About this Recording
8.557502 - STRAVINSKY, I.: Apollo / Agon / Orpheus (Craft) (Stravinsky, Vol. 4)
English  German 

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Three Greek Ballets: Apollo • Agon • Orpheus

Apollo: Ballet in Two Scenes

In classical dancing I see the triumph of studied conception over vagueness, of the rule over the arbitrary, of order over the haphazard.… I see in it the perfect expression of the Apollonian principle. (Stravinsky)

If Apollo’s mother was Leto, then certainly his father was Fyodor. (Balanchine, in a birthday telegram to Igor Fyodorovitch Stravinsky, 18th June, 1945)

Stravinsky chose the subject. The French original of the following text, adapted from the Homeric Hymn to the Delian Apollo, is pasted at the head of the first page of his sketchbook:

Ilithiya arrives at Delos. Leto was with child and, feeling the moment of birth at hand, threw her arms about a palm tree and knelt on the soft grass. The earth smiled beneath her and the child sprang forth to the light.… Two goddesses, Leto’s handmaidens, washed the child with pure, limpid water. For swaddling clothes they gave him a white veil of fine linen tissue, binding it with a golden girdle. Themis brought nectar and ambrosia.

Apollo was the son of Zeus, the god, and of Leto, a mortal. Leto was in labour for nine days and nights before Eileithyia (‘Eleuthis’, on a tablet found at Knossos), the deity of childbirth, came to her. Themis was the goddess of Justice.

Apollo, the sun-god and god of music, is associated with the Oriental sacred number seven, which corresponds to the diatonic mode that the composer seems to have had in mind from the beginning. Apollo is Stravinsky’s homage to the Greek concept of the unity of music, dance, painting, and poetry, but by way of seventeenth-century French Classicism — Racine, Arbeau, Poussin, Lully.

It is also probable that Stravinsky viewed the subject as an allegory of his own religion: Apollo, as man-god, with a human nativity and divine ascension. Arlene Croce observes that, like Apollo, ‘The Christ child was wrapped in swaddling clothes’, and Stravinsky may have been struck by such other parallels as the ‘threes’ of the Muses, the Magi, and triadic harmony, as well as by the imagery of the darkness before Apollo’s entrance and the light that accompanies it.

The composer is the author of the scenario. On 4th January, 1928, he informed his Paris publisher that the music was ready to be copied but not the scenario, which, ‘as I envision it, requires mature reflection’. The manuscript score of the first scene includes Stravinsky’s curtain, lighting, exit and entrance cues, as well as some indications for the coordination of music and stage action.

The music for the Prologue, the Birth of Apollo, Apollo’s First Variation, and the Pas d’action was composed in Nice between mid-July and mid- September 1927. On 28th September Stravinsky played his piano arrangement of these pieces for Dyagilev, who described the occasion in a letter to Serge Lifar two days later:

I spent the whole day with him, and at five saw him off at the station. It was an eminently satisfactory meeting.… After lunch he played the first half of the new ballet for me. It is, of course, an amazing work, extraordinarily calm and with greater clarity than anything he has done: filigree counterpoint around transparent, clear-cut themes, all in a major key, music not of this world, but from somewhere above...

The full score was completed on 20th January, 1928, and on 22nd January he played it for Dyagilev and George Balanchine. The movements are as follows:

    1 Prologue: The Birth of Apollo
    2 Apollo’s Variation
    3 Pas d’action: Apollo and the Muses
    4 Variation of Calliope
    5 Variation of Polymnia
    6 Variation of Terpsichore
    7 Variation of Apollo
    8 Pas de deux: Apollo and Terpsichore
    9 Coda: Apollo and the Muses
    10 Apotheosis: Apollo and the Muses

The ending of Apollo is tragic. Robert Garis insightfully remarks: ‘When Apollo and the Muses leave, they leave us behind in our mortality. This most poignant movement in the ballet is the only one in a minor key’.

Agon (1957)

Stravinsky began the composition of his final ballet, Agon, in December 1953, but interrupted it to write In Memoriam: Dylan Thomas, Canticum Sacrum, and the Vom Himmel hoch variations. He returned to the ballet in January 1957 and completed it on 27th April, just two months before his 75th birthday, on which occasion it was performed in concert at Royce Hall, UCLA, Los Angeles, and recorded the next day. Agon is a plotless ballet consisting of sixteen separate dance movements. Apart from the music of the first and last pieces, which is the same, and of the Prelude and two Interludes, all three the same, the instrumentation differs in every dance, and the full orchestra is not employed in any of them. The order of the dances is as follows:

I   11 Pas de quatre (orchestra, without bassoonsand percussion)
    12 Double Pas de quatre (flutes, 1 oboe, clarinets, 1 bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones,
    13 Triple Pas de quatre (3 flutes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones,

II   14 Prelude (3 flutes, 2 bassoons, 4 trumpets, harp, timpani, violas, 3 cellos, 3 basses)
    15 First Pas de trois: Saraband-Step (violin solo, xylophone, 2 trombonens, cellos) (Rolf Schulte,
    violin solo)
    16 Gaillarde (3 flutes, mandolin, harp, piano, timpani, viola, 3 cellos, 2 basses)
    17 Coda (3 flutes, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, harp, piano, mandolin, 1 violin, 1 cello, 1 bass) (Rolf
    Schulte, violin solo)

III  18 Interlude (same as Prelude)
    19 Second Pas de trois: Bransle Simple (3 flutes,3 clarinets, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, harp, piano,
    20 Bransle Gay (castanet, 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, harp, strings)
    21 Bransle Double (Bransle de Poitou) The music employs two meters simultaneously, 3/2 in the
    upper part (violins) and 8/4 in the lower part (brass). (2 flutes, 3 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 1 trumpet, 1
    trombone, piano, strings)

IV 22 Interlude (same as Prelude)
    23 Pas de deux (strings) (Rolf Schulte, violin solo)
    Più mosso (3 horns, piano, flute)
    L’istesso tempo (3 flutes, strings)
    Refrain (flute, 4 horns, piano)
    24 Coda (trumpet, trombone, harp, piano,timpani, violins, violas, cellos)
    Doppio lento (mandolin, harp, timpani, violin, cello)
    Quasi stretto (4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, piano, strings)
    Coda (same as Pas de quatre, no 1 above)
    25 Four Duos (violas, cellos, basses, 2 trombones)
    26 Four Trios (strings, basses, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones)


The movements of Orpheus follow each other without pause and in some cases overlap. Since the tempo, or pulsation, remains constant in numbers 2, 3, and 4, the action therein must be divined through the music’s changes of character.

Scene I
27 Lento sostenuto. Orpheus, alone, grieves for his wife, Eurydice, who has died from a serpent bite.
28 Air de Danse. Orpheus. Andante con moto. The piece is in three parts. A short measured pause separates the first two, and a change of key marks the beginning of the second. The third part recapitulates the first.
29 Dance of the Angel of Death.
30 Interlude. Taking pity on Orpheus, the Angel leads him to his wife in Tartarus, the abode of the dead.

Scene II
31 Dance of the Furies (Erinyes). Agitato. The piece is in two parts. The second is marked by a change of key and slightly slower pulsation.
32 Air de Danse. Orpheus. Grave. Recitative (harp, solo string quintet) and Aria (oboes and harp).
33 Interlude. The Tortured Souls of Tartarus implore Orpheus to continue his song.
34 Air de Danse (recapitulation and conclusion). Orpheus grants their wish.
35 Pas d’action. Andantino leggiadro. Tantalus, ruler of Tartarus, frees Eurydice. The Furies surround Orpheus, blindfold him, join Eurydice’s hand to his, and guide them toward the path to Earth.
36 Pas de Deux. Orpheus and Eurydice. Andante sostenuto.
37 Interlude. Orpheus alone. Moderato assai.
38 Pas d’action. Vivace. The Thracian women (Bacchantes) tear Orpheus to pieces.

Scene III
39 Apotheosis. Apollo appears and Orpheus’s lyre is borne heavenward. Lento sostenuto.

The choice of subject was Balanchine’s. He had produced Gluck’s Orfeo at the Metropolitan Opera in 1936, and the story continued to attract him. He and Stravinsky worked out the scenario in the composer’s home between 4th and 30th April, 8th and 24th June, 1946. In September 1947, after the completion of the score, composer and choreographer spent a further week together in Hollywood planning the staging. Isamu Noguchi was Lincoln Kirstein’s inspired choice to create the costumes and decors, though the Orpheus dancer objected that the headgear designed for him, two round lateral bars across the face like a baseballcatcher’s mask, impeded his view of the floor.

Stravinsky identified his and Balanchine’s source as Book Ten of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but the discrepancies between the Latin poet’s version of the myth and the ballet scenario are substantial. Ovid’s Hades is a man, not a place, as the ballet scenario inconsistently has it, and his Pluto is a woman, Tantalus’s mother by Zeus. Whereas an angel guides the Orpheus of the ballet from Earth to Tartarus, Ovid does not mention an intermediary.

The Orpheus music turns away from the explosive kind that distinguishes the 1945 Symphony, and mines a new vein of lyricism heretofore absent in Stravinsky’s art. The ballet can be thought of as the Romantic sequel to the Classical Apollo; the music is personal and passionate as befits a human love story. Its dramatic affinities are with Perséphone (1934), in that both works are quests involving journeys to and from the Underworld, the one ending joyfully, the other tragically. Though Perséphone is the daughter of the goddess Demeter, and Orpheus the son of the god Apollo and the Muse Calliope, both protagonists are earthlings. The musical associations between the two works are found in their respective qualities of tenderness, and in their evocations of the bleakness of the Underworld. The harp is the most prominent instrument in both scores, and the principal instrumental aria in both is plaintively sung by the oboe.

The exceptionality of Orpheus among Stravinsky’s creations is in the contradictions between the nature of its musical emotion and his aesthetics and practice in the preceding twenty-five years. Orpheus is the only score after Firebird in which the term ‘espressivo’ occurs frequently, in the music of the Furies (‘sempre p ma espressivo’) as well as in the Pas de deux, along with such indications as ‘cantabile’. The music is descriptive, pictorial, rich in musical symbols and in the matching of musical imagery with stage action. For one example, after Orpheus’s death, when his lyre ascends to the firmament after his death, the harp plays two solo strophes in a perpetuum mobile rhythm that suggests the continuation of the music without the player.

Orpheus is also the most pantomimic, the least danced, of Stravinsky’s ballets after Firebird, and the only one after Petrushka in which the scenic element — sets, costumes, curtains, lighting, props — is an integral part of the musico-choreographic performance. The billowings and shimmerings of the diaphanous white china-silk curtain lowered during the first and third Interludes are part of the action, and when the prop becomes a shroud for the deceased Eurydice, it is a living force. For this alone, Isamu Noguchi’s name should appear together with Stravinsky’s and Balanchine’s as one of the ballet’s creators.

Stravinsky’s first notation (20th October, 1946) was the three-note trumpet motive embedded in chords played by seven other winds. This marks the entry of Orpheus’s mourning forest friends, fauns, dryads, satyrs, bringing gifts and expressing sympathy. The actual beginning of the score, the downward-scale harp–lyre figure accompanied by strings softly intoning a chorale, was composed next, followed by the minor-key but livelier Air de danse, a violin solo intermittently joined by flute, featuring the minor-second interval.

The use of Greek modes at the beginning (Phrygian) and end (Dorian) produces a haunting, archaizing effect. The concluding fugal melody for two horns accompanying the heavenward ascent of Orpheus’s lyre signifies the eternal life of music.

Robert Craft

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