To wrap up our series on the music of ballet, we will be listening to the second suite from Maurice Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloe.
While he is most popular for his large-scale orchestral works like Bolero, Ravel was an accomplished and versatile composer whose compositions spanned the breadth of the ballet, opera, solo, and chamber music repertoire. Daphnis et Chloe, the story of the romance between goatherd Daphnis and shepherdess Chloe, contains some of the most beautiful music ever written by Ravel. It is unique among the ballet repertoire because it is less than an hour long and contains only one act. Most commentators refer to it has a choreographed symphony rather than a full-scale ballet.
Ravel was a master of tonal harmony and meter, but he was unafraid to stretch their bounds as well. The opening of Daphnis et Chloe is a perfect example of this combination: a tonal center filled with luscious melodies, juxtaposed with a jarring, unpredictable rhythmic structure.
There are three parts to the ballet. Today, we will listen to the second part. It opens with an a capella choir of wordless voices singing a translucent, somewhat sinister line representing the pirates who have kidnapped Chloe. This is followed by the staccato brilliance of the trumpets, who introduce the second main theme of the ballet.
This week’s music is the “Infernal Dance” from Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
The Firebird is a musical rendition of a Russian folk tale about a magical creature called a firebird, whose favorite food is golden apples. Prince Ivan, in an effort to overcome the evil wizard Kashchei’s rule over the kingdom, goes into Kashchei’s garden looking for a tree that grows golden apples. Ivan captures the firebird, but lets it go in return for one of its feathers. He is then captured by Kashchei, escaping only by waving the firebird’s feather and summoning the firebird to his rescue. The firebird leads Kashchei and his monsters in a dance that is so exhausting that Kashchei and his monsters fall asleep. This is known as the “Infernal Dance,” which you will hear today. Prince Ivan then, with the help of the firebird, kills Kashchei and frees the kingdom. The firebird flies away, never to be seen again.
Stravinsky wrote the score for The Firebird in 1910 as part of a collaboration with the famous choreographer Sergei Diaghilev, and the music began his rise to international stardom. Soon after its premiere, Stravinsky created The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, and his violin concerto, all of which were met with critical acclaim. The music of The Firebird is considered to be a prime example of Stravinsky’s style, but I find this claim to be misleading. Stravinsky’s style is hard to pin down due, I believe, to his astounding versatility. For instance, he wrote entire symphonies in the Baroque style, yet his violin concerto sounds more like a late Romantic composition. He wrote very modern-sounding pieces like The Rite of Spring while also crafting orchestral suites in the style of Mozart. In short, Stravinsky was a consummate master of composition who did not have a single style. The genius of The Firebird is yet another example of his brilliance. The music is glittering, dissonant, and sometimes even unnerving, yet Stravinsky finds unique ways to surprise the listener with flashes of harmonic resolution.
This week’s music is the Dance of the Matadors from the ballet Don Quixote.
Inspired by the Miguel de Cervantes novel by the same name, Don Quixote was composed by Ludwig Minkus and first choreographed by Marius Petipa for its 1869 premiere in Moscow. It tells the story of Don Quixote, a bumbling, romantic dreamer who decides to escape from reality by living in a fantasy world of his own creation. In this world, Don Quixote is a brave knight searching for his beloved Dulcinea. To assist him in his quest he enlists the ever-faithful Sancho Panza, and the two of them set off in search of glory.
Different groups of dancers are featured throughout the ballet. The Dance of the Matadors is one such instance. Notice how Minkus’ music mirrors the energy and bravado of the matadors, and how it changes to incorporate new characteristics when the lead matador dances with his love interest. This is a skill that ballet composers are especially adept in: creating music that aesthetically imitates certain physical movements.
This week’s music, as part of our series on ballet music, is the Balcony Pas de Deux from Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. First performed in 1940 by the renowned Mariinsky Ballet, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is the definitive musical expression of one of the greatest love stories of all time.
Prokofiev wrote the music for Romeo and Juliet at a time in his life in which he was under significant public pressure. European audiences had not liked his violin concerti, American audiences had dismissed his ballets, and Russian audiences had rejected his chamber music. On top of these pressures, Prokofiev was under close scrutiny by the Soviet government. Therefore, when Russian, European, and American audiences alike received Romeo and Juliet with adoration, a great weight was lifted off of Prokofiev’s shoulders.
The scene you will watch today, the Balcony Pas de Deux, depicts Romeo and Juliet falling in love. Notice how Prokofiev uses soaring lines in the violins to create a sense of rapture. Listen as well for the oboe solo that ushers in one of the main themes of the entire ballet.
This week’s music, the final scene from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, is part of a new series on ballet music. Over the next few weeks, we will be listening to (and watching 🙂 some of the greatest ballet music ever composed.
Ballet music is an interesting and unique sub-genre of classical music, primarily because it was not written to be performed on stage. Unlike most classical music, ballet music was meant to be heard and not seen. The musicians in a ballet sit in what is called “the pit,” a lowered enclosure that sits below the front of the stage. The conductor stands at the head of the orchestra on an elevated platform, where he can watch the ballet while also conducting the orchestra.
Ballet music is also unique because it involves physical movement in a way other classical music does not (with the rare exception of extremely athletic performers like Joshua Bell and Yuja Wang). It requires coordination between a choreographer and an orchestra, as well as constant vigilance on the part of the conductor to ensure the music and dance are fitting together properly.
Swan Lake is the tragic love story of Prince Siegfried and the swan Princess Odette, whose love must face sorcery, magic spells, evil magicians, betrayal, and more. Despite its fame, the ballet was not originally well received when it was premiered in 1877. It was not until the world-renowned Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg decided to showcase the ballet that it gained the kind of fame it enjoys today. Since then, it has been choreographed by ballet maestros like Lev Ivanov and performed by legendary dancers including Rudolf Nureyev.
This week’s music is the String Quartet, Opus 11, by the early 20th-century American composer Samuel Barber.
Barber, who ranks alongside Aaron Copland and Charles Ives as one of the greatest American composers of all time, wrote a number of famous works throughout the course of his tragically short life. None are more famous, however, than the Adagio for Strings, arguably one of the most moving pieces of music in the world today. (We listened to it a while ago – check it out here: https://thisweeksmusic.com/2020/02/08/top-25-17-barber-adagio/). As it turns out, the Adagio for Strings was not a stand-alone composition. It was originally conceived as the second movement of Barber’s string quartet, the piece we will hear today.
The structure of this piece is rather strange. Most string quartets – in fact, most multi-movement compositions in general – feature distinct movements that showcase their own unique thematic material. In addition, most string quartets have four movements. This quartet, however, includes only three movements, the first and third of which utilize the same thematic material. The third movement is essentially a reprise of the first. It is almost as if Barber wrote an extended first movement, then cut it in half and inserted the second movement. Luckily for us, that second movement turned out to be the basis for the Adagio for Strings.
Strange structure aside, this piece reveals a musical genius at his best. There is not a wasted note in the entire quartet. For me, this piece has the feel of a Hemingway novel – concise, punchy, edited to the bone, and so alive you feel it might singe your eyebrows if you got too close.
This week’s music is a performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp minor by the superstar pianist Evgeny Kissin. Soon after his graduation from conservatory in 1892, Rachmaninoff wrote a series of preludes titled Morceaux de fantaisie. Of these preludes, the C-sharp minor prelude has become the most famous.
The prelude is famous primarily because of the ominous three-chord motif – A, G sharp, and C sharp – that opens the piece. This motif repeats throughout, though Rachmaninoff presents in in several different forms and variations as the piece progresses. Listen for the drop-off from forte to pianissimo near the beginning as Rachmaninoff introduces the main theme. After the theme is introduced, you’ll hear the music increase in speed and energy through a series of chromatic (moving by half-steps) triplets. Rachmaninoff builds this chromatic sequence into a recapitulation of the original motif that dies out to finish the piece.
This week’s music is “An American in Paris” by George Gershwin.
George Gershwin is one of the household names of American classical music, but not in the same way as Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein. Instead, Gershwin is famous for blending jazz and classical into a unique style that, in many ways, came to define the roaring twenties.
“An American in Paris” was inspired by Gershwin’s 1926 trip to Paris and, in particular, the sound of taxi horns on the Paris boulevards. Gershwin called the piece a “rhapsodic ballet,” though it was not adapted for the ballet stage until Gene Kelly’s Academy Award-winning ballet arrangement in 1951. Gershwin offers the listener a kaleidoscope of musical impressions, starting with a light-hearted strolling melody that gets interrupted by a honking taxi horn. There is a busy street shopping escapade featuring the violins, then a bluesy melody in the woodwinds, followed by a sassy trumpet fanfare that overlays the original “taxi horn” motif. Listen for the violin and tuba solos near the end of the piece (a bizarre pairing only Gershwin could pull off) and the return of the original strolling melody (with a twist!) at the end.
This week’s music is the Allegro second movement (starting at 6:06) from Charles Ives’ Symphony No. 2.
A Mount Rushmore of American composers could include several names, but two composers in particular would have, in my view, a permanent place on the monument: Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. These two composers have arguably done more than any other figures (with the possible exception of George Gershwin) to define American classical music.
Charles Ives was an eccentric New Englander who forged a unique and powerful path into American modernism. Like the poet T.S. Eliot, Ives worked an office job (insurance salesman) for most of his life in order to support his family, composing in the early mornings and late evenings. He left us with dozens of sonatas, chamber music of all kinds, six incredible symphonies, and several immensely popular short orchestral works like “The Unanswered Question,” “Central Park in the Dark,” and “Three New England Sketches.”
Ives’ second symphony is a masterclass in quoting other musical material, from Wagner operas to American fiddle tunes. In the first movement, he quotes the tune “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.” The second movement quotes “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Strains of “America the Beautiful” can be heard in the third movement, and the fifth movement showcases quotations of both “Camptown Races” and “Turkey in the Straw.” Other quotations include Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s fifth symphony (in the second and third movements), Brahms’ first symphony (in both the first and last movements), and even an F Minor fugue in the finale that imitates one of J.S. Bach’s three-part inventions.