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Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet ‘The Buffoon’ (1920)

Submitted by Olivia Kroth…

In these dreary times of COVID-19 it helps to have a bit of fun. Of course, the opera houses around the world are mostly closed. In Moscow, they will reopen soon but visitors will have to attend performances in masks. Who wants to sit in the opera, wearing a mask? It is much better to sit at home, on a comfortable sofa, and watch the ballet “Buffoon” on video, read the fairy tale which served as libretto, or listen to Sergei Prokofiev’s soothing music with closed eyes. No masks are needed for any of these activities. We can breathe freely and enjoy one of Russia’s great musical compositions of 1920, a hundred years later, in the summer of 2020.

“The Buffoon”, Op. 21, is a ballet composed by Sergei Prokofiev. He wrote two versions, the first version in 1915, the second and final in 1920. There also exists a symphonic suite from the ballet, Op. 21 bis, which is performed more often than the ballet score. The original Russian-language full title is “Сказка про шута, семерых шутов перешутившего”, meaning “The Tale of the Buffoon who Outwits Seven Other Buffoons”.

The story takes place in old Russia. The main buffoon, with the help of his wife Shutikha, deftly fools seven other buffoons. He sells them a wonderful whip and tells them lies. He pretends that he killed his own wife and brought her back to life with the magic whip. Now she dances to his whip every day. However, the magic whip does not do the trick for the seven buffoons. Infuriated, they seek revenge. They force the main buffoon to disguise as a young woman and give her as a bride to a wealthy merchant. The main buffoon leaves a goat in the merchant’s bedroom, instead of a bride, and escapes after having swindled the merchant out of 300 roubles. All misunderstandings end with a “general merry dance.”

The one-act-ballet lasts for about an hour. Scene 1: The Buffoon’s Kitchen. Scene 2: The Seven Clowns. Scene 3: The Buffoon’s Courtyard. Scene 4: The Buffoon’s Sitting Room. Scene 5: The Buffoon’s Bedroom. Scene 6: In the Merchant’s Garden.

The first performance of the ballet was given by the Ballets Russes in Paris, on the 17th of May 1921. The orchestra was conducted by the composer himself and was very well received. The ballet’s premiere was greeted with great admiration by an audience that included the Russian composer Igor Stravisnky, who called the ballet the single piece of modern music he could listen to with pleasure. In the Soviet Union the ballet was presented in Kiev, in January 1928, under A. S. Orlov. In the mid-1980s, Gennady Rozhdestvensky made the first recording of the entire music for the ballet.

Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev(Сергей Сергеевич Прокофьев, 1891 – 1953) was a Russian Soviet composer, pianist and conductor. As the creator of acknowledged masterpieces across numerous music genres, he is regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century. Sergei Prokofiev was born on the 27th of April 1891 in Sontsovka, a remote rural estate in the Yekaterinoslav Governorate of the Russian Empire. Today, Sontsovka is called Sontsivka and belongs to the Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine.

His father, Sergei Alexeyevich Prokofiev, was an agronomist. Sergei Prokofiev’s mother, Maria (née Zhitkova), came from a family of former serfs who had been owned by the Sheremetev family, under whose patronage serf-children were taught theatre and arts from an early age. She was described by Sergei’s first composition teacher as “a tall woman with beautiful, clever eyes … who knew how to create an atmosphere of warmth and simplicity about her.”

Due to his musical talent, the young man was able to attend the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. As a graduate of this renowned institution, Sergei Prokofiev initially made his name as an iconoclastic composer and pianist, achieving notoriety with a series of ferociously dissonant works for his instrument, including his first two piano concertos. In 1915, Prokofiev made a decisive break from the standard composer category with his ballet music, commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev for the Ballet Russes in France, one of them being the ballet “Buffoon”.

At the time of its production this ballet music caused a sensation among both critics and colleagues. After the Revolution of 1917, Sergei Prokofiev left Russia and made his living as a composer, pianist and conductor abroad. During that time, he married a Spanish singer, with whom he had two sons. In the early 1930s, Sergei Prokofiev increasingly turned to the Soviet Union for commissions of new music. In 1936, he finally returned to his homeland with his family.

The founder and impresario of the Ballets Russes in France was also a Russian emigrant. Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (Сергей Павлович Дягилев, 1872 – 1929) was born to a wealthy and cultured family in Selishchi, Novgorod Governorate, on the 31st of March 1872. His father, Pavel Pavlovich, was a cavalry colonel, the family’s money came mainly from vodka distilleries. In 1890, Sergei Diaghilev’s family went bankrupt, having for a long time lived beyond their means.

In the same year, the young man went to the capital to study law at the University of Saint Petersburg. He soon changed to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory of Music, where he studied singing and composition. After graduating in 1892, he abandoned his dreams of composition because his professor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, told him that he had no talent for music.

In 1908, Sergei Diaghilev moved to Paris and founded the Ballets Russes. He invited famous Russian dancers like Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky to dance in France. He asked interesting Russian composers to write ballet music for him. One of them was Sergei Prokofiev. The first version of “Buffoon”, written in 1915, was rejected. The revised version of 1920 finally got accepted.

With his Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev developed a new form of ballet including show elements. The exotic appeal of the Ballets Russes in France had an effect on Fauvist painters and the nascent Art Deco style. The famous French designer of Haute Couture, Coco Chanel, said that “Sergei Diaghilev invented Russia for foreigners.”

The Russian composers, who wrote ballet music for Sergei Diaghilev, brought a new development in the handling of tonality, harmony, rhythm and metre towards more freedom. Their music became more unpredictable. Each approach had a liberating effect on rhythm, which also affected the ballets. Thus, Sergei Diaghilev turned into a pioneer by adapting these new musical styles to modern ballet.

The Russian artist Mikhail Larionov designed the costumes for the ballet “Buffoon”. Mikhail Fyodorovich Larionov (Михаил Фёдорович Ларионов, 1881 – 1964) was one of the painters who founded the Russian avant-garde. He was born on the 3rd of June 1881 in Tiraspol, in the Kherson Governorate of the Russian Empire. Today, Tiraspol is the capital city of Transnistria. The city is located on the eastern bank of the Dniester River.

The son of a military paramedic spent his childhood in Tiraspol. In 1891, the Larionov family moved to Moscow, where Mikhail went to school. From 1898 to 1910, he studied at the Moscow School of Painting. There he met Natalia Goncharova, who became his life companion and also a like-minded person in her artistic work.

Since the early 1900s, Mikhail Larionov was actively involved in artistic life, exhibiting not only in Russia but also in Europe, where he became influenced by French painters. From 1902 to 1906, he worked in the style of late impressionism. In 1906, at the invitation of Sergei Diaghilev, he took part in the Russian section of the Paris Autumn Salon for Painting. This is how he started his collaboration with the ballet impresario.

In 1907, experiencing the influence of Fauvism and Naive Art in France, Mikhail Larionov turned to a more primitivist manner of painting, creating memorable canvases characterized by rich color, sharp lines and lively scenes. By 1912, he had created his new artistic concept which he called Rayonism, one of the first examples of abstract art, where forms were structured as a result of the intersection of rays reflected from various objects.

In 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War, Mikhail Larionov settled in Paris, where he worked for Sergei Diaghilev, creating costumes and sets for productions of the Russian Ballets, from 1915 to 1929. In painting, he returned to his earlier figurative manner and to still life. Because of the outbreak of the October Revolution he never returned to Russia.

Besides designing costumes and stage sets for the Ballets Russes in Paris, he also occasionally worked as an author of librettos, adviser and associate choreographer. Mikhail Larionov was furthermore a collector. The main areas of his collecting endeavors were Russian lubok (folk art), children’s drawings, unique photographs of Diaghilev-produced performances and Russian ballet shows in Monte Carlo.

Mikhail Larionov spent the rest of his life in France and obtained French citizenship. He died, aged 82, in the Paris suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses. He was buried at the cemetery in Ivry-sur-Seine. In 2001, the Central Bank of Transnistria minted a silver coin honoring this native son, as part of a series of memorable coins called The Outstanding People of Pridnestrovie. There is also a street in Tiraspol, named after the artist.

In 2018, a street in Moscow was named after Mikhail Larionov. In the same year, the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow showed a retrospective of his work. The highest price ever paid for a painting by Mikhail Larionov at an international auction was 2.200.000 British pounds. He features in the highest category “1A – world famous artist” in “United Artists Rating”.

The tale for the libretto of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet “Buffoon” was taken from a collection by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev (Александр Николаевич Афанасьев, 1826 — 1871). He was a Russian Slavist and ethnographer, who published nearly 600 Russian fairy and folk tales, one of the largest collections of folklore in the world.

Alexander Afanasyev was born on the 11th of July 1826 in the town of Boguchar, in the Voronezh Governorate of the Russian Empire. Today it is called the Voronezh Oblast of Russia. He was the seventh child in a family of modest means. His mother Varvara Mikhailovna Afanasyeva came from common people. She became very ill after giving birth to Alexander and died at the end of the year. The children were raised by their father Nikolai Ivanovich Afanasyev, a titular councillor who served as a prosecutor’s assistant.

Alexander Afanasyev became addicted to reading early in his life, having access to the library left by his grandfather, as well as to various magazines. In 1844, he entered the Law Faculty of the University of Moscow, which he finished in 1848. One year later, he began to work at the Moscow Main Archive Directorate and remained there, for the next 13 years.

During that time he met many people of science and culture, collected a lot of ancient books and manuscripts that formed a huge library. His articles, reviews, ethnographical and historical works regularly appeared in the leading Russian magazines, newspapers, almanacs and scientific periodicals. After that he worked as a secretary at the Moscow City Duma and at the Moscow Congress of Justices of the Peace while continuing his ethnographical research.

Alexander Afanasyev was very interested in old Russian and Slav traditions and stories. He drew upon the so-called mythological school that treated legends and tales as a mine of information for the study of ancient pagan mythology. He wrote a large theoretical work, with three tomes of 700 pages each: “The Poetic Outlook of Slavs about Nature”, which came out between 1865 and 1869. In 1870, his Russian Children’s Fairy Tales (Русские детские сказки) were published.

During the times of confinement at home, due to COVID-19, it might be worthwhile to read Alexander Afanasyev’s Russian Fairy Tales with children. Good translations in English are available on the book market, for example the paperback edition “Russian Fairy Tales” with illustrations by artist Ivan Bilibin, published by the editor Planet (2012).

With this richly illustrated collection of Russian folk tales, English-speaking children will get to know Slavic folklore, as recorded by the renowned folklorist Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev. The fairy tales are well translated and gorgeously illustrated – a true gem for any child’s library.


Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Russia. Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com 

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Olivia Kroth
August 20, 2020

Ballet “The Buffoon”, music by Sergei Prokofiev (1920):

Olivia Kroth
August 20, 2020

Sergei Prokofiev’s Soviet Diary of 1927: “Lost Motherland”, published in 1999

Olivia Kroth
August 20, 2020

Sergei Prokofiev plays and talks about his music:

Olivia Kroth
August 20, 2020

Sergei Prokofiev, “The Buffoon”, Suite op. 21 b

Olivia Kroth
August 20, 2020

Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes:

Olivia Kroth
August 20, 2020

The Russian painter, costume and stage designer Mikhail Larionov:

Olivia Kroth
August 20, 2020

Exhibition of Mikhail Larionov’s work at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, 2018:

Olivia Kroth
August 20, 2020

A collection of Mikhail Larionov’s paintings:

Olivia Kroth
August 20, 2020

“Russian Fairy and Folk Tales”, collected by Alexander Afanasyev, with illustrations by Ivan Bilibin:

Olivia Kroth
August 21, 2020

Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes – a documentary

Olivia Kroth
August 21, 2020

The Ballets Russes: a creative force

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