a popular choice with many writers, artists and musicians. But while the English and French looked to faraway, even imaginative lands, such as India, Turkey, Egypt and North Africa, Russians found inspiration in their own backyard. The East was contiguous with Russian territory! Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) and Mikhail Lermontov all spent time in the Caucasus*, providing authentic detail to their works. [*The isthmus connects Russia to the Middle East. Today the Russian north contains Chechnya, Dagestan, Ossetia while the south includes independent Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia].

And not just cultural contacts. Tsarist military ambitions of the early 1800s brought Russians close to the fierce tribes men of the Caucasus. Russian conquest of Central Asia in the mid-C19th added wild Turkestan to the empire.

A special group of Russian composers known as The Five loved the idea of bringing East­ern influence in their works. The group, who met from 1856 to 1870, included the leader Mily Balakirev (1837-1910), Alex­and­er Borodin (1833-1887), Modest Muss­org­sky (1839-81) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908). These men agreed that the trait that made Russian Orient­alists different from those in Western Europe was a pre-existing sense of ident­ific­at­ion with the East. The Russian composers were not fly-in fly-out visitors to exotic and remote destinations. So they attempted to capture Tur­kic, Persian and Caucasian elements in their music, to set their Russian music apart from stagnant Western-oriented composers.

Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov
first published in 1887.

As well as authentic Eastern melodies, Russian Orientalism added another element. Eastern musical conventions made it possible to write music on subjects normally considered a bit risky eg political themes and erotic fantasies. It also became a means of expressing Russian domination, right at the time that the empire was expand­ing under Tsar Alexander II (reigned 1855-1881).

Nowhere was domination better reinforced than through anti-woman symbolism — the rational, active and moral Western man Vs the irrational, passive and immoral Eastern woman. A work dominated by Arabia’s Orientalism was Rimsky-Korsakov's symphony Antar which used two different styles of music: Western/ Russian and Eastern/Arabian. The first theme, Antar's, represented both masculinity and Russian character. The second theme, Queen Gul Nazar’s, represented both femininity and Eastern character. Frindle acknowledged that Rimsky-Korsakov wanted to moderate the implicit misogyny somewhat. However with Queen Gul Nazar taking Antar's life in a final embrace, the venomous nature of Oriental female sensuality won. 

In 1887, while Rimsky-Korsakov was working to complete Alexander Borodin's unfinished opera Prince Igor, he wrote an orchestral piece called Scheherazade. It was based on pictures from One Thousand and One Nights. I am not sure how much of Scheherazade was about Sinbad the sailor, Ali Baba and Aladdin, but the composer definitely wanted the listener to hear his work as an Oriental-themed symphonic music that evoked a sense of the fairy-tale adventure. In the end it was a treasure glittering with musical jewels, swirling with the sounds of the sea, pulsating with the unbridled joys of celebration.

Scheherazade by Rimsky-Korsakov
first performed in Paris in 1910.
The blue and green set was designed by Leon Bakst

Decades later, the Russian Orientalism of earlier generations would find new interpretations on the concert stage. Between 1909-12, the Ballets Russes was the legendary company that enchanted the world with its port­rayals of forbidden harems and passionate love. They premiered six Oriental ballets in Paris: Polovestian Dances from Prince Igor, Cleopatra, Scheherazade, Les Orientales, Le Dieu Bleu and Thamar (1909-12).

Ballets Russes provided Paris with brilliant Russian dancers, composers, choreographers & theatrical designers, collaborating to create a dazzling vision of the exotic East. So early C20th notions about Eastern dance came not from the Arab world, but from Russia. And the impact of the Eastern ballets on the Parisian public soon swept waves of Orientalism across the fashion and art worlds.

Cleopatra premiered in Paris in June 1909, with the title role played by Ida Rubinstein. Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina were cast as Cleopatra’s slaves. Mikhail Fokine and Anna Pavlova were the requisite doomed lovers — a common theme in these oriental ballets. The score combined works by various C19th Russian composers: including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Mikhail Glinka, Modest Moussorgsky and Aleksandr Glazunov. The staging was spectacular. Cleopatra’s magnetic beauty won the attention of Pavlova’s fickle lover, Amun. He begged for a night of passion with the queen. She granted his wish, on the condition that he drank poison in the morning.

Thamar was set in Caucasian Georgia. Leon Bakst drew on Georgian architecture for inspiration in designing the set for Thamar’s castle. Mikhail Fokine used elements of traditional Georgian dance in the choreography. Once again, it was the vision of a decadent and sadistic East that so captivated audiences in St Petersburg, Odessa and later Paris.

Almost as an aside, let me mention a very cruel tale of anti-woman violence in the Orient that emerged in Eugène Delacroix’s (1798-1863) painting The Death of Sard­anapalus (1827). Delacroix took the story from the 1821 play of the same name by Lord Byron. According to the story, Sardanapalus was the last king of Nineveh, a city in between the Mediterranean Sea and the Caspian Sea (present day Iraq). Aft­er learning that his city was under attack by a rebellious enemy group, Sardanap­alus decided that instead of facing a humiliating defeat, he would destroy his prized possessions. The king lounged apathetically on his bed watching while his beloved concubines, horses and slaves were all burned alive on a funeral pyre.

But note that Russian composers known as The Five met from 1856 to 1870. It seems that Byron’s play and Delacroix’s painting were too early to be influenced by Russian Orientalism.


Mandy Southgate said...

This is a fascinating area of the world and in recent years I've done some research on it, although from a 20th century political angle. It wasn't until reading your post that I appreciated something I hadn't before: that Russia was influenced by the East as opposed to similar people developing alongside each other.

Joseph said...

I wonder if Russian opera was just as exotic, colourful and violent.

Ballerina said...

Love the idea of Les Ballets Russes getting Paris all agog with its port­rayals of Eastern harems and exotic dangerous love. Between 1909 and 1912. Maybe after 1912 the Company became more French and less Russian.

Hels said...


so true, yes! But Russia was influenced by the East voluntarily; that is, the composers, writers and choreographers wanted to actively enliven the dead hand of Germanic music with the colours and thrills of Eastern cultures.

Whether the composers etc turned out to be right or wrong, they saw Russian identity and nationalism as confirmed by the Eastern cultures, not altered.

Hels said...


Russian opera really got going in the 19th century, composed by geniuses like Glinka, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. Then the new generation (Prokofiev and Shostakovich) picked up the Russian baton in the 20th century.

Famous Russian opera (eg Mikhail Glinka's "A Life for the Tsar" and "Ruslan and Lyudmila" and Modest Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov") included strong foreign influences. But how much did that influence come from Europe and how much came from the Orient?

bazza said...

Hello Hels. I am really enjoying reading your interesting and informative posts and this one is no exception. I have been able to make some connections of odd bits of knowledge in my head. I have always liked the faint eroticism of Leon Bakst's posters and the Polovestian Dances from Prince Igor has long been one of my favourite classical pieces (along with Verdi's Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves).
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


My understanding is that the early years of Les Ballets Russes in Paris (from 1909 on) were totally dominated by the choreographers, dancers, set designers and composers who were all Russian-born and trained. They spoke to each other in Russian all the time, toured together, dined together and dated within the company.

Changes occurred only after the Russian Revolution of 1917. The second era of dancers were still trained by Russian Imperial dancers, but their lessons were in Paris! Marius Petipa had lived most of his life in Russia, but soon the best choreographers (Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine and Nijinska) lived less of their lives in Russia and more of their lives in France. Even the set designers and costume designers started to include non-Russians like Pablo Picasso and Josep Maria Sert.

Hels said...


good on you for knowing the Polovestian Dances from Prince Igor! Part of the problem was that Alexander Borodin died (in 1887) before he finished the opera Prince Igor, so it had to be "completed" by many other composers and choreographers.

At least Borodin finished the ballet part. Prince Igor and his son Vladimir were taken prisoner by Polovtsian leader. Igor was energetically entertained by sexy slaves doing thrilling dances.

Hels said...


I wonder if Orientalism and the Operatic World by Nicholas Tarling might be a very useful reference.

Annie ODyne said...

oh lovely post Hels. everything is beautiful at the ballet. and the Bakst costumes were so exciting and influenced more than several 1960's frock designers.
as for Nijinsky - I still swoon to have seen the great Nureyev dance L'apres midi d'un Faune.
Those Bolsheviks have a lot to answer for though it was Paris's gain when the Moscow elite fled there to make a living.

Hels said...

I agree with everything you said (especially the inestimable Leon Bakst and the uber sexy Rudolf Nureyev) but one little issue.

Russia pre-existed the October Revolution of 1917. But it was only after a soviet (i.e a council) was organised in every locality that a Supreme Soviet could be created as a parliament of the new USSR.

The Supreme Soviet that eventually ruled over the USSR's fifteen constituent republics had not even been thought about or named, back in Diaghilev's early years in Gay Paris! In 1907 Diaghilev presented five concerts of Russian music in Paris; the experience was so successful, he wanted every talented Russian musician and dancer to follow him back to Paris. I would have in a flash, had I been invited.