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8.557506 - STRAVINSKY, I.: Later Ballets (Craft) (Stravinsky, Vol. 9)

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Later Ballets


Jeu de cartes: Ballet in Three Deals for Orchestra

On 16 November 1935, Stravinsky accepted a request from George Balanchine for a new "classical ballet", depending on the terms of the commission. On 2 December, however, before receiving a reply, the composer entered seven notations on the first page of a sketchbook, framing one of them, the motive for trombones as the piece's "signature tune". Each of the three "deals" begins with it and it is repeated at the conclusion of the work. Jeu de cartes is an example of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic ideas emerging helter-skelter from the composer's imagination and eventually used at remotely different places in the completed work.

According to Stravinsky's own account, the notion of basing a ballet on a poker game came to him in a fiacre on his way to dinner in Paris one evening in early August 1936, and he was so delighted with it that he invited the driver to drink an aperitif with him in a café. No subject could have been more natural for Stravinsky. He loved chess and card games, especially poker, and habitually played solitaire as a relaxation during breaks from composing. This required no mental effort and allowed him to digest what he had just written and to contemplate ways of continuing it. W.H. Auden took notice of this routine during his week in Stravinsky's home in November 1947, hence the card-game between the hero and the Devil that became the climax of The Rake's Progress.

The dancers in Jeu de cartes are "cards", the four suits and the joker. Card combinations offered rich possibilities for choreography, but excluded the possibility of love interest. As Stravinsky told a French interviewer after the première, "I ignored the nonsense of amorous intrigues among the cards". In their stead is a moral: "The evil spirit seeks to dominate and must be conquered: the group of hearts triumphs over the joker". With the political crisis in Europe in mind, he attached an epigraph to the score from La Fontaine's fable of The Wolves and the Sheep:

Il faut faire aux méchants guerre continuelle
La paix est fort bonne de soi,
J'en conviens mais de quoi sert-elle
Avec des ennemis sans foi?

(Our war on the wicked must be continual.
Peace is best, as everyone knows.
I agree — but is it possible
With dishonourable foes?)

Unlike Stravinsky's other ballets (Apollo, Fée, Orpheus, Agon), it contains no slow music, no lovers' pas-de-deux adagio. The alla breve processional music with which all three Deals begin is always in the same key and the Second and Third follow the First without pause. Dissonant harmonies are employed only near the end, but in the ending itself, the "immortal Spirit grows", as Wordsworth wrote:

Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements.


Danses concertantes

Stravinsky's first works as a resident of the United States are the third and fourth movements of the Symphony in C and a Tango, which began as a vocalise. Danses concertantes is the first large-scale piece composed entirely in what was to be his home for the next 24 years, 1260 N. Wetherly Drive, Hollywood. Because of the similarity between the allegro theme of the finale of the Symphony in C and the principal theme of the Pas d'Action, the listener might suppose that the latter was the first part of the new work to be composed, but in fact the initial notation, the descending five-note melody in F sharp minor in the variations movement was notated on a Western Union form ("Holiday telegram of your own composition, 35 cents") stapled to a same-size sheet of white paper dated by Stravinsky "Oct 1940". Later scored for clarinet and preceded by two bars under the title "Une des 8 [sic] variations", this theme appears at the head of the first page of his sketchbook for the Danses.

The conductor Werner Janssen commissioned the piece for his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra early in 1941. An entry in Stravinsky's pocket calendar reveals that he had received a second instalment of $500 on 30 September 1941, and the final payment came on the completion of the score, 13 January 1942. Vera Stravinsky's diary records that her husband played the Danses for her on 12 November 1941, at which time he apparently planned to conclude the piece with the fourth movement, completed on 1 December. The fifth movement, except for the last bars, repeats the first, like the march that begins and ends Renard and the fanfare at the beginning and end of Agon. Rehearsals took place on 3, 5, 6 and 7 February 1942, and the first performance, conducted by Stravinsky, on 8 February.

What is distinctively "American" about the music, setting it apart from the Concerto in E flat, Stravinsky's last entirely European work, and also for chamber ensemble? One answer is that the Concerto is tightly corseted, adheres to a classical form pattern, and features fugal episodes in its outer movements, while the Danses is roomy, accommodates more episodic variety, and eschews contrapuntal devices except for the simplest imitation of a tune in the Giocoso of the penultimate movement. Another feature is that the Danses tunes themselves are American in flavour and character, especially the theme of the variations, but also the violin melody in the E flat episode in the Pas d'Action, and the allusion to Yankee Doodle Dandy in the latter part of the Pas-de-deux. Also American is the playfulness. Humour abounds in Stravinsky's music, of course, from Renard and Pulcinella to Jeu de cartes, the Circus Polka, and the Greeting Prelude, but the wit in Danses concertantes is different in kind. In the first variation (Third Movement), for instance, the sixteenth-note (semiquaver) figure introduced by the violins and taken up at irregular time-intervals by violas, flute, and trumpet, suggests a game of musical tag, as does the changing lengths between the accentuated chords in the second part of the same variation.

The joke in the next section is in the parody of a traditional ballet figure following a sour, cocking-a-snook chord. Lastly, the corny commercial chord with which this same variation ends is another Americanism that Stravinsky would have considered infra dig in his Rue St. Honoré years. He appears to have written it, and the three and a half bars before, in January 1941 while staying in the Barbizon Plaza, Central Park South, New York, since the notation is inscribed on a sheet of the stationery of this long-demolished hotel.

The effervescence that characterizes the Danses has been criticized as frivolous, and hence politically incorrect, on grounds that to display personal elation so arrantly during the Occupation of France and the bombing of Britain can be seen as callous. But one must consider that the composer had spent his last six months (March–August) in France (1939) in a tuberculosis sanatorium, and in that same period suffered from the deaths of his elder daughter, wife, and mother. Now, at last, his health was restored and he shared a home of his own with his new wife (fiancée of twenty years). True, his material circumstances were straitened, the war having deprived him of his European royalties, while his popular, money-generating music was not copyrighted in America because the Soviet Union and the United States had not signed the Berne Copyright Convention. But commissions were forthcoming, as were concert engagements.

The Danses score is distinguished rhythmically by an extensive use of anacrusis, most notably in the second movement and in the theme for string quartet in the third movement. Stravinsky had employed this emphasis-shifting rhythmic effect before, to be sure, notably at the beginning of Symphony of Psalms, but here most of the middle section of the Allegretto variation ([79]–[83]) is based on the anacrusis idea, a new development in his art. The Variations is the longest and most substantial movement, and its rollicking Coda is the climax of the Danses. Since Stravinsky provided a concert ending for it, one supposes that he must originally have intended to end the piece at this point, particularly since it is in the same key as the beginning. The Variations follow a tonality plan of ascending semitones: theme in G, variations in A flat, A natural, and B flat.


Scènes de Ballet

Scènes de Ballet is Stravinsky's unique score commissioned for a Broadway review, but the history of the piece is too well known to be repeated here. Billy Rose, the Broadway entrepreneur, commissioned the score for $5000 in the late spring of 1944 for inclusion in his autumn stage spectacle The Seven Lively Arts. After meetings with Anton Dolin, the choreographer, Stravinsky composed the music in a great hurry and completed it on the day of the liberation of Paris from German occupation in August 1944. (The score is dated 28 August 1944.) It seems that the New York pit orchestra, accustomed to playing musicals, could not manage the five-beat bars, and whole sections of the score had to be cut. The première took place in Philadelphia in the autumn of 1944. Frederick Ashton, the choreographer of the Royal Ballet, London, perceived the qualities of the music and, after the War, re-choreographed the piece. It has remained in the repertory of the British company ever since.

One feature of the music is the avoidance of downbeat accents and the use of anacrusis, continuing a style established in Danses concertantes. Sentimentality and vulgarity are ingredients of the music, admittedly, but the piece also subsumes many delightful passages. The ending (Apothéosis), apart from the much-too-long final chord itself, is Stravinsky's greatest achievement in the anacrusis style.



Composed between July 1963 and 28 October 1964, the Variations were first performed on 17 April 1965, by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with the present writer conducting. The opus might also have been called "Duodecim". Not only is it composed entirely with a twelve-pitch series, but the centre of its form consists of three twelve-part variations, each with a metrical pattern of 4/8, 3/8, and 5/8 (i.e., a total of 12) heard four times in each variation (i.e., twelve times). Each of the lines of the first twelve-part variation has a different rhythm, and the same rhythms are repeated by other instruments in the second and third twelve-part variations. The instrumentation of each of the three is strikingly different, the first being scored for twelve violins playing both pianissimo and ponticello, the second for ten violas and two basses playing the same, and the third for wind instruments, three from the flute family, three from the oboe, three from the clarinet, with two bassoons and one horn, this last with a degree of dynamic prominence. These variations are the densest music Stravinsky ever wrote, yet the ingenious rhythmic structures (seven notes in the time of three, five notes in the time of four, five in the time of three, five in the time of two, and triplets of varying time-values) allow every note to be heard. One instrument in each ensemble of twelve plays a single note on the beat, a metronomic centre for the other eleven instruments. The entire piece has a pulsation of eighty to the beat, sometimes for a quarter- (crotchet) and sometimes an eighth-note (quaver). The pitch order of each part follows that of one of the four orders of the series, original, inverted, retrograde, retrograde inverted. The twelfth violin in the first variation launches the original order of the series.

In total contrast, the first variation, which follows a brief prelude in the brass that returns as a postlude in the strings, is limited to a single melodic line, relayed by strings, harp, piano, flute, alto flute, and solo violin; only one note in this variation is harmonized by a second pitch. The variation for twelve violins follows, then an episode for flutes, bassoons, and oboe, then the second twelve-part variation, and an episode for the flutes, bass clarinet, and bassoons, with strings and trumpets joining at the end. The next episode exposes two three-part inventions for three trombones, framed by orchestral chords. The succeeding section combines canonic-style music in violins, violas, and cellos with a two-note figure in horn, clarinet, bassoon, bass clarinet and English horn. The following brief episode for trombones and flutes leads to a fugato for the strings in dialogue with the piano that recalls Stravinsky's Agon. The twelve-part wind variation follows, and the Postlude.

Stravinsky's close friend Aldous Huxley died three months after the composition had been begun. In Italy at the time, and conducting a memorial concert for President Kennedy in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Stravinsky was deeply grieved for his friend, describing him as "an aristocrat of behaviour, gentle, humble, courageous, intellectually charitable". Though aware that Variations was not music that would have appealed to Huxley, Stravinsky dedicated it to his memory.

The programme note that follows was written in Stravinsky's name at his request by the present writer on 11 March 1965:

"Veränderungen" — alterations or mutations, Bach's word for the Goldberg Variations — could be used to describe my Variations as well, except that I have altered or diversified a series, instead of a theme or subject. In fact, I do not have a theme, in the textbook sense, whereas Bach's theme (for comparison) is a complete aria.

Some of us think that the rôle of rhythm is larger today than ever before, but however that may be, in the absence of harmonic modulation it must play a considerable part in the delineation of form. And more than ever before, the composer must be certain of building rhythmic unity into variety. In my Variations, pulsation is a constant.

The density of the twelve-part variations is the main innovation in the work. One might think of these constructions as musical mobiles, à la Calder, in that the patterns within them will seem to change perspectives with repeated hearings. They are relieved and offset by music of a contrasting starkness and even, notably in the first variation, by Klangfarben monody, which is also variation.

The question of length (duration) is inseparable from that of depth and/or height (content). But whether full, partly full, or empty, I prefer to think that the musical statements are concise, rather than short. In any case, they are in radical contrast to the prolix manner of most of the late nineteenth-century music that provides the pabulum of our regular concert life; and there lies the difficulty, mine with you no less than yours with me.

I do not know how to guide listeners other than to advise them to listen not once but repeatedly… I may say that they should not look for the boundaries of the individual variations, but try instead to hear the piece as a whole. And on second thought I can recommend the orchestra itself as a guide. The use of instrumental families and individuals in contrast is a principal projective element of the form. The leading group rôles are those of the flutes, bassoons, and trombones. Perhaps my economy is inconsistent in that the trumpet and horn families have so little to do; I needed only a spot of red, however, and a spot of blue. I might add that the orchestral dramatis personae is unusual in that only four rather than the standard five string sections are required. Percussion instruments are not used, but their position is taken by piano and harp, which appear as a couple (married).


Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra

On 11 September 1934, Stravinsky and Alban Berg shared a concert in Venice. After hearing the Capriccio, the latter remarked to the former: "I wish I could write such happy music". And though Stravinsky did write more "happy" music than any other major twentieth-century composer, the Capriccio deserves the palm for sustained high spirits, above all in the finale, which so perfectly captures the mood of its pre-1929 stock-market-crash period. George Balanchine made it the vehicle for one of his most exuberant ballets, Rubies.

The trail of the composing process is intriguing to follow. The first notation is found at the end of the piece, starting one bar before [95]; it is dated 24 December 1928, the day after Stravinsky conducted a performance of Le Baiser de la fée in Monte Carlo. The sketches that follow were used at [86] and [70]–[71]: Stravinsky was working his way backwards, so to speak. He turned to the second movement next, sketching the music found at [41] and at the end of the movement, including the cadenza.

The initial notation used in the first movement, before [18], repeats the same four notes as at the beginning of the first sketch for the third movement (before [95]). The music at [10] came next, followed by three bars for [6], piano part, and the music at [14] and [11]. Suddenly Stravinsky conceived the opening and composed the movement straight through, the sketches for middle-section episodes falling into place. He dated it 1 September, but did not complete the orchestra score until 26 October. The full score of the second movement was completed on 15 September and that of the third movement on 9 November.

Ezra Pound, in a balcony at the Teatro a la Fenice for the 1934 performance, wrote: "I have never heard but one composition for piano and orchestra, namely Stravinsky's Capriccio — there the piano and orchestra are as two shells of a walnut".

Robert Craft


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