In 1927 Igor Stravinsky received a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation in America to write a score for a ballet subject of his own choice. It had to be no longer than thirty minutes in length with a maximum cast of six dancers. The composer decided upon the Greek mythological god Apollo as his choice and set about creating a refined and classically restrained portrait called Apollon Musagete (literally Apollo, leader of the Muses) in two scenes, with just a string orchestra comprising the entire orchestral forces.
Coming just after Stravinsky's extremely dramatic setting of another Greek subject, Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, the contrasting idea of a calmer story in a small scale chamber-like portrayal greatly appealed to the composer, especially as he was now writing music in his 'neo-classical' style. Much later, in conversation with his protégé Robert Craft, he described his compositions of that genre as an attempt to 'build a new music on eighteenth-century classicism using the constructive principles of that classicism…..and even evoking it stylistically by such means as dotted rhythms'.
Stravinsky preferred his Apollon Musagete to be known simply as Apollo, in which he portrays the god as master of the muses and the inspirer of each muse. Out of the nine original Greek Muses he chose three for the ballet: Calliope, the muse of epic poetry; Polyhymnia, the muse of sacred song; and Terpsichore, the muse of dancing. In his memoirs, the composer related how 'When, in my admiration for the beauty of line in classical dancing, I dreamed of a ballet of this kind, I had specially in my thoughts what is known as the "white ballet", in which to my mind the very essence of this art is revealed in all its purity. I found that the absence of many-coloured effects and of all superfluities produced a wonderful freshness. This inspired me to write music of an analogous character'.
Scene One of Apollo features the birth of the god and his journey to Olympus to make music on the lyre for his father, Zeus, and it serves as a short prologue to the Second Scene, which comprises most of the ballet. Here Apollo meets his three chosen Muses. He invests them with their symbols: Calliope has a stylus and tablets, representing poetry and rhythm; Polyhymnia has a finger on her lips, symbolising rhetoric; and Terpsichore has the stance of expressiveness, evoking the movements of dance. Apollo dances alone, and then with Terpsichore, first slowly and then energetically. The ballet closes with a tranquil Apotheosis in which Apollo leads the Muses to Mount Parnassus, their new sanctuary.
(c) Jon Tolansky