In 1906, at the age of 34, Serge Diaghilev made his first impact on Western Europe with a widely acclaimed exhibition of Russian art in Paris; he followed this success with well-received concerts of Russian music in 1907 and 1908, which included the Western European debut of the celebrated Russian bass Fëdor Ivanovič Šalâpin.
Even these achievements were overshadowed by the rapturous reception of the newly formed Ballets Russes in 1909, which performed the entire second act of Borodin’s Knâz’ Igor’ (Prince Igor), featuring the singing of Šalâpin and the dancing of the now-famous Poloveckie plâski (Polovtsian dances).
In 1913 Diaghilev produced performances featuring Šalâpin in both Paris and London. An archival document from that year records Šalâpin’s payment for an extra performance of Musorgskij’s Boris Godunov in London; at the bottom one can see the singer’s handwritten note: Finito!
This according to “Diaghilev, Chaliapine, and their contracts” by Cecil Hopkinson (The music review XXV/2 [May 1964] pp. 149–53). The article also includes full English translations of Šalâpin’s contracts with Diaghilev for the 1909 and 1913 seasons.
Above, Šalâpin with a different associate in 1929; below, a performance of a scene from Godunov in 1927.
Related article: Rahmaninov and Tolstoj
In January 1900 Rahmaninov and the bass Fëdor Ivanovič Šalâpin were invited to perform for a gathering at Tolstoj’s home; they were both 26 years old. Their excitement was tempered with no little trepidation about meeting the revered author, but they could not have foreseen what transpired.
Šalâpin recalled that after the performance Tolstoj accosted him and asked “What kind of music is most necessary to men—scholarly or folk music?”
Rahmaninov’s own experience was no less harrowing, as he later described it:
“Suddenly the enthusiastic applause was hushed and everyone went silent. Tolstoj sat in an armchair a little apart from the others, looking gloomy and cross. For the next hour I evaded him entirely, but suddenly he came up to me and declared excitedly: ‘I must speak to you. I must tell you how I dislike it all!’
“And he went on and on: ‘Beethoven is nonsense, Puškin and Lermontov also.’ It was awful….
“After a while Tolstoj came up to me again: ‘Please excuse me. I am an old man. I did not mean to hurt you.’ I replied: ‘How could I be hurt on my own account if I was not hurt on Beethoven’s?’”
This according to Sergei Rachmaninoff: A lifetime in music by Sergei Bertensson, Jay Leyda, and Sof’â Aleksandrovna Satina (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001 [reprint] pp. 88–89).
Today is Rahmaninov’s 140th birthday! Below, Šalâpin sings one of his romances.