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29 January 2016

Playwright, peacemaker, polymath: Romain Rolland (1866-1944)

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When Romain Rolland was born on 29 January 1866 into a prosperous middle-class family in Clamecy, Nièvre, there was little to indicate that he would grow up to be a dramatist, critic and pacifist who would one day win the Nobel Prize. His ancestors included solidly well-to-do farmers, and he would describe himself as an offshoot of an ‘antique species’ deeply rooted in la France profonde

From the first, his attempts to follow the predictable path towards a respectable calling as a schoolmaster were beset by problems; entering the Ecole normale supérieure at the age of 20, he rejected his course in philosophy to study history and, after two years in Rome, gained his doctorate in 1895 with a thesis entitled Les Origines du théâtre lyrique moderne. Histoire de l'opéra en Europe avant Lully et Scarlatti (British Library Hirsch 1877).

Photograph of Romain Rolland as a young man
Romain Rolland during his time at the Ecole normale supérieure. Reproduced in Stefan Zweig, Romain Rolland (Frankfurt, 1921)

This was to be the beginning of a distinguished career as a music critic and historian which had been launched by his encounter in Rome with Malwida von Meysenbug, governess to Alexander Herzen’s daughters and friend of Liszt, Wagner and Nietszche. After teaching at several Paris lycées while publishing studies of musicians past and present (Les musiciens d'autrefois and Musiciens d'Aujourd'hui ) he became the director of the newly-founded Ecole des Hautes Etudes Sociales and was appointed in 1903 to the first chair of the history of music at the Sorbonne.

However, at the same time he was developing a career as a dramatist. Like Wagner, he believed passionately in the power of theatre as a unifying social force rather than a mere pretext for pretentious display, and advocated a ‘people’s theatre’ going back to the dramatic tradition of the ancient Greeks. In his plays he portrayed the great events and personages of French history, from Madame de Montespan and Louis XIV (1904) to the French revolution in Le Triomphe de la raisonGeorges Danton and Le Quatorze juillet, convinced that a people which was truly happy and free would need festivities rather than theatres, and would ‘always see in itself the finest spectacle’, as he wrote in Le Théâtre du peuple. His ideas were enthusiastically adopted outside France, notably by Erwin Piscator and the Freie Volksbühne in Germany.

The transcending of national and cultural boundaries through art was a central theme of Rolland’s writings and of his whole life. Although his retiring nature did not make him a natural teacher, leading him to resign from the Sorbonne in 1912, he spread his pacifist internationalist beliefs through his writings, and, unable to tolerate the chauvinistic patriotism reigning in France during the First World War, he moved to Switzerland, where he published his anti-war essay Au-dessus de la mêlée (‘Above the battle’) published in the year in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. His principles enabled him to overcome his natural diffidence and to engage with Mahatma Gandhi  (on whom he published a study in 1923), Sigmund Freud and Stefan Zweig. The latter described their friendship extensively in his autobiography Die Welt von gestern, while Freud acknowledged the importance of Rolland’s influence in his Civilization and its Discontents (1929). He was also a close friend of Hermann Hesse, who dedicated his novel Siddhartha (1922) to him in tribute to their discussions of Eastern philosophy.

Sketch of Rolland's head
Rolland in 1919, portrait by Frans Masereel, reproduced in P.J. Jouve, Romain Rolland vivant (Paris, 1920) 011853.t.64.

Rolland’s great sequence of 10 novels Jean-Christophe (1904-1912) similarly explores the power of art to bridge cultural differences through the career of his hero, a gifted young German musician who settles in France and acts as the author’s mouthpiece for his ideas on the profound significance of music as a force for human understanding.

Rolland's manuscript of the preface to 'Jean-Christophe', with some lines crossed out in blue pencil
Opening of the preface from Rolland's manuscript of the last volume of Jean-Christophe Zweig MS 184, f.2r

In view of his achievements as a pacifist, including his work as a founding member in 1932 of the World Committee Against War and Fascism, it may seem startling that when, on a visit to Moscow three years later as the guest of Maxim Gorky, he met Joseph Stalin, he declared him to be the greatest man of his time. Although disillusionment set in as he became better informed about Stalin’s treatment of those who opposed him, he continued, with tact and fortitude, to represent the interests of French artists in his dealings with the U.S.S.R. and to campaign for the release of the writer Victor Serge and the Soviet politician Nikolai Bukharin, who was nevertheless executed in 1938.   

Handwritten dedication from Rolland's 'Jean-Christophe'
Dedication from the manuscript of the last volume of Jean-Christophe, ‘To the free souls - of all nations - who suffer, who struggle, and who will triumph’

Rolland returned in 1937 to make his home in Vézelay, where he remained in complete isolation throughout the German occupation, working tirelessly on his memoirs, his life of Beethoven, and a study of the Catholic poet Charles Péguy, which he completed not long before his death on 30 December 1944. His message of pacifism and the power of art to speak above narrow political and national interests continues to make him an author of lasting significance in an age which sorely needs to hear it.

Susan Halstead, Content Specialist (Humanities & Social Sciences), Research Engagement.

Works by Rolland referred to in the text:

Les musiciens d'autrefois  (Paris, 1908) W19/0525

Musiciens d'Aujourd'hui: Berlioz - Wagner - Saint-Saëns - Vincent D'Indy-  Claude Debussy - Hugo Wolf - Richard Strauss - Le Renouveau de la Musique Francais depuis 1870 (Paris, 1908) W8/7005 

Le Triomphe de la Raison (Paris, 1899) 11736.f.54.

Danton (Paris, 1901) 11740.d.35.

Le 14 juillet (Paris, 1902) 12208.pp.1/13.

Le Théâtre du peuple (Paris, 1903) 12208.pp.1/44.

Au-dessus de la mêlée (Paris, 1915) W18/5841

Mahatma Gandhi  (Zürich, 1923) YA.1992.a.10990

Jean-Christophe (1904-1912) 12550.t.14.


05 November 2015

Despite the chocolate and the leather boots, one feels this country to be torture: Switzerland in 1915

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100 years ago, during the First World War, an extraordinary mélange of intellectuals converged in the one safe haven left in a self-destructing continent. In 1915, Switzerland – and Zürich in particular – hosted the likes of James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Lenin, which quickly made the neutral state one of the most fertile grounds for avant-garde ideas in literature, art and politics.

Hugo Ball brought together the band of artists including Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara that went on to collaborate under the banner of ‘Dada’ – a movement, which Annemarie Goodridge, in the catalogue of the British Library’s 2007 ‘Breaking the Rules’ exhibition, describes as acting out of the ‘desire to use new art forms to express opposition to the perceived spiritual bankruptcy of the age’ . In their minds, the war was a consequence of a ‘failing enlightenment project’ with an uncritical faith in scientific and technological “progress”’ (Stephen Foster, Dada: The Coordinates of Cultural Politics). Dada represented an attempt at a clean break from previous culture, a ‘tabula rasa’ in the words of Paul Dermée.

Tzara portrait
Robert Delaunay, Portrait of Tristan Tzara (1923). Madrid, Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofia (image from Wikimedia Commons)

One striking example of Dada creativity is first volume of the Collection Dada series published by Tristan Tzara between 1916 and 1919 containing the play by the same author, La première aventure celeste de Mr Antipyrine, illustrated with coloured woodcuts by Marcel Janco. Characters’ names like Mr Bleubleu and Mr Cricri set the tone for what is an exploration into sound as much as anything else, with speeches developing into nonsensical noise.

Tzara Mr Antpyrine 1
Cover (above) and opening (below) from Tristan Tzara, La première aventure celeste de Mr Antipyrine (Zürich, 1915) British Library Cup.408.u.39.

Tzara Mr Antpyrine 2

In 1916, the same year as the Dada artists exploded convention into fragments of spontaneity, absurdity and illogicality in their new home of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, the Nobel Prize for Literature (the belated award for 1915) was conferred upon a writer based not far away in Geneva, Romain Rolland. The writer of the ten-volume bildungsroman Jean-Christophe (the complete manuscript of the tenth volume is part of the British Library’s Stefan Zweig Collection) and biographies of key figures in culture like Michelangelo, Beethoven and Tolstoy, a humanist and pacifist, might seem worlds apart from the tenets of Dada but this is not necessarily the case.

  Rolland Jean Christophe preface
The preface to vol. 10 of Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe, British Library Zweig MS 184-186

Rolland’s 1915 collection of essays Au-dessus de la mêlée, even in its title, suggests a position beyond dogmatism, ‘above the battle’, as the English rendering has it. Rolland writes in the title essay:

The spirit is the light. It is our duty to lift it above tempests, and thrust aside the clouds which threaten to obscure it; to build higher and stronger, dominating the injustice and hatred of nations, the walls of that city wherein the souls of the whole world may assemble.  

Romain Rolland in 1915 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

We might call Rolland’s words a manifesto against manifestos in the sense of Tzara’s famous 1918 Dada manifesto, in which he writes, ‘je suis par principe contre les manifestes, comme je suis aussi contre les principes’ , where ‘principles’  are the same fixed truths that give way to  ‘tempests’ of dogmatic belief, the same truths that Rolland cannot tolerate. Clearly, Rolland draws upon a continuous notion of  ‘spirit’, something Dada renounced, yet their divergent approaches still led both to the same geographical and anti-establishment space.

A little late to the Swiss party, Stefan Zweig, Rolland’s close friend and intellectual ally, moved to Zürich in 1917. It is testament to the tolerance of the city and its commingling cultural movements that Zweig’s serious anti-war play Jeremias could open there, no doubt a short distance from the riotous events at the Cabaret Voltaire. Zweig, initially unconvinced by Switzerland, writes in his diary that ‘despite the chocolate and the leather boots, one feels this country to be torture’. Yet, in a diary entry 20 years after his time in Zürich, he reminisces, ‘how different was it in those times in Austria and Switzerland, where I could speak my own language and encourage others’.

Indeed, Zweig’s writing was influenced permanently by the humanist spiritual  ‘brotherhood’ in Switzerland, with his later biography of Erasmus the height of his humanist line of thought. Erasmus, for Zweig, embodies ‘Überparteilickeit’, that is a certain non-partisanship, linguistically akin to Rolland’s formulation for Au-dessus de la mêlée, where both reside ‘above’ something. In a letter to René Schickele in 1934, Zweig writes, ‘I do not connect myself to any party, to no group, […] but whatever I do, I try to do silently and would rather be attacked for it than celebrated.’ Tristan Tzara’s famous 1918 manifesto also asserts that the author is against action and for continual contradiction, for affirmation. He continues ‘I am neither for nor against and I won’t explain since I hate reason (bon sens)’.The only difference might then be expressed, adapting Zweig’s words, Tzara does not connect himself to anything and everything he tried to do, he tried to do it loudly.

Above and beyond the normality and madness of world war, the contrasting figures of the avant-garde and humanism co-existed in neutral Switzerland. In June 1919, Zweig was one of the signatories of Rolland’s ‘Declaration of the Independence of the Mind’. Rolland writes that the role of these guardians of spirit is to be the fixed point in the ‘centre of the whirlwind of passions, in the night’. Switzerland was precisely that centre – a continuous and varied productive culture out of which spiralled many more movements. What was common to all these movements, to Dada and Rolland, was their shared desire to ‘not only change art but also life by means of art’ (Roy Allen, ‘Aesthetic transformations: Origins of Dada’, in Foster op. cit.).

Pardaad Chamsaz, Collaborative Doctoral Student

References/further reading:

Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937, edited by. Stephen Bury (London, 2007), YC.2008.b.251

Dada: The Coordinates of Cultural Politics, edited by Stephen Foster (New York, 1996) YC.1997.b.488 v.1

Tristan Tzara, La première aventure céléste de Mr Antipyrine (Zürich, 1916) Cup.408.u.39 

Tristan Tzara, Dada 3, (Zürich, 1918) W18/5841

Romain Rolland, Au-dessus de la mêlée, (Paris, 1915) W18/5841

Stefan Zweig, Jeremias : eine dramatische Dichtung in neun Bildern (Leipzig, 1922) 11747.h.31.

Stefan Zweig, Tagebücher (Frankfurt am Main, 1984), X3-0904

Stefan Zweig, Triumph und Tragik des Erasmus von Rotterdam (Vienna, 1935), 2214.a.9

17 April 2015

Sonia Delaunay and Tristan Tzara

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The Sonia Delaunay exhibition which opened this week at Tate Modern shows her prodigious output over some seven decades. Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) worked in a variety of media – paintings, drawings, prints, fashion and fabric designs, posters, mosaics, bookbindings, and book illustrations. She is best known as the creator, with Blaise Cendrars, of one of the greatest livres d’artiste, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France, for which she provided pochoir illustrations to Cendrars’ poem.

This famous book, published in 1913, has tended, however, to overshadow similar collaborations with other poets, especially the two books she produced with Tristan Tzara, the founder of Dadaism.

Tzara moved to Paris from Zurich in 1919 and it was apparently one of his manifestos that made Sonia and Robert Delaunay, who had lived in Spain and then Portugal since 1914, aware of the renewed artistic vitality of Paris after the end of the war and determined their return to France. Tzara first met the Delaunays soon after their return to Paris in 1921. Their apartment at 19 Boulevard Malesherbes quickly became a fashionable gathering point for the literary and artistic avant garde, its walls covered with multi-coloured poems and other works of art by Philippe Soupault, Vladimir Mayakovsky, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Jean  Cocteau, and René Crevel. As well as embroidering waistcoats for her friends, Sonia also decorated the interior of Au Sans Pareil, the Dadaist and Surrealist bookshop.

Tzara soon became a close friend of the couple and in 1923 Robert painted his portrait in which he is wearing a scarf designed by Sonia A monocled Tzara also features in one of Robert Delaunay’s best-known paintings, Le Manège aux cochons, painted in 1922. 

Portrait of Tristan TzaraRobert Delaunay, Portrait of Tristan Tzara (1923). Madrid, Museo nacional centro de arte Reina Sofia (image from Wikimedia Commons)

The collaboration between Sonia Delaunay and Tzara took various forms. It included robes poèmes, dresses with texts from Tzara’s poems woven into their fabric, all made in 1922, and Sonia’s bookbinding for Tzara’s De nos oiseaux in 1923. Sonia had by then become well known for her textile designs, the main focus of her work over the next 15 years, and it was in that year that Tzara asked her to design the costumes for his play Le Cœur à gaz, a three-act absurdist provocation described by its author as “la plus grande escroquerie en trois actes” (“the biggest swindle in three acts”).

The play had already had a single, disastrous performance during a soirée dada in 1921 with a cast that included Louis Aragon, Benjamin Péret, Philippe Soupault, and Tzara himself. It gained lasting notoriety, however, by the circumstances of this 1923 revival, when it was included in Le Cœur à barbe (“The Bearded Heart”), another soirée dada organised by Tzara and Iliadz. The evening marked the culmination of the ongoing conflict between Tzara and Breton and finally split the Dadaists and led to the foundation of Surrealism by Breton and his followers. It also included first performances of new compositions by Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as films by Charles Sheeler and Hans Richter. The two groups came to blows during the performance of the play. Several people were injured and the actors, encased in Sonia’s heavy cardboard costumes, found themselves unable to move. A photograph showing René Crevel (Oeil) and Jacqueline Chaumont (Bouche) has survived, and their costumes can be compared to Sonia’s original designs.

Costume design for a woman's dress in red, white and green  Costume design for a man's black jacket, striped trousers and top hat
Sonia Delaunay, Costume designs for Le Cœur à barbe, 1923: Left, Bouche; right, Oeil (British Library  C.108 aaa.14.). A copy of the photograph can be seen here.

The text of the play had been first published in Der Sturm on 5 March 1922 but did not appear together with Sonia’s costume designs until 1977, when they were published in association with the exhibition La Rencontre: Sonia Delaunay, Tristan Tzara at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris  by the art critic and publisher Jacques Damase, a close friend of Sonia who promoted her work in the last 16 years of her life. The volume includes ten lithographs, seven of which are full-page, colour reproductions of the gouaches of the 1923 costume designs; the others comprise an additional title-page and two decorations in the text. 125 copies were printed, all signed by the artist. An additional set of the full-page lithographs, individually signed by the artist, was issued with each of the first 25 copies.

Title of 'La coeur à gaz' with a heart representing the word 'coeur'
Additional title page of  Tristan Tzara Le Cœur à barbe (Paris, 1977)

The friendship between Sonia Delaunay and Tzara lasted until Tzara’s death in 1963, although they grew apart in the 1930s, when Tzara joined the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and Sonia was for several years busy with the mural paintings commission for the 1937 International Exhibition. They were next brought together, with other ‘undesirables’, in Toulouse in 1944, three years after the death of Robert Delaunay. After the war Tzara once again became an habitué of Sonia’s studio, now at Rue Saint-Simon on the Left Bank.

Like Sonia, Tzara had a strong interest in illustrated books and worked with numerous artists – including Matisse, Kandinsky, Léger, Mirò, Arp, Giacometti, Villon, Klee and Ernst – on illustrated editions of his poems. There were two collaborations with Sonia: for Le Fruit permis (1956), her first book since La Prose du Transsibérien, Sonia contributed four pochoir compositions, and for Juste présent (1961), a collection of 11 poems written between 1947 and 1950, she made eight full-page colour etchings  and an additional colour etching for the slipcase, printed in the right sense on the front and upside down on the back cover.

Abstract image of circles, arches and rectangles

Abstract image of squares and circles

Above: Two of Sonia Delaunay’s etchings for  Juste présent ([Paris], 1961).; Below: etching for slipcase cover of Juste présent

Abstract image of curves and shading 

140 copies of Juste présent  were printed, all signed by the poet and the artist. The British Library’s copy is no. 124. In both publications Sonia’s colours are strong and pure, with a predominance of vermilion, indigo and black. The compositions, with their interplay between flat colour and black, hatched areas, are typical of her post-1945 output (for example, her various Rythme-couleur paintings).

Jacques Damase, who did so much to promote Sonia Delaunay’s art, did not live to see her final consecration: he was tragically killed in an accident in July 2014, just three months before the opening in Paris of this major exhibition of her work, now at Tate Modern. Perhaps the exhibition should be dedicated to his memory? 

Chris Michaelides, Curator Romance collections


Tristan Tzara, Juste présent  [Poèmes]. Eaux-fortes de Sonia Delaunay. ([Paris], 1961).

Tristan Tzara, Le cœur à gaz; costumes de Sonia Delaunay. ([Paris], 1977). C.108 aaa.14

La Rencontre: Sonia Delaunay, Tristan Tzara. Musée d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, avril-juin 1977 / [commissaire: Danielle Molinari].  (Paris, [1977]).  YV.1987.a.344

Annabelle Melzer, Dada and Surrealist Performance. (Baltimore & London, 1994) YC.1994.a.3134 & 98/01171

Sonia & Robert Delaunay [the catalogue of the Delaunay donation to the Bibliothèque nationalede France]. (Paris, 1977). j/X.415/2418. 

Sonia Delaunay, Nous irons jusqu’au soleil.  (Paris, 1977).  X.429/7809

Sherry A. Buckberrough, Susan Krane, Sonia Delaunay: a retrospective. (Buffalo, NY, 1980) f80/8227.

Sonia Delaunay [the catalogue of the exhibition at Tate Modern].  London, 2015.

Chris Michaelides, ‘Robert and Sonia Delaunay’, review of the exhibition at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, The Burlington Magazine,  February 2015.  P.P.1931.pcs.    

 Cécile Godefroy, Sonia Delaunay : sa mode, ses tableaux, ses tissus (Paris, 2014) YF.2015.a.8284.

30 March 2015

The Goddess of Air at The Stray Dog Café

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On 28 March 1914 Tamara Karsavina, a legend of the Russian ballet, celebrated her birthday by dancing at The Stray Dog Café  at Number 5, Mikhailovskaia Square (today Ploshchad’ iskusstv,  ‘Square of the Arts’)  in St Petersburg. Also called an art-cellar, the café was in operation between  31 December  1911 and 3 March 1915. Its name was drawn from the romantic and at the same time ironic image of a poet or artist as a stray dog, created by one of the founders of the enterprise Mstislav  Dobuzhinzky.

Image 1-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi6
The logo of the Stray Dog Café, from the cover of a tribute volume to Tamara Karsavina

The idea of a cabaret-club came from the actor and theatre director Boris Pronin (1875-1946), one of the noteworthy figures of the Russian Silver Age in art and literature. The founders of the Stray Dog Café (including writer Alexey Tolstoy, artists Nikolay Sapunov (1880-1912) and Sergey Sudeikin (1882-1946), and  theatre director and dramatist Nikolai Evreinov) aimed to synthesise visual and performing arts with literature and create a playful  atmosphere for participants and the audience.

The programme of the Stray Dog Café included poetry readings by such famous Russian authors as  Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev, Mikhail Kuzmin and Vladimir Mayakovsky as well as foreign guests like Paul Fort. The founder of the Futurist movement Filippo Tommaso Marinetti gave a lecture there.  The audience was divided into two categories:  “artists” and “pharmacists” (those who didn’t belong to the bohemian world of creativity) and the price for an entrance ticket for the latter category was several times higher than for “artists-bohemians”.

The celebration of Tamara Karsavina’s birthday was documented in a number of memoirs. For example, Sergey Sudeikin recollected how this “goddess of air” moved around the stage in the middle of the hall between authentic  18th-century wooden sculptures of Eros placed on a wonderful blue carpet. Carefully selected musicians played old musical instruments. The intimacy of the performance was shared by fifty dance-lovers who paid 50 roubles per ticket.  At the end of evening, the heroine was presented with a memorable book made for her that included drawings, poems and dedications to the admired ballerina. Beautifully designed, this gentle book (held by the British Library at shelfmark Cup.410.f.519) is a unique artefact of the time, as the images below illustrate.

Image 2-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi2
The title page of the book

Image 3-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi4
Sargent’s portrait of Karsavina

Image 4-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi5
Poem by Mikhail Kuzmin

Image 5-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi3
Drawing by Sergey Sudeikin

Image 6-Cup.410.f.519-Karsavinoi
A letter of congratulation from Nikolai Evreinov

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)

16 March 2015

Who loved Three Oranges?

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In 1914 the Russian theatre director Vlesovod Meyerhold  set up a theatre magazine which he called Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (The Love for Three Oranges). At this time Meyerhold was interested in the traditions of the Commedia dell'arte, rethinking them for contemporary theatrical reality. His theoretical concepts of the “conditional theatre” were elaborated in his book O teatre (On Theatre; shelfmark 11795.p.12) in 1913. The new magazine was named after Carlo Gozzi’s  play Amore delle tre melarance (1761) which he created as a polemic against the then extremely popular Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni. It started a tradition of Italian plays called fiabe – improvisations loosely based on a fairy-tale plot where the conflict between good and evil is shown by means of Commedia dell'arte. The publication Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam had the subtitle Zhurnal doktora Dapertutto (‘Dr Dapertutto’s magazine’).


Meyerhold – cartoon portrait by A.Liubimov from N.D.Volkov. Meierkhol’d. T.1. 1874-1908. (Leningrad, 1929). British Library 10797.a.13

Dr Dapertutto was Meyerhold’s pseudonym, suggested to him by the poet and composer Mikhail Kuzmin with whom Meyehold worked on one of the Komisarzhevskaia theatre productions in St Petersburg.  Cover designs were made by the theatre designers and artists Iurii Bondi (see more of his works here) and Aleksandr Golovin.

Cover design by Bondi for Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (St Petersburg, 1914)

Golovin cover
Cover design by Golovin for Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (St Petersburg, 1915)

Between 1914 and 1916 nine issues of the magazine were published. The print run was very small, between 300 and 500 copies and the first and prime subscribers were family members and friends. Aleksandr Blok, one of the most influential among Russian Symbolist poets, was responsible for the poetry section. In the articles published in the magazine, Meyerhold and his like-minded friends and colleagues discussed new approaches to the history and theory of theatre and promoted their new Theatre-Studio where Meyerhold taught his bio-mechanical system of acting. A full digital archive of this rare magazine is now freely available online.

In the first issue of the magazine Meyerhold published a theatre scenario Liubov’ k trem apel’sinam (‘The Love for Three Oranges’) based on Carlo Gozzi’s fiabe. Meyerhold’s co-authors were the poet Konstantin Vogak (1887-1938), who was at some point in correspondence with Blok, knew Anna Akhmatova and Nikolay Gumilev and later emigrated and died in Nice, and Vladimir Nikolaevich Solov’ev, one of the leading and most popular theatre directors in Leningrad in the 1920s, who died in 1941 during the siege of Leningrad.

When in April 1918 Sergey Prokofiev was commissioned to write an opera, he mentioned it to Meyerhold who immediately gave him the first issue of the magazine. In his diaries Prokofiev wrote: “Read The Love for Three Oranges. It is wonderful! Something could really be done with it, except that the plot would need to be completely rewritten. The music should be clear, lively, and as simple as it can be made” (Prokofiev, 2006. p. 273).

In the Prokofiev family archives there is a photograph taken in 1919 that shows Sergey Prokofiev, Boris Anisfeld who designed the sets for the first performance of the opera in Chicago, and Adolph Bolm, a Russian-born dancer and choreographer, a one-time member of  Diaghilev’s company, who was helping Prokofiev while he was on his first trip to America. The photograph is reproduced in the edition of Prokofiev’s diaries published in Paris in 2002 (YF.2012.a.11414; p. 27)

To see this image and many more rare and fascinating items from the British Library collections on Russian music theatre and art, join us on 19th March at a private view at the British Library organised in cooperation with the London Jewish Cultural Centre.


Sergey Prokofiev, Diaries / translated and annotated by Anthony Phillips. (London; Ithaca, N.Y., 2006- ). YC.2007.a.1259 (vol. 1); YC.2009.a.11249 (vol. 2); YC.2013.a.14822 (vol. 3).

Meyerhold on theatre. Translated and edited with a critical commentary by Edward Braun. (London, 1969) X.900/4423

Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead East European Curator (Russian)

13 February 2015

‘Of all fairy-tales, the most beautiful…’ Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine

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It would seem unlikely that one of the most ethereal creatures to capture the imagination of translators and illustrators in the nineteenth century should have been created by a Prussian officer and inspired by the writings of Paracelsus, the founder of the science of toxicology. Nevertheless, this was the pedigree of Undine, the heroine of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s romance of the same name, who would inspire operas, ballets and numerous adaptations. Her elusive form can be glimpsed behind Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ and Dvořák’s Rusalka, a symbol of all that is mysteriously enchanting and ultimately unattainable.

Fouqué, born in 1777 into a family of Huguenot origins, was the grandson of one of Frederick the Great’s generals, and although he had not planned a military career he gave up his studies at the university of Halle in 1794 to fight in the campaign against Napoleon which ended in 1806 with Prussia’s defeat by the French forces at the battle of Jena and Auerstedt. However, the years which followed saw a remarkable renaissance in Prussia’s cultural and political life, and after the magical interval of seven years, Napoleon suffered defeat at the hands of Prussia and her allies in the ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig in 1813.  

Portrait of Fouqué in military uniform, ca 1815, artist unknown (Image from Wikimedia Commons

Among the notable events of 1811 were the foundation of the new University of Berlin and the publication of one of the best-loved works of German fantasy and the only one of its author’s writings to be familiar to readers two centuries later. Undine appeared as the work of ‘the author of the Todesbund’, in a modest little book of which the British Library holds a first edition (Hirsch III.852). It contains no illustrations, but this lack would soon be made good by distinguished artists including John Tenniel (1457.d.19) and Arthur Rackham. Among the German artists drawn to illustrate the story was Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld, in a series of twenty-two exquisite images.

Undine Schnorr von Carolsfeld
Ludwig Ferdinand Schnorr von Carolsfeld  ‘Des Ritters Trauung mit Undinen’ from XX. Umrisse zur Undine von Friedrich Baron de la Motte Fouqué (Leipzig, 1816) 1322.m.79.

The legend was ideally suited to the taste of the early 19th century and to artists like the members of the Lukasbund, fired by ideals of mediaeval chivalry and craftsmanship. Like the French legend of Mélusine, it tells of a water-sprite, Undine, who can gain an immortal soul only through marriage to a mortal. Living under the care of a fisherman and his wife in a simple hut, she is discovered by the knight Huldbrand when he is on a quest in the forest to fulfil a mission for Berthalda, whom he has seen at a tournament and whose glove he light-heartedly requested as a favour. A fateful meeting with Kühleborn, the shape-changing guardian and uncle of Undine, sets events in motion; Huldbrand marries Undine, but when she reveals that Berthalda is in fact the daughter of the fisherman, tensions arise between the three, and Kühleborn emerges from the River Danube to snatch Undine to safety. Thinking that he has lost her for ever, Huldbrand prepares to marry Berthalda despite attempts to dissuade him, unaware of the terrible price of infidelity to his other-worldly bride.  Sure enough, when Berthalda demands that the castle well be opened to wash away the freckles that reveal her plebeian background, Undine appears from the depths to give Huldbrand a last kiss which proves fatal to him. 

Undine Rackham
Undine and Huldbrand, by Arthur Rackham, from Undine ... Adapted from the German by W. L. Courtney and illustrated by Arthur Rackham (London, 1909). 12410.h.21.

Within three years the story had been turned into an opera by E.T. A. Hoffmann, and in 1817 George Soane translated it into English, adapting it for the stage in 1821. In Vasily Zhukovsky’s Russian translation it became the basis for another opera by Tchaikovsky, and Margot Fonteyn created the title role in a ballet to a score by Hans Werner Henze (1957; Document Supply MUSIC W87/6573). Fouqué himself died in comparative obscurity in 1843, having lived to see Undine surpass all his other tales of the world of Norse mythology and mediaeval legend and become a bestseller throughout Europe.

Although, on the eve of St Valentine’s Day, this story may not appear to presage the happiest of outcomes, its enduring message of mystery and enchantment, which caused George MacDonald to declare ‘of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful,’ is as irresistible as ever.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech & Slovak

 Undine Sumner
Title-page of an English edition of Undine, illustrated by Heywood Sumner (London, 1888). C.109.n.1.

23 January 2015

Avant-garde Russian theatre in the 1920s

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Having just viewed the excellent exhibition Russian Avant-garde Theatre at the Victoria & Albert Museum, I was reminded that many of the images on display appear in items held by the British Library. For example Ignaty Nivinsky’s  designs for a production of Carlo Gozzi’s Turandot can be found in a book on Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s  production of the play at the Moscow Arts Theatre in 1923.

Turando Carlo Gozzi, Princessa Turandot. (Moscow, 1923). Cover by I. Nivinsky. British Library Cup.410.c.86.

This book, which is particularly well-produced for the early Soviet period, contains coloured plates of set and costume designs together with production photographs. Vakhtangov, in common with other radical innovative directors such as Tairov, Evreinov and Meyerhold, rejected the naturalistic style and showed a preference for simplicity of setting with a synthetic mix of tragedy and farce including clowning and acrobatics. In Princessa Turandot Vakhtangov also drew inspiration from the commedia dell’arte and oriental theatre and made use of alienation effects where characters changed costume on stage and sometimes came out of character and talked to the audience.  

Turandot2Set design for Vakhtangov’s production of Princessa Turandot.

Vsevolod Meyerhold’s  designers were equally innovatory in applying Constructivist principles to stage design. In The Magnanimous Cuckold Liubov Popova created a three-dimensional form like stage architecture bridging the audience/stage divide, and in Restive Earth made use of the whole auditorium with multimedia, film screens and montage.

Cuckold Popova’s design for The Magnanimous Cuckold. From Joseph Gregor & René Fülöp-Miller, The Russian Theatre, translated by Paul England. (London, 1930)

In the V&A exhibition there are several examples of theatrical designs by Anatol Petrytsky, who was a central figure of the Ukrainian avant-garde. Petrytsky studied at the Kyiv Art School and the Advanced Artistic Theatrical Workshop in Moscow, where he worked with the  ballet-master Kasyan Goleyzovsky, designing costumes for his innovative Eccentric Dance. Costume designs for this ballet appear in a deluxe album called Teatral'ni stroi [Theatre designs]. (Kharkiv, 1929; C.185.bb3.)

Eccentric dance2
Costume designs by Petrytsky for the ballet Eccentric dance, from Petrytsky, Teatral'ni stroi

These sketches exemplify the Constructivist approach to costume design, reducing the human form to basic geometrical shapes and emphasising the machine-like qualities of the human body and its movements. The album also includes designs for productions based on works by Gogol, the opera William Tell and the ballet Nur and Anitra (1923), including this design for a warrior.

Petrytsk'yi warrior costumeWarrior in a constructivist design costume from Teatral'ni stroi

The British Library has also acquired some issues of Zrelishcha (Spectacles), an early Soviet-period equivalent of Time Out, listing musical, theatrical and dance events. On one of the covers appear the Electrical dances of Nikolai Foregger. He applied Constructivist and biomechanical acting ideas to dance, producing machin-like dance creations which combined the styles of cinematic action, circus acrobatics and the music-hall.

Zrelishcha   Cover of Zrelishcha no 26 (Moscow, 1923), showing Foregger’s  “Electrical Dances”. RF.2005.b.46.

Our Russian and Soviet theatre webpages contain a list of works in Russian relating to Russian/Soviet theatre published between 1910 and 1935 and held by the British Library, including books about theatre, theoretical works, manifestos and criticisms of individual productions of both classics and new plays of the period (but not the texts).

Peter Hellyer, Curator Russian studies

Useful sources

Kamernyi teatr i ego khudozhniki. Kamerny 1914-1934 [Theatre and its artists 1914-1934]. (Moscow, 1934).

K. Rudnitsky, Russian & Soviet Theatre. (London, 1988). LB.31.b.1503.

Joseph Gregor, René Fülöp-Miller,  Das russische Theater. (Zurich, 1928). L.R.255.a.16. [Translated by Paul England as The Russian Theatre (London, 1930)

Peter W.  Hellyer, A catalogue of Russian avant-garde books 1912-1934 and 1969-2003. (London, 2006) YC.2008.b.251

Russian avant-garde theatre: war, revolution & design. Edited by John E. Bowlt. (London, 2014). Awaiting shelfmark.  There is a review of this work by Vera Liber in  East-West Review, Winter edition 2014, p.49-50. ZK.9.b.28654

Breaking the rules: the printed face of the European Avant-Garde 1900-1937. Edited by Stephen Bury. (London, 2007). YC.2008.b.251.

17 December 2014

A dish fit for the gods: 150 years of Offenbach’s ‘La belle Hélène’

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When in the 1690s the Académie Française was rocked by the so-called Querelle des anciens et des modernes between two factions headed by Nicolas Boileau and Charles Perrault respectively, history might have regarded it as a short-lived conflict unlikely to have much lasting influence on the development of French culture. However, in a society with a long tradition of respect for classical learning and its place within the educational system, it was never completely extinguished, and continued to flare up in the most unlikely places – such as the Paris comic opera stage.

By 1858, when the restriction limiting the number of performers in such productions to three was finally lifted, Jacques Offenbach (1819-1860) had already achieved considerable success in the small theatre which he had leased at his own expense, the Salle Choiseul, to accommodate his troupe, the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, when unable to make a breakthrough at the Opéra-Comique. His tastes, though, ran towards the lavish, and once free of the previous limitations he set about engaging a cast of 20 principals and making plans to stage his latest work, Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld).

Photograph of Jacques OffenbachAn early photograph of Offenbach, from ‘Argus’ Jacques Offenbach (Paris, 1872). 10602.e.4.

It success exceeded all his dreams, but not, perhaps, for the reasons which he had anticipated. Most unlike Monteverdi’s Orfeo or Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, it presents the hero not as a noble tragic figure descending to the realm of Hades to rescue his beloved wife but as a lackadaisical violin teacher whose wife is driven distracted by his trills and arpeggios, so that her abduction by the sinister king of the underworld, disguised as a shepherd, comes as a relief to both. Indeed, it was so far removed from the marmoreal world of classical antiquity that it provoked a furious outcry in the pages of the Journal des débats and Le Figaro. No voice was louder than that of the critic Jules Janin, who accused Offenbach of making a mockery of the austere values of Roman mythology so revered by the great figures of the Revolution. Behind this, though, lay a more contemporary target for satire – no less than the figure of the Emperor Napoleon III and his court in the guise of Jupiter (familiarly tagged as ‘Jupin’, i.e. Joops) and his entourage. The notoriety, as much as the sparkling music and witty libretto by Hector Crémieux, did wonders for the box-office takings, and in April 1860 the emperor himself ordered a command performance – and presumably was not disappointed, as that year he made a personal grant of French citizenship to the Cologne-born Offenbach, followed in 1861 by the Légion d’honneur.

Inspired by this success, Offenbach proceeded to tackle another classical subject, the story of Helen of Troy, in La belle Hélène. The librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy showed no more respect for their theme than their predecessor Crémieux, and fell foul of the censor for their portrayal of the Grand Augur, Calchas, which was viewed as an attack on the clergy. Pompous and hypocritical, Calchas cheats outrageously while gambling, and was at one point intended to fall into the water until the censor insisted that this was taking irreverence too far. Nor do Agamemnon, Menelaus and the other heroes fare any better; they appear as a gang of ridiculous blockheads who are easily trounced by the debonair ‘shepherd’ Paris (‘l’homme à la pomme’) in a series of word-games designed to sharpen the dull wits of the Greeks.

  Page of the music manuscript of La belle Helénè
The chorus which accompanies Orestes’ entrance, from Jacques Offenbach, La belle Hélène, autograph score, 1864. Zweig MS 72

Most startlingly of all, perhaps, Orestes makes his entrance as a precocious playboy, flanked by two good-time girls, Parthénis and Léoena, dancing in to the refrain ‘Tsing-la-la! Tsing-la-la! Oyé Kephalé, Kephalé oh-la-la!’ and intent on emptying his father’s coffers in the pursuit of pleasure. The role is sung by a soprano, and its creator, the all-too-aptly-named Léa Silly, proved a major headache to Offenbach. In a situation reminiscent of Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario), a skit involving a hapless director and his two warring prima donnas which Offenbach had staged some years earlier, she antagonized the diva Hortense Schneider, a long-term star of the company who was cast as Helen, by upstaging and mimicking her, dancing a cancan behind her back as she sang a major aria, and so enraging Schneider that she threatened to quit not only the production but Paris altogether.

Photograph of Hortense Schneider in the role of HelenHortense Schneider as Helen in La belle Hélène, from Louis Schneider, Offenbach (Paris, 1923) 7896.t.20.

Yet despite these trials the first night went ahead on 17th December 1864 at the Théâtre des Variétés, delighting critics and public so much that it launched a run of 700 performances. Among its admirers was the famous chef Auguste Escoffier, who created a special dish in its honour – Poire Belle Hélène, a luscious confection of poached pears and vanilla ice-cream topped with chocolate sauce and crystallized violets. Like the opera itself, it is a treat for the connoisseur – and certainly fit for an Emperor.

Susan Halstead, Curator Czech and Slovak

20 November 2014

A postmodern ‘War and Peace’

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During the summer I attended a cinema relay of a new production of Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace based on Tolstoy’s novel, broadcast live from the Mariinsky II Theatre, St Petersburg. Today's anniversary of Tolstoy's death (on 20 November 1910) seems an apt moment to reflect on this. The performance, conducted by Valery Gergiev, was directed by Graham Vick with set designs by Paul Brown. In Vick’s second production of War and Peace we are offered a postmodern version of the work with references to both early 19th century Russia and to a modern world of dissolution and drug-taking.  The costumes range from 19th century military and court dress to modern designer label jackets and jeans.

Vick’s angle in this production is to show the penetration of elements of war into the “Peace” section of the opera and vice versa. Thus in the first part tanks move across the stage while the chorus are dancing in period costume with the addition of gas masks; and in the second part (entitled War) a board with the word “mir” (peace) is on the stage all the time (as if it were a goal to aim for). The treatment of war in the second part is generalised to include references not only to the Napoleonic wars but also to the First and Second World War s, the invading forces having elements of both German and French uniforms and helmets. The production also includes film clips of 20th century wars.

The treatment of the military leaders is interesting: while Napoleon changes from his imperial costume to modern dress, Kutuzov wears a similar period costume to the one worn in Vick’s earlier production in 1991 (he is also played by the same singer). Though, unlike the previous one, this Kutuzov goes out and fraternizes with the audience in a Brechtian fashion.  Throughout there is a juxtaposition of the extremely colourful, conveying an intense feeling for life, and a more austere black and white, evoking a feeling of spiritual desolation. One striking use of colour is the yellow screen above a modern washroom. (You can see some images from the production here)

The relay also gave us an opportunity to experience the inside of the new Mariinsky II theatre with its splendid interior and acoustics. The vocal and orchestral performances of this performance under Gergiev were up to the Mariinsky’s usual high standard. I do hope this production will be released on DVD to complement Vick’s already highly valued earlier production.  If you are interested in Tolstoy and music take a look at the British Library web pages written for the centenary of Tolstoy’s death in 2010. These include sections on Tolstoy’s attitude towards music and contemporary composers together with lists of musical adaptations of Tolstoy’s works (scores and recordings held by the British Library). They also include information on early and rare editions of Tolstoy’s works held by the British Library.    

Peter Hellyer, Curator Russian Studies  

Photograph of Tolstoy wearing a peasant smockPortrait of Tolstoy, 1880s. British Library Add. MS 52772 f.120.

07 November 2014

Is your governess really a spy?

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Ever since Baroness Lehzen taught the young Princess Victoria, German governesses had occupied a place in 19th-century British consciousness. Many German women came to Britain during the century to teach either in schools or private homes, and a Verein deutscher Lehrerinnen in England  was founded in 1876 to offer them advice and assistance. By the beginning of the 20th century it was common – and fashionable – for upper-class families to employ a ‘Fräulein’ to help educate their daughters, even against the background of rising of anti-German sentiment.

Vereinsbote PP.1215.fb
Der Vereinsbote. Organ des Vereins deutscher Lehrerinnen in England
. Vol. 26, no. 1, February 1914 (P.P.1215.fb). The journal of the Association of German Teachers in England. Like most British German newspapers and periodicals, it ceased publication in August 1914.

On the outbreak of war, however, governesses were among the Germans in Britain viewed with particular suspicion. Because some lived closely with the families of well-connected employers, they could easily be demonised as potential spies or fifth columnists.  A browse through contemporary newspapers via the British Newspaper Archive reveals a number of stories, or variations on the same story, about German governesses whose trunks were found to conceal bombs or secret documents. A report in the Lichfield Mercury of 21 August 1914 even claims that a German ‘secret order book’ had been discovered which recommended the placing of ‘handsome German governesses’ in the families of British military officers to gather information; presumably their handsomeness was intended to help tempt the officers into indiscretions  of various kinds.

These stories may strike us as faintly absurd, but their underlying message was taken seriously at the time, even in high places. In 1916, the Prime Minister of New Zealand specifically mentioned governesses, alongside waiters and clerks, as Germans employed in Britain who had used their position to collect information which was ‘promptly conveyed to Berlin.’ And of course these attitudes could have serious consequences for the women who suddenly found themselves designated ‘enemy aliens’, perhaps after many years as part of a British family, and suspected of spying.

Families who employed a German governess sometimes themselves fell under suspicion. A Mr Cunningham was still pursuing damages from the War Office in 1923, claiming that his business had collapsed when it was boycotted following a military search of his house in 1914, triggered in part by the presence there of a German governess. Even the British Prime Minister was suspected of harbouring a spy in the form of his children’s long-serving governess Anna Heinsius.

A popular example of the ‘governess as spy’ theme was the 1914 play The Man who Stayed at Home, set in a small seaside hotel where the hero, a British secret agent, affects a languid and flippant air to disguise his true mission as a spy-catcher. One of the first characters we meet is Fräulein Schroeder, described in the stage directions as ‘a tall, angular and unattractive spinster with a dictatorial manner and entirely unsympathetic soul.’

A modern audience might expect, or even hope, that such an obvious candidate as Fräulein Schroeder would turn out not to be a villain. But the popular stereotypes of the day prevail: she is in fact in cahoots with the hotel’s owner, Mrs Sanderson (German widow of an Englishman), her ‘son’ Carl (actually ‘Herr von Mantel, son of General von Mantel, and paid spy of the German Government’) and the waiter Fritz (who, despite a thick stage-German accent, manages to convince everyone that he is Dutch), all spies in the service of their ‘Imperial Master’ in Berlin.

Cover of  'The Man who Stayed at Home', showing a warship firing on a U-Boat
Cover of a 1916 acting text of The Man who stayed at Home.The image was also available as a poster for groups wishing to stage the play.

The play clearly pleased the British public. It had a long run in London and was filmed twice (1915 and 1919) and adapted as a novel (1915). The novel is somewhat kinder about Fräulein Schroeder’s appearance: initially, at least, she radiates  ‘all the placid good nature and quietude of spirit of the best of her race’ and has ‘small, kindly brown eyes’. But her fanaticism and ruthlessness are far more strongly emphasised and, in a change from the play, she poisons herself when the German plot is foiled, a ‘sordid and ugly’ death depicted as encapsulating the inglorious nature of her cause.

Amidst all these tall tales and spy-panics it is comforting to encounter stories of those who supported and defended such ‘enemy aliens’ trying to continue a teaching career in Britain during the war years. The Daily Mail of 3 September 1914 reported that a man who applied to the International Women’s Aid Committee for a governess for his children was shocked to be sent a German woman. But, the report continues, the Committee’s secretary responded that, ‘Our object is to help foreign women of any nationality who are the innocent victims of the war. We do not consider that we are helping the enemy in assisting a non-combatant German governess.’ A refreshing sentiment to set against the popular jingoism of the time.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies

References/further reading

Lechmere Worrall / J.E. Harold Terry, The Man who Stayed at Home: a play in three acts. French’s Acting Edition No. 2535 (London, [1916]). 2304.h.71.(4)

Beamish Tinker [i.e. F. Tennyson Jesse], The Man who Stayed at Home ... From the play of the same name. (London, 1915) NN.2687

Panikos Panayi, The Enemy in our Midst : Germans in Britain during the First World War (New York, 1991) YC.1991.a.4196

This piece was posted live from Selwyn College Cambridge as part of the Women In German Studies Postgraduate workshop in November 2014.