Fictional Concert Review: “Le Train Bleu” Premiere, 6 June 1924

Concert Review – Ballets Russes, 6 June 1924

Last night, Serge de Diaghilev drove a train into the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. In truth, it was only a small train, with a length of only about 25 minutes. Along with the train, M. de Diaghilev brought an incomplete education and a set of puppets. I jest, of course. The Ballets Russes put on a performance that included the premier of a new ballet by Darius Milhaud and Jean Cocteau, named Le Train bleu, as well as Emmanuel Chabrier’s Une Education Manquée and M. Stravinsky’s Petrouchka.[1] Naturally, these were all spectacular performances worthy of high praise. I do have one complaint about this concert (and others put on by the Ballets Russes) as a whole, however. Increasingly as of late, M. de Diaghilev has been putting on fewer and fewer “risky” performances; he seems to be coasting on the Ballets Russes’s successes of the first two decades of the century, when he took many more risks in the type of work performed. 1911’s L’Oiseau de feu, 1913’s Le Sacre du printemps, and 1917’s Parade were all much chancier gambles than what M. de Diaghilev seems comfortable with today. This particular concert lacked daring in the themes, the music, and the choreography.

A Parisian seeking more stimulating entertainment last Friday night had a great many other options – that night alone, the Comédie-Française staged Le Barbier de Séville, the Opéra put on Roméo et Juliette, and a great number of lesser-known and newer works for theater were performed on the stages of Paris.[2] Furthermore, one could have tuned in to radio broadcasts from Radio-Paris or the Eiffel Tower and heard excerpts from profound works of music, ranging from Bach to Massenet.[3] And, of course, there are always recitals: that night was Schlumberger, Karycheff, and Kochansky.[4] Why then did I choose to attend the Ballets Russes? To tell the truth of the matter, a large part of why I attended was my attraction to the premier. M. Milhaud has distinguished himself as one of the great young French composers of our time, and his style is still developing. His music is both particularly French in its clarity and classicism while also drawing from a very international milieu: M. Milhaud spent time only a few years ago in Brazil, from which he derives a great deal of influence, and more recently he has traveled to the United States and to England.[5] Frankly, I wanted to hear new music, and I figured that this concert would be the best for it. On top of that, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is one of the newest theaters of its type in the city at only eleven years old, opened just before the war.[6] While much has changed since the war in the way of artistic and architectural aesthetic, the hall remains a fine space, large enough to stage a small ballet but small enough that the space feels somewhat intimate. In addition, it is the hall that the Ballets Russes have performed in Paris traditionally. Thus, I decided to shake off the lackluster track record of the Ballets Russes as of late and attend their performance of a new ballet on a stage with which the company should be quite familiar. Sadly, the evening did not quite live up to my hopes.

The first area I would like to address is that of theming – that is to say, what are the themes of the performed works? What are their stories? Of the lot, Petrouchka has the most involved plot, and even that is little more than glorified, elaborate puppet theater. One puppet falls in love and the love is not returned; it then attacks the object of its love’s desire and is killed for it.[7] Truly a story to be passed down through the ages – among puppeteers in town markets! There is no real intrigue to the story whatsoever. The other two works performed last night have even less in the way of a story. In Une Education Manquée, two newlyweds try to learn how to be a good husband and wife.[8] This opérette is flippant and is not particularly engrossing in its story. The worst example of the lot, however, would most assuredly by Le Train bleu. The “story,” if one is to call it that, consists of various beachgoers flirting with one another.[9] There is no real tension in the plot; the whole ballet could be described more as a static, placid scene rather than a moving, changing, dynamic story. In total, then, last evening’s performance consisted of a puppet theater story, an opérette story, and a beach scene. Clearly, the plots of the performed works were not particularly intellectually stimulating. The odd thing is, M. de Diaghilev has programmed much more serious, story-driven works in the past, and achieved great success with them – so why now this shift toward the banal?

Alongside this shift in story, one can observe a shift in the music M. de Diaghilev programs from the extremely modern to the familiar, albeit quirky. The three works effectively are of three different styles: one of romantic art song, one of carefree modern sensibilities, and one of a more rustic, primitive nature. The art song is, of course, Chabrier’s Une Education Manquée, for which the music is, frankly, quite bland. It is all in that old romantic style whose influence most sensible French composers of this era have been trying to escape.8 Even with the new recitatives written by Darius Milhaud, it is nothing new, and nothing interesting.9 Unlike Une Education Manquée, however, Le Train bleu is actually new – although I would still dispute its interest. Yes, Milhaud’s music is lovely, and beautiful, and pure, and most of all, very fun and playful; however, what it has in purity and elegance, it lacks in memorability. Personally, I cannot manage to recall a single melody from the entire work. They seem so simple sometimes if there is not supposed to be something more playing – perhaps a musician suddenly fell ill and the orchestra had to play without them. Surprisingly, this is very much unlike M. Milhaud. In the past, his compositions have been based on polytonality; however, for le Train bleu, Milhaud has written music that is almost completely tonal the whole way through. Here, the music seems almost to be in the style of Offenbach rather than Milhaud. I believe M. de Diaghilev had a role to play in this. I remember several year ago, after M. Milhaud had returned from Brazil, he sent his score for L’Homme et son désir to M. de Diaghilev, who greatly disliked the music and rejected it.[10] More likely than not, M. de Diaghilev demanded of Milhaud that music for Le Train bleu be more thoroughly tonal. One could argue that this makes the music of Milhaud more pure, more clear, and more modern, but I would argue that instead, M. de Diaghilev has only stifled Milhaud’s creativity. This is something he did not do thirteen years ago with Petrouchka. Stravinsky’s music here is wonderfully fresh and new in its untraditional harmonies and strong focus on melody. Of all the works performed, Stravinsky’s by far contains the most interesting music. However, this is tempered by the fact that Petrouchka has historically been one of the Ballets Russes’s most successful works; putting on one more showing of the same ballet, regardless of how avant-garde it appears to be, is not an especially risky move on the part of M. de Diaghilev.[11]

Ultimately, all of these safety measures can only bring me to one conclusion: M. de Diaghilev is concerned about attracting an audience. I have noticed over the past several years that Ballets Russes performances have become less and less well attended; one can imagine the pressure M. de Diaghilev feels as his once-popular company dwindles away, bit by bit. Clearly, with last night’s selection, he wanted to fill seats based on a wide variety of music ranging from the romantic to modern, inoffensive choreography and stories, and reliably popular performances of the past. Thus, we observed an old opérette from the last century (Une Education Manquée), a modern standby of the Ballets Russes (Pétrouchka), and a piece of new music devoid of any noteworthy subject, both musically and dramatically.



Bertrand, Paul. “Saison Olympique du Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.” Le Ménestrel, June 27, 1924.

Drake, Jeremy. “Milhaud, Darius.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.

Forbes, Elizabeth. “Education manquée, Une.” The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.

“Historical Chronicle of Theater des Champs-Elysees.” Théâtre Des Champs-Élysées.

Huebner, Steven. “Chabrier, Emmanuel.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.

“Le ‘Gaulois’ au théâtre.” Le Gaulois, June 20, 1924.

L, L. “Le Gala de demain aux Ballets russes.” Figaro, June 19, 1924.

“Programme des concerts.” Le Ménestrel, June 13, 1924.

“Virtual Tour.” Théâtre Des Champs-Élysées.éâtre-des-champs-elysées/NAHJ371KVa9GkA.

Walsh, Stephen. “Stravinsky, Igor.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press.

Yang, S. S. (1997). The composer and dance collaboration in the twentieth century: Darius milhaud’s ballets, 1918-1958 (Order No. 9737332). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.


[1] L. L., “Le Gala de demain aux Ballets russes,” Figaro, June 19, 1924.

[2] “Le ‘Gaulois’ au théâtre,” Le Gaulois, June 20, 1924.

[3] “T.S.F.,” Le Gaulois, June 20, 1924.

[4] “Programme des concerts,” Le Ménestrel, June 13, 1924.

[5] Jeremy Drake, “Milhaud, Darius,” Grove Music Online.

[6] “Historical Chronicle of Theater des Champs-Elysees,” Théâtre des Champs-Élysées,

[7] Stephen Walsh, “Stravinsky, Igor,” Oxford Music Online.

[8] Elizabeth Forbes, “Education Manquée, Une,” Oxford Music Online.

[9] S.S. Yang, “The Composer and dance collaboration in the twentieth century: Darius Milhaud’s Ballets, 1918-1958,” ProQuest.

[10] S.S. Yang, “The Composer and dance collaboration in the twentieth century: Darius Milhaud’s Ballets, 1918-1958,” ProQuest.

[11] Stephen Walsh, “Stravinsky, Igor,” Oxford Music Online.