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Book Review: Stravinsky & Balanchine: A Journey of Invention
By Charles M. Joseph

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 28 March 2003—In all the extensive literature concerning Igor Stravinsky, few writers have ventured onto the terrain explored by Charles M. Joseph: the composer's collaborations with George Balanchine. Of course, the subject has often been discussed in biographies of both men, but never to the extent covered by Joseph, who is professor of music at Skidmore College. Biographical elements are provided so that we are able to perceive events in a larger context, but the author concentrates on three major collaborations, Apollo, Agon and Violin Concerto. Curiously, only Agon can be considered a collaboration, as Apollo was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge and first choreographed by Adolf Bolm for performances at the Library of Congress in 1928, while Violin Concerto was choreographed to an existing score, once in 1941 (as Balustrade) and, more significantly, in 1972. Each of the 26 works that resulted from the partnership is discussed, while mention is made of the works choreographed in collaboration with others (Jerome Robbins for Pulcinella, John Taras for Perséphone). I would dispute the inclusion of Symphony of Psalms as a choreographic work in the list at the end of the book, as would anyone who had seen its sole performance to close the 1972 Stravinsky Festival at the New York City Ballet.

Joseph's musical analyses may strike the ordinary reader as too complicated, despite the author's comment: "In dealing with the discussion of music, it would be handy to have a piano, the score, and audio recordings available, but this is by no means necessary for the general reader." Is the "general reader" supposed to skip what is often a fairly technical description. Joseph goes on to say that "A video player, however, would be useful." Here I would agree as his descriptions of the choreography are not always crystal clear. Nonetheless, he has done great service in explaining the music to admirers of Balanchine, and at the same time explaining the choreographer's use of the music to musicians.

Often in vain, Stravinsky persistently argued that music and dance were more disconnected than connected. Indeed, it was from the unexploited potential of such disconnectedness that ballet would draw significant strength in becoming an expressive, independent art form. Efforts to synthesize a ballet's score and choreography through undisguised imitation created no true synthesis at all, both men contended. Such tautology only created an illusory reassurance, leading audiences to believe that in immediately seeing how closely the music and movement were coordinated, they had succeeded in perceiving the work's oneness. But nothing could be further from the truth (p.6).

And it is the author's demonstration of this thesis in his lengthy chapters devoted to the signature works that is highly convincing. He emphasizes that neither Stravinsky nor Balanchine tolerated high-falutin ideas concerning what they considered to be craftsmanship. "The notion of excess in music and dance - to say nothing of portraying their respective arts so melodramatically - was intrinsically alien to their deepest aesthetic convictions. Composition and choreographing were no more than daily praxes, and the ongoing task of 'making' a work was not to be sentimentalized."

Another topic considered by the author is Balanchine's contribution to Stravinsky's fame. He cites Nathan Milstein: "I don't think that anyone except for a small circle of specialists would ever have known Stravinsky's late works if it had not been for Balanchine….If contemporary audiences know Agon, that's thanks solely to Balanchine." Speaking for myself, a follower of the New York City Ballet from the time Agon was created, I am eternally grateful to Mr B for stretching my ears, not only through the many times I attended performances of Agon, but a great many other works not only by Stravinsky but Ives, Webern, Hindemith, to name but three whose works persist in the repertoire of many ballet companies.

I also take a great deal of comfort in the following statement by the choreographer in an interview in Opera News when he first staged The Rake's Progress for the Metropolitan Opera in 1952: "The music must come first. If it is necessary that the singers should face front in order to be heard, they must face front….It is not necessary for the singers to move all the time, nor to mime while they are singing. I prefer poor acting and good music to good acting and bad music." When the two collaborated on a work for television, The Flood, Stravinsky was of two minds, but I am more in sympathy with the following remark, which could apply to a great many of the DVDs thrown on today's market, from an interview at the time (1962): "A televised concert is a great bore. Yes, of course you can see the timpani and the trombone and the oboe person by person as they play, but what is the interest of that?"

It is perhaps churlish on my part, but one must question the description of Agon as "the last of Stravinsky's and Balanchine's epoch-making full-length (sic) ballets" (pp. 211-212). Rubies is not set to "the andante rapsodico movement of the 1929 Capriccio for piano and orchestra" (p. 413) but to the entire work. And even though the word "prequel" seems to have been sanctified by the OED, I persist in finding it extraordinarily ugly and would protest the author's description of Concerto Barocco as "an important prequel" for Stravinsky's Violin Concerto.

This is nonetheless an important contribution to the extensive bibliography concerning two of the most important creative figures of the 20th century.

Stravinsky and Balanchine

Stravinsky and Balanchine: The Journey of Invention
by Charles M. Joseph
Hardcover: 416 pages
Yale University Press, New Haven, London (1 May 2002)
ISBN: 0300087128

Joel Kasow is the editor of Operanet for Culturekiosque.com


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