By Dale Stinchcomb, Assistant Curator of the Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library
Even for a dance company as innovative as the Ballets Russes, the staging of “Les Noces” (“The Wedding”) in 1923 was a radical leap forward. Bronislava Nijinska’s raw evocation of a peasant wedding has been called feminist in its portrayal of a bride sacrificed to the forces of society and tradition. Avant-gardist Natalia Goncharova designed the austere décors. Add to the mix a controversial score by Igor Stravinsky for a battery of percussion, chorus, and four—yes, four—pianos, and you’ve got the makings of a modernist masterpiece.Scholars have generally assumed that the pianos were loaned by the French piano maker Pleyel, at whose workshop in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis Stravinsky kept his studio (see Drue Fergison, “Bringing Les Noces to the Stage” in The Ballets Russes and its World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999, 183). But a recently acquired letter by Stravinsky identifies Martine Marie Pol de Béhague, Comtesse de Béarn (1870–1939) as the owner of a most unusual piano played at the premiere.
No biography of the Countess de Béarn has been written, but she knew all too well about the restrictive nature of marriage, having wed a cavalry officer at age 19. The couple separated almost immediately, leaving her rich and single, and free to satisfy her voracious interest in art. She traveled widely aboard her yacht Le Nirvana, filling her hôtel in the rue Saint-Dominique with works by Titian, Leonardo, Rubens, and impressive collections of sculpture, textiles, porcelain, and antiquities. (A portion of her library was auctioned at Christie’s in November.) At her private theatre, the largest in the capital, she hosted Isadora Duncan and presided over first performances of compositions by Friedrich Gernsheim, Charles Marie Widor, and Gabriel Fauré.
Fittingly, hers was no ordinary piano. Stravinsky’s note, dated eleven days after the opening of “Noces,” thanks her for loaning a “magnifique double-Pleyel.” The double Pleyel, often referred to as a “grand double,” “duo-clave,” or “vis-à-vis,” has a full keyboard at either end and two separate ranks of strings on a shared soundboard. At a time when most well-to-do households could only muster one piano, the “grand double” was marketed to Parisians wanting two but for whom space, if not money, was scarce.
Piano duets had been the usual formula for arrangements of orchestral works throughout the 19th century. Stravinsky himself created four-hand piano transcriptions of his earlier ballets “Le Sacre du Printemps” and “Pétrouchka,” intended for use in rehearsals and domestic settings. But for Stravinsky, who labored over the instrumentation of “Les Noces” on and off for close to a decade, “an orchestra of four pianos” was new territory.
It was also a tall order for a 20-minute ballet and the cramped pit of the Théâtre de la Gaîté Lyrique. Nijinska and Goncharova were forced to work around them. Goncharova’s early sketches, as well as her finished designs, show four pianos flanking the stage. We know the company rehearsed in Monaco and Paris with four grand pianos (Fergison 180), so the loan of two double grands for the premiere (the second presumably from Pleyel) was likely arranged after the four-week Monte Carlo season ended.
Stravinsky undoubtedly recalled Martine de Béhague’s generous loan of her double Pleyel years later while composing his famous “Concerto for Two Pianos.” Testing music for two pianos on one was frustrating, so he asked Pleyel to build him a double model of his own. That instrument was used by Stravinsky and his son Soulima at the premiere in 1935.
Few double pianos were ever made, and even fewer survive. Of the 48 manufactured by Pleyel between 1897 and 1943, only seven remain, including Martine de Béhague’s. It surfaced intact in 2017 at an auction house in Southern France, ready to begin the next chapter in its storied life.