Fame is such a weird thing – how it happens to people is as unpredictable as what it does to the people who attain it. We’ve grown pretty accustomed to the idea of people who are “famous for being famous” –celebrities like Paris Hilton who don’t seem to actually, you know, do anything.
But the case of Serge Diaghilev is a really unusual one. Although he died in the 1920s, his name still comes up anytime people talk about Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. (What? Don’t you talk about that at least once a week?) Like so many young concertgoers, my first experience of the Rite of Spring came as a combination wake-up call and blow to the head. And after Igor Stravinsky, the name I most associated with it was Serge Diaghilev. The books, the program notes in the concert halls, the liner notes on the recordings, they all mentioned Diaghilev, and the more I got into 20th century classical music, the more I kept seeing his name.
I’m not sure I ever fully understood what Diaghilev did, though. It soon became apparent that he didn’t create the choreography, nor did he direct the dancers or conduct the orchestra. He didn’t dance, he didn’t write or play music. So why was he famous? Why is he still famous a hundred years later?
In the immortal words of George Dubya Bush, Diaghilev seems to have had “the vision thing.” His Ballet Russes enabled composers and choreographers; musicians, visual artists, and dancers; to come together and push each other into new territories. He was, perhaps, the George Steinbrenner of 20th century music and dance – creating an often explosive mix of talents that reached historic heights and sometimes flamed out spectacularly. At a time when people can genuinely become famous for doing nothing, it’s nice to see fame attending to someone who actually did something – even if I’m still not sure what it was.
What do you think of Diaghilev’s legacy? What other impresario types have been important despite working behind the scenes? Leave a comment.