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Stravinsky & Balanchine

I was the only witness when Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine were working together in the creation of two masterpieces, Agon and The Flood. That said, let me partly disqualify myself. One would have to be Russian, as well as speak the language, in order to understand the exchanges, at the creative level, of these two twentieth-century colossi. I satisfy neither requirement. At the time of Orpheus (1948), they conversed in Russian almost exclusively, rarely slipping into English, and then only out of consideration for the frustration of onlookers such as myself. By the time of Agon (1954-1957), both artists had become fully effective in English, notwithstanding Balanchine’s tendency to omit verbs and the ends of sentences, and Stravinsky’s heavily accented but maddeningly macaronic vocabulary. By the time of The Flood (1962), the English of both was resourceful, fluent, original, and not quite correct. But of course verbal language was not their principal means of communication. Stravinsky could articulate musical thoughts at the piano, and Balanchine choreographic ones through movement and gesture.

Balanchine persuaded Stravinsky to expand the Orpheus pas de deux, which not even Diaghilev would have tried to do. So, too, Balanchine convinced the composer to repeat the prelude to The Flood near the end, thereby changing its theology as well as its dramatic shape. How different was the relationship in 1937, when Stravinsky obliged Balanchine to jettison part of his choreography for Jeu de cartes. But by all accounts the composer treated his young collaborator imperiously then, having only that one proof of his genius, Apollo. But Jeu de cartes, which has no slow music, no adagio pas de deux, and therefore no love interest, did not, I think, inspire Balanchine.

Balustrade (1941) marks the rebirth of Stravinsky’s appreciation of the young “ballet master,” as he wished to be called. One wonders if any grouping, step, movement from it survives in the retitled Violin Concerto of 1972. Stravinsky also praised Balanchine’s choreography for Danses concertantes (1944), but was less than enthusiastic about Eugene Berman’s set and costumes, even after the artist had simplified them to the composer’s specifications. It does not matter that both ballets were concert pieces, like all of Balanchine’s later Stravinsky repertory. The change in the relationship came with Orpheus, in which, before a note had been composed, the two artists together plotted the scenario and dance numbers. By coincidence, Stravinsky’s full realization of Balanchine’s musical gifts came during the Orpheus rehearsals. On April 20, 1948, eight days before the premiere, Stravinsky and I heard and saw him conduct Tchaikovsky for Ballet Theater: in tempi, feeling, phrasing, flow, refinement, the performance of a lifetime, utterly unlike anything even Stravinsky had ever experienced. Balanchine could have, but fortunately did not, become a “great maestro,” being content to remain what he so perfectly was.

The Agon collaboration was much closer. By this time, Balanchine had become the composer’s co-creator, an equal partner from conception to execution. He arrived at the Stravinsky home in Hollywood on June 6, 1954, worked with Stravinsky on the same day, on the afternoon of the 9th, and once more on the 17th. Something called twelve-tone music was in the air at the time, and Agon is about twelve dancers and twelve tones. Balanchine himself recalled that on these dates “We constructed every possibility of dividing twelve,” meaning dance solos, duos, trios, quartets. The year before, on July 29, Balanchine was in Brentwood, California, dining with Mrs. Arnold Schoenberg, her mother, her daughter, and myself, seeking the widow’s permission to base a ballet on one of her husband’s twelve-tone works. Since he did not know any of them, I proposed the Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene, Opus 34, partly because it is short, employs a small orchestra, and has a classical structure.

The next day, in the Stravinsky home—the composer himself was in the hospital recovering from surgery—I explained the score’s pitch organization and scheme of proportional tempi, and we listened to a tape of the piece several times. Balanchine immediately grasped the dramatic structure of the music, but wondered why a twelve-tone composition began and ended in triadic harmony. We listened again the next day, and the next, and the result was the inception of Balanchine’s ballet Opus 34. I was the catalyst in another Balanchine “twelve-tone” opus a few years later, in that he learned the Anton Webern music used in Episodes from my 1957 recordings. Later still, he followed my suggestion to base a ballet on the Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet, which he heard for the first time in my recording. And finally, he choreographed Stravinsky’s Monumentum and Movements at my instigation.

One leading ballet critic refers to a “conference in the summer of 1954, when work on Agon began,” and to a “chart that Stravinsky made afterward listing the order of dances…and the number of dancers, with stick-figures for males and females.” In truth, the chart dates from those conferences, not after them. The succession of dances and their titles were Balanchine’s, written down by Stravinsky during the discussions. Stravinsky also drew the stick figures—triangular tutus for the females—as they worked, not afterward, when he would have taken more pains with them. In fact, he composed the Pas de Quatre immediately after Balanchine had gone, using a fanfare he had written in December 1953. The chart also reveals that not all of the dances were decided upon in those first meetings: the “Sarabande” and “Gaillarde,” for instance, were not entered until they were completed three months later.

The music of The Flood was composed before Balanchine had agreed to choreograph the dance movements, but the visual realization of the entire piece was his. The discussions with Stravinsky took place in his home, March 14-16 and 27, 1962. Balanchine was in a profoundly religious state of mind, perhaps because of personal tragedy, which explains the Orthodox Church framework, the Iconostasis (altar screen), and the representation of the Seraphim. When the New York City Ballet presented the American stage premiere of the work at the Stravinsky Centenary in 1982, Balanchine revived ideas that he had proposed a decade earlier, including one for the Garden of Eden.

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