Stravinsky's Ballets

February 16, 2012

Igor Stravinsky's stature as one of the most influential composers of the modern era seems all but incontestable, and Charles Joseph's study accordingly situates its subject as the 20th-century counterpart of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. More intriguingly, Joseph refocuses, and therein refines, our understanding of Stravinsky's precedence by underscoring the centrality of ballet to his oeuvre as a whole.

Dance and music enthusiasts alike are well acquainted with his commissions for the Ballets Russes, including the near-mythic pandemonium unleashed by the 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring (choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky), and with Stravinsky's prolific collaboration with the choreographer George Balanchine. The statistical indelibility of dance remains nonetheless impressive: Joseph details Stravinsky's works for ballet as spanning 52 years of compositional invention. Close to 1,300 choreographed versions are known to exist, the visual counterparts to nearly 90 per cent of Stravinsky's compositions and arrangements. Joseph notes that the genre of ballet music has historically held little appeal for composers (Tchaikovsky being the obvious exception, and indeed Stravinsky in 19 accepted the commission of Le baiser de la fée as a "compatriotic homage" to his predecessor), and he masterfully probes the impetus and the outcome of Stravinsky's idiosyncratic, career-long predilection for ballet.

The author of two previous books on Stravinsky, Joseph here focuses mainly on the original productions of Stravinsky's dance works. While this accommodates but a cursory nod to their choreographic afterlife (Maurice Béjart's 1959 version was for Balanchine the "best Rite ever produced"), it expedites a nuanced analysis of the musical heritage Stravinsky absorbed and transcended and the cultural contexts in which he composed. The Firebird (1910), for instance, emulates the pitch vocabulary of Stravinsky's mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov. The initial audience was jolted by the intensity of its "Infernal Dance", yet the ballet wends, as even exotic fairy tales must, towards a lushly concordant finale. In contrast, Petrushka (1911, with choreography by Michel Fokine) concludes to ominous intonations, as the ghost of the uncannily soulful puppet (heart-rendingly performed by Nijinsky) hovers and then expires above the theatre. Serge Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes' mastermind, was immediately enthralled with the score's transfiguration of folk motives, but insisted upon a less disconcerting closure. Stravinsky held his ground, and in the aftermath of the ballet's success, Diaghilev denied having any doubts about its ending. Of Les Noces (1923), Joseph lauds Bronislava Nijinska's choreography as "breathtaking in its anticipation of Balanchine's Apollo" (an oddly left-handed compliment) and poignantly depicts the bride's sacrificial loss of family and autonomy as "more enduringly mournful" than that of The Rite's Chosen One.

Stravinsky's collaborations with Balanchine, a trained musician in his own right, proved a symbiotic class apart, from the crystalline sanctity of Apollon Musagète (1928) and the edgy linearity of Agon (1957) to the sultry jazziness of Rubies (1967). Joseph depicts their relationship as mutually respectful, although Balanchine tended to defer to the elder composer (Lincoln Kirstein felt Stravinsky treated Balanchine like a "junior assistant"). Despite the ostensibly avant-garde aspects of their musico-choreographic innovations, a staunch commitment to classicism bound the two artists. Stravinsky quoted Verdi in his autobiography ("Let us return to old times, then we will progress"), and Balanchine likewise probed the extremities but never defected from classical precepts. Balanchine choreographed nearly 40 per cent of Stravinsky's oeuvre, including several new works (the magnificent Duo Concertant among them) for the Stravinsky Festival of 1972, held a year after Stravinsky's death. With the centennial celebration of 1982, one year before his own death, Balanchine again paid tribute to the kinaesthetic resonance of Stravinsky's music.

While photographs of the productions would have further enhanced this text, the clarity and breadth of Joseph's analysis proficiently affirms the terpsichorean contours of Stravinsky's achievement.

Stravinsky's Ballets

By Charles M. Joseph. Yale University Press, 320pp, £25.00 ISBN 9780300118728. Published 24 November 2011

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