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Scènes de ballet

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

Scènes de ballet

The New York impresario, Billy Rose, commissioned Scènes de Ballet in 1944 for a Broadway revue, The Seven Lively Arts. Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin were the principal dancers. Dolin was also the choreographer of this short, plotless ballet, but Stravinsky had his own choreographic plan in mind as he composed the music, and he determined the sequence and character of the scenes himself. He did not consider the score difficult for listeners – he described it later as ‘featherweight and sugared’ – but Billy Rose evidently thought otherwise. Before going to New York the show was tried out in Philadelphia, and Rose telegraphed to the composer: ‘Your music great success. Could be sensational success if you would authorise Robert Russell Bennett retouch orchestration. Bennett orchestrates even the works of Cole Porter.’ Stravinsky telegraphed back: ‘Satisfied with great success’. Nevertheless, when the ballet reached New York, the music was drastically cut.

It is scored for seven woodwind, two horns, brass, timpani, piano and strings. The introduction presents two basic ideas: sharp-edged chords in blues idiom and a slow melodic phrase. As Stravinsky imagined the ballet, the curtain opens to show the corps de ballet. Four girls are accompanied by the melodic theme on four violas, then the others dance in groups. Clarinet runs announce the ballerina, who dances a playful solo variation to an accompaniment of pointed woodwind figures and runs. In the following pantomime the ballerina’s brief Andantino is accompanied by flute roulades, and a lively passage for the corps ensues. Next comes the principal dancers’ pas de deux with a horn and trumpet representing, respectively, the ballerina and her partner. After an Allegretto – an opportunity for her to hop and pirouette – the trumpet-and-horn duet is repeated and brought by the full orchestra to a climax.

A second pantomime to a strong iambic rhythm leads to the male principal’s risoluto solo and a graceful cello duet in thirds and sixths for the ballerina’s variation. The two dancers are reunited in a pantomime ten bars long, then a jazz-inflected passage marks the re-entry of the others, and a sequence of dissonant chords with a canonic upper line begins the Apotheosis. Against a background of shimmering strings (the composer envisaged dancers in twirling groups) the chords grow in intensity and certainty. The Apotheosis was composed on the day of the liberation of Paris, which had been Stravinsky’s home. He interrupted work to listen to the news on the radio, and later thought this music reflected his jubilation.

© Eric Mason

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