Nicholas Roerich: archaeology and ‘The Rite of Spring’

June 11, 2017 7 Comments

The BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s  concert on Friday in the Brangwyn Hall had a well-matched programme: Stravinsky’s The rite of spring, preceded by Prokofiev’s Scythian suite and Ravel’s piano concerto in G major.  All are brilliant works, written within twenty years of one another, and all feature the strongest of rhythms and cross-rhythms. 

Prokofiev had certainly heard The rite of spring by the time he was commissioned by Diaghilev to write music for a ballet about the mysterious Scythians.  The music was to accompany a series of poems written in 1907 by Sergey Gorodetsky based on ancient Scythian myths, including, as in The rite, the ritual sacrifice of a virgin priestess. But the ballet was never finished and Diaghilev cancelled the project.  Not wanting to waste the fragments he’d already completed, Prokofiev worked them up into the concert piece for large orchestra, the Scythian suite, which was premiered in the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg in January 1916.  It’s a thunderous, driving piece in four sections, though to my ears it lacks the complexity as well as the ecstatic thrill of The rite of spring.

The programme notes for both pieces mention the crucial role of a man I’d never come across before, Nicholas Roerich.  It was he who created the designs for the first, notoriously riotous, performance of The rite of spring in Paris on 29 May 1913, one of the key moments of modernism in music.  But his influence on Stravinsky and Prokofiev, it seems, extended much further, since he was directly involved in the rediscovery of the original Scythians, whose civilisation – or rather Russian interpretations of it – lay behind both works.

The Scythians were a group of Iranian-speaking nomadic peoples who lived in the area around the Black and Caspian seas, and across the steppes beyond to the east, from the 9th to the 3rd centuries BCE.  They left no written records and we know about them through the accounts of non-Scythians, especially the sixth-century Greek historian Herodotus, and from the archaeological excavation of tombs preserved in the permafrost.  There’ve been several exhibitions in this country of richly-decorated Scythian metalwork, and the British Museum is planning a new one starting in September this year.  The Scythians had a reputation as fierce mounted warriors and archers, who wore close tunics and long trousers.  They were accomplished metalworkers, and especially goldsmiths, able to produce small but exquisite work often based on animal motifs.

Living beyond the pale of Greek civilisation, the Scythians were known as wild savages in western tradition.  Shakespeare uses the phrase ‘the barbarous Scythian’ in King Lear.  But in the nineteenth century Russians who were eager to celebrate autochthonous cultures and those of the east, as opposed to the Westernised Russia nurtured by Russians from Catherine the Great onwards, began to co-opt the Scythians as noble proto-Russians.  In 1918 a group of Russian symbolist poets started calling themselves ‘The Scythians’, after a poem by Alexander Blok.

Even modernists in Britain found something new and strange in Scythian art.  Roger Fry wrote in 1923, ‘Certainly when I first saw a little bronze ornament from Western Siberia, I had very vividly this feeling of coming into a new world of feeling; a new and unfamiliar idea seemed to be expressed by the peculiar rhythm of its design’.

What lent currency to the craze was the flow of art objects unearthed by archaeologists from the eighteenth century onwards (many ended up in the Hermitage Museum).   Excavations intensified at the end of the nineteenth century as archaeologists like Nikolai Veselovsky got to work around the Black Sea.  Another was Nicholas Roerich, who worked under Veselovsky’s direction in excavating the pre-Scythian kurgan (burial mound) at Maikop in 1897.  By the age of 23 he was an experienced excavator in all parts of Russia, including Crimea, had published his findings in scientific journals, and became the youngest person elected to the Imperial Archaeological Society.

Roerich brought his enthusiasm for prehistory and prehistoric art to his next career, as an artist and stage and costume designer.  He’d known Diagelev since 1904 and worked on the stage design for Diaghilev’s production of Borodin’s Polovtsian dances in Paris in 1909.  The next year Diaghilev introduced him to Stravinsky and the two began work on planning a new, ‘Stone Age’ ballet.  Roerich issued some pre-publicity to the press.  The new ballet, he wrote, ‘will present a number of scenes from a ritualistic night in the time of the ancient Slavs… it will be the first to present a reincarnation of antiquity’.  He designed costumes based on old folk dresses collected by his patron, Princess Maria Tenisheva, and scenery showing the steppe, with Scythian kurgans rising from it. Nijinsky, who was to dance in the ballet, found inspiration in the poses of the ‘prehistoric’ human figures in Roerich’s paintings.

The original idea for the climax of the Rite, the maiden dancing herself to death, came not from Roerich but from Gorodetsky’s collection of poems, Yar, which includes a poem describing a ritual sacrifice to the sun god Yarilo.  But it may have been Roerich who advocated including the theme: one of his Scythian excavations had uncovered what he interpreted as human sacrifice.  (Herodotus reports that the Scythians sacrificed prisoners of war and the servants of dead kings, but makes no mention of dancing maidens.)

Roerich left Russia after the October Revolution to live in Finland, Britain and the United States.  He developed a lasting interest in theosophy and eastern philosophy, and spent much of the rest of his long life wandering about India, Tibet and other countries, studying the philosophy, art and culture of the east.  His archaeological interests never left him, and in 1935 he drew up the ‘Roerich Pact’, an agreement intended to safeguard artistic heritage in times of conflict.  Today there’s a Roerich Museum in New York, which preserves his art and celebrates his life.  In most respects he was a man of backward-looking interests, but his role in one of the critical moments of early modernism deserves recollection.

You can hear the Brangwyn NOW concert on Radio 3 on Thursday 15 June at 7:30pm, and then on the iPlayer.



Comments (7)

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  1. David says:

    I came across this article while looking through all of the beautiful Roerich paintings on the internet. I actually love this piece of work at the top the page, but it doesn’t look like Roerich to me.Who is the painter of that work? Lovely article too. Thank you so much for taking the time and thought to put it into the world!

  2. Laury says:

    Having just come to this site I was baffled at seeing the painting of the “guests from overseas” and seeing all the comments questioning whether it was by Roerich – until I saw your post of October 19th, 2021. That was a relief!

    I’ve just been chatting with a Russian friend about the set & costume designs for the Rite and also for Firebird (the latter being by Bakst & Golovin) and she said that she knows of Roerich but hadn’t heard of Bakst – but I have the impression that in “the West” we know of Bakst far more than we know of Roerich.

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