Length: c. 31 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd = English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, harp, & strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 5, 1950, Alfred Wallenstein conducting
About this Piece
“What are the connections that unite and separate music and dance? In my opinion one does not serve the other. There must be a harmonious accord, a synthesis of ideas. Let us speak, on the contrary, of the struggle between music and choreography.” Stravinsky made these remarks about his work with the choreographer of Orpheus, George Balanchine, with whom he enjoyed one of the closest, longest, and most productive collaborations in dance history.
This wrestling match between the two elements of dance fascinated Stravinsky from his earliest years in Saint Petersburg and throughout his long life as an expatriate in Europe and Los Angeles: “I love ballet and am more interested in it than in anything else.” The son of an operatic bass at the imperial Mariinsky Theater, Stravinsky grew up around dance and dancers, and even caught a glimpse of Tchaikovsky (creator of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty) shortly before his death in 1893.
Stravinsky composed nearly 20 scores intended for dance performance. His legendary collaboration with Balanchine lasted for more than 40 years, beginning with the 1928 Apollon musagète. It produced not only numerous important scores, but also a ground-breaking modernist style of neo-classical abstraction in choreography and performance. Balanchine once defined music as “something that occupies architecturally a certain portion of time.”
Stravinsky’s multi-layered scores provided him with an architectural blueprint for the “buildings” he constructed using dancers as structural elements.
Conceived as a sequel to Apollon musagete, the scenario for Orpheus, based on another character from Greek mythology, was developed from the start by Balanchine and Stravinsky, meeting in Los Angeles in spring 1946. As they refined the project, they freely traded suggestions, and the notoriously prickly Stravinsky even made some changes in his score in response to Balanchine’s requests. Nor did Stravinsky hesitate to express his opinions about the choreography, as Maria Tallchief, who danced (or rather, mimed ) the role of Eurydice, later recalled. Indeed, some critics charged that Orpheus wasn’t really a ballet at all, that Balanchine yielded too much power to the music.
Like the melodrama Perséphone, Orpheus takes us to the mythical underworld, the kingdom of Hades. Drawing on various versions of the popular legend of the Greek demi-god and prophet Orpheus, endowed with super-human musical gifts, Stravinsky and Balanchine created a scenario in three scenes and 13 sections.
When the curtain opens, Orpheus weeps over the death of his wife Eurydice, strumming on his lyre – the harp repeats a melancholy descending phrase in antique Phrygian mode – and then dances to a violin solo in quick tempo. An angel appears (heralded by horns) and leads him to Hades (string tremolo and funereal trumpet). There he charms the tormented souls with his song and lyre (Air de danse). Even the threatening Furies (swarming in agitated exclamations from the strings) relent, binding his eyes and giving him back Eurydice (Pas d’action). In an extended lyrical slow-fast-slow Pas de deux, the lovers express their rapture at being reunited.
But Orpheus breaks his vow by tear- ing the bandage from his eyes. After a very pregnant pause, Eurydice falls dead anew. Now the Bacchantes seize Orpheus and tear him to pieces, in a furious Pas d’action whose violent, colliding off-beat fragments recall the maiden’s sacrifice in The Rite of Spring. In a final apotheosis, the God Apollo takes the lyre and raises Orpheus’ song heavenwards, as the music of the ballet’s opening scene returns, against an archaic fugue of horns. A final solemn D-major chord brings harmonic closure and solace.