Sexual Fables

This article accompanies the fable
From Russia with Love

Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring: Pictures from Pagan Russia

Stravinsky's ballet is for cynics. It was designed to shock and awe when it debuted in Paris in 1913 and sure enough there was a riot. Diaghilev was delighted. The ballet itself was premised on a vision of pagan Russian fertility rites, ending with the sacrifice of a young girl, and the costumes, set design and choreography were perceived by some as barbaric and sexual (after the opening sequence no one could hear the music above the noise). Stravinsky later professed to be shocked at this turn of events but he proved to be a cynical individual himself throughout his life and I find it hard to believe him.

The set design and costumes were by Nicholas (Nikolai Konstantinovich) Roerich, who clearly was not a cynic. An expert in Russian folklore and history, he thought the barbarians were in the audience, not on stage. Here is one reason why Diaghilev hired him.


The Roerich painting above, And We Open the Gates, is from 1922 and it's symbolic in more ways than one. The following year, Roerich and his wife went through the gate, and on to India and the Himalayas, and this new world came to dominate his later painting and meditations. For more here.

Below is another striking Roerich painting, Saint Panteleimon the Healer, from 1931, after the saint who was martyred by Emperor Diocletian around 303 CE. In Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, Lyra's daemon is named after him. For another painting, here.


Stravinsky, on the other hand, abandoned Russian themes (though not the religion) and embraced a variety of internationalist styles. He denounced the Soviet regime, flirted with Fascism and anti-Semitism and on the whole displayed good old-fashioned elitism thereafter.


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