MOSCOW – It is the 300th anniversary of the Grande Chaconne, the dance which Louis XIV, the sun king of France and creator of the splendor of Versailles, regarded as his favorite. Its composer was Marin Marais, the son of a shoemaker in a family of roofers.
By the time Marais first came to Louis’s notice, more than a decade had passed since the king had decided never again to dance himself in the ballets staged by his court musicians and choreographers. Marais’s dances were therefore written to be played to the king, occasionally to be performed in front of him by professional dancers and most often to be played and danced, by the music-reading public in their own homes, outside the royal court. Thus, the Chaconne is intimate and personal on the one hand, stately and majestic on the other. The combination doesn’t appear again in European music or home entertainment until the waltz of the 19th century. As he sank towards his death, Louis asked more and more for the Chaconne to be played to him.
It wasn’t for dancing that Peter the Great had tried for years to be received at Versailles by Louis XIV. But for as long as he lived, the French king rebuffed him. Louis died in 1715, and at the end of 1716 the Regent, who ruled France on behalf of Louis’s six-year old successor, Louis XV, reluctantly agreed to Peter’s visit. The reason for the reluctance, explained the Duc de Saint-Simon, the Regent’s private advisor, was that Peter was understood to be seeking a closer alliance with France at the expense of England. The Regent, a weak man under the sway of his pro-English advisors, didn’t want to arouse England’s King George I.
Saint-Simon, who favored a Russian alliance against the English, records in great detail the visit to France of Peter in May and June of 1717. Saint-Simon lacked no sympathy for the tsar, and watched his every move in hope – he wrote much later – that he would “detach us from our servitude to England”. His observations also leave an unvarnished record of Peter’s demeanor. According to Saint-Simon, “everyone marveled at the tsar’s insatiable curiosity about everything that had any bearing on his views of government, commerce, education, police methods, etc.”
As for music, Peter was, unlike Louis, indifferent. He asked the Regent for a mug of beer to keep him going at a performance at the opera; and he left early. According to Saint-Simon, Peter “showed very little interest in objects whose beauty was confined to their value or artistry”. He records that the tsar visited gardens and factories, inspected troops and fortifications, ate a great many dinners, but danced at no balls. The only thing Saint-Simon recorded him as doing with women was an orgy on the evening of May 25. “It did not suit the tsar or his staff to restrain themselves in any way,” it was noted.
It was Saint-Simon’s custom to describe physical features as clues to the character of those he observed in his years at the French court. Thus, Peter is reported as displaying “a kind of nervous tic that contorted his entire face and was most alarming; it lasted only a moment, accompanied by a most ferocious stare; then it was gone”. Saint-Simon didn’t report in what circumstances during Peter’s time in Paris the tic appeared. Nor did he speculate about its stimulus. Saint-Simon does report, though, that Peter frequently refused to sleep in the rooms prepared for him, choosing instead camp beds in closets and corridors.
Russian historians differ on whether Peter’s convulsion was more a fit and a family inheritance, than a spasm first brought on when, as a young boy, Peter witnessed his mother’s family being killed during the rebellion (in his favor) of the streltsy (musketeers). Since Peter’s personal cruelty is notorious – Saint-Simon refers only to his appetite for eating, drinking and women – the tic is usually finessed, if mentioned at all in Russian history, as an indication of the stresses on the tsar’s otherwise noble and humane spirit, struggling to contain the even more barbarous conditions around him.
The Soviets had no reason to gioss over the tic, and in the 1940s black and white film Peter I, based on Alexei Tolstoy’s scenario, the tic was made quite visible. It wasn’t hidden either in the color productions of the 1980s. You might say that, according to Soviet ideology, the tic was a way of showing the contradiction between Peter’s benevolent goals for Russia and his autocratic cruelties in pursuing them.
When Astolphe de Custine, a Paris aristocrat declassed by the revolutionary guillotine, visited St Petersburg in 1839, his opinion kept oscillating between “admiration [for] an immense city which has sprung from the sea at the bidding of one man”, and the price that was paid. “A taste for edifices without taste,” he concluded. The difference between Versailles and the Winter Palace (now the Hermitage), he noted, was in the thousands of livelihoods sustained by the construction of the former, and the thousands of lives lost during the building of the latter. “Whilst I, though a Frenchman, see nothing but inhuman ostentation in this achievement,” Custine wrote, “not a single protestation is raised from one end of this immense empire to the other against the orgies of absolute power.”
The idea that nowadays Peter and his city have become the symbol of Western values in Russia, modernization, anti-communism, Yeltsinite reform – remember he also used to symbolize resistance to such Western values as belonged to Karl XII of Sweden and Adolf Hitler – is reason perhaps for celebrating the autocrat. But after 300 years, the tic, too, persists. To ignore it is to be blind.
About St Petersburg – today, coincidentally, as old as the Grande Chaconne – Custine expressed high hopes, though not for its buildings, nor for its rulers and their manners. “Elsewhere”, he wrote, “great cities abound with monuments raised in memory of the past. St Petersburg, in all its magnificence and immensity, is a trophy raised by the Russians to the greatness of the future.” After talking directly with Tsar Nicholas I and the tsarina at a ball in the Winter Palace, Custine describes the dance that climaxed the evening.
It was called, he said, a Polonaise. “In the palace hundreds of couples thus follow in procession, proceeding from one immense hall to another, winding through the galleries, crossing the drawing rooms, and traversing the whole building in such order or direction as the caprice of the individual who leads may dictate.” For Custine, this dance was the metaphor for Russia’s future. “It is amusing at first, but for those destined to dance it all their lives it is a species of torture.”