Igor Stravinsky | Orpheus

“In order to create there must be a dynamic force, and what force is more potent than love?” Igor Stravinsky

Orpheus was the brain-child of Lincoln Kirstein who specifically wanted a companion-piece for Apollo to grace the second season of his new venture, Ballet Society. Stravinsky was not normally responsive to being told what sort of music he should write; but he trusted George Balanchine, whose idea the Orpheus story was, and he enjoyed working with a choreographer who seemed to understand his music and whose native language was Russian. For the first time they worked closely together from the start, deciding on the details of the scenario (‘with Ovid and a classical dictionary in hand’, the composer later recalled), and agreeing on the essential tone, which would treat the well-known subject as little more than a pretext for a kind of formal/musical/spatial geometry, endowed with significance by the merest framework of narrative. For the first performance, at New York’s City Center on April 28 1948, the designs were done by Isamu Noguchi, who was known mainly as a sculptor. So the plastic qualities of the work were emphasized in every dimension, and its narrative elements correspondingly downplayed. Source The collaborative effort behind Orpheus achieved historic results as it was this performance that launched New York City Ballet as a permanent organization. (Orpheus’ lyre, as depicted by the production’s set designer, Isamu Noguchi, remains the company’s official symbol). Source

Stravinsky’s multi-layered scores provided him with an architectural blueprint for the “buildings” he constructed using dancers as structural elements. The scenario for Orpheus was developed from the start by Balanchine and Stravinsky, meeting in Los Angeles in spring 1946. As they refined the project, they freely traded suggestions, and the notoriously prickly Stravinsky even made some changes in his score in response to Balanchine’s requests. Nor did Stravinsky hesitate to express his opinions about the choreography, as Maria Tallchief, who danced (or rather, mimed ) the role of Eurydice, later recalled. Indeed, some critics charged that Orpheus wasn’t really a ballet at all, that Balanchine yielded too much power to the music. Source

Stravinsky’s score, though routinely included among his neoclassical works, is in many ways quite unlike anything that precedes it. During the war, in America (of which he became a citizen in 1945), he had fulfilled a string of more or less openly commercial commissions, while working quietly on two eventual masterpieces—the Symphony in three movements and the Mass—which he found for a long time hard to crystallize in his mind, perhaps for lack of any likely performance. The uncertainties of war seem to have drawn him back to the church, and also to his Russian inheritance. And at some point he became intrigued by medieval music, especially the Ars Nova of the fourteenth century, with its decorative lines and intricate polyphonic techniques. Source

All these influences left their mark, however obliquely, on Orpheus, while to some extent directing it towards the more esoteric aspects of the next and final phase of his music. Orpheus is not in any sense a serial work; but it does hint at a new austerity and intensity that might suggest a breaking away from the more mechanical aspects of neoclassicism.Source

Balanchine and Stravinsky
Orpheus : The tableaux

As the first tableau opens, “Orpheus weeps for Eurydice. He stands motionless, with his back to the audience.” The mournful strumming of Orpheus’ lyre can be heard in the hypnotic, descending lines of the harp, set in the Phrygian mode. The first Air de Danse arrives as a rude interruption with the solo violin (often considered the devil’s instrument), rising over a persistent walking bass line. The Angel of Death arrives amid a mysterious blur of wind sonorities and shifting colors. As the Angel leads Orpheus to Hades, we hear the ghostly, supernatural voice of the solo trombone, accompanied by shivering string tremolo, followed by a solitary trumpet call. As Scene 1 ends, “the Angel and Orpheus reappear in the gloom of Tartarus.” Source

The second tableau begins with the “agitation and their threats” of the swirling Pas de Furies. Orpheus soon calms these tormented spirits with the sound of his lyre. In this second Air de Danse, a stately Neo-Baroque duet emerges in the oboes, concluding with a canonic conversation between the slightly deeper-toned English horn and harp. In the Pas d’Action which follows, “Hades, moved by the song of Orpheus, grows Calm. The Furies surround him, bind his eyes and return Eurydice to him.”. Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited with the quiet, sensuous warmth and intimacy of the Pas de Deux. Yet, joy soon melts away. When Orpheus tears the bandage from his eyes, breaking his vow, the music stops and there is a terrifying moment of silence. Eurydice falls dead. “Now, Bacchantes attack Orpheus, seize him and tear him to pieces” with a ferocious Pas d’Action filled with jagged rhythms that might remind you of the Sacrificial Dance from the  Rite of Spring.Source

With the brief third tableau, the ballet ends where it began. Again, we hear the mournful harp lines. This time, the strings emerge with an icy ponticello (the raspy sound created when the bow is played next to the bridge). In this tragic Apotheosis, “Apollo appears. He wrests the Lyre from Orpheus and raises his song heavenwards.” A numb fugue between the horns brings a sense of serene order.Source

“Eurydice, dying now a second time, uttered no complaint against her husband. What was there to complain of, but that she had been loved?” 

― Ovid, Metamorphoses
Stravinsky on his score

Recorded in 1949 for WQXR listeners, a short audio clip, that you can listen to here, captures Stravinsky’s staccato accent superimposed on the opening bars of Orpheus. After conjuring the ancient mythology of the Greek characters depicted in the ballet, Stravinsky goes on to justify his modern musical treatment of the story by comparing himself to Renaissance-era painters. “[They] painted the stories of ancient Greece, or the Bible, and the European landscape in customs of their own time, without attempting to reconstruct the scene of Greece or Palestine with historical accuracy. I have also avoided all unessential ethnographic details for the sake of a higher symphonic reality.”

(Pictures up here are from George Platt Lynes, for another Balanchine Ballet, Orpheus and Eurydice, from 1936 based on music from Gluck’s opera)

The translucent scoring and evanescent lyricism of this ballet confer a distinctive beauty. Even the Furies are spectral and restrained. Orpheus’s pleading lyre is memorably translated as a solo harp. Stravinsky’s retelling of the famous myth connects to a rarefied lineage of musical incarnations also including the Orpheus operas of Monteverdi and Gluck – and (a possible companion piece) Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, in which the solo piano, pleading for Eurydice, pacifies the angry string choir of the second movement. Source

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), born in Russia, is acknowledged as one of the great composers of the twentieth century. His work encompassed styles as diverse as Romanticism, Neoclassicism, and Serialism. His ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes included The FirebirdPetrushkaThe Rite of Spring, and Apollo. His music has been used in over thirty ballets originating with New York City Ballet from 1948 through 1987, including Danses Concertantes, Orpheus, The Cage, Agon, Monumentum pro Gesualdo, Rubies, Symphony in Three Movements, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Concerto for Two Solo Pianos, Suite from L’Histoire du Soldat, Concertino, and Jeu de Cartes Source

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