Academic journal article Current Musicology

Charles M. Joseph. 2011. Stravinsky's Ballets

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Charles M. Joseph. 2011. Stravinsky's Ballets

Article excerpt

Charles M. Joseph. 2011. Stravinsky's Ballets. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Charles M. Joseph's recent monograph explores an important subset of Stravinsky's complete oeuvre, namely his works for dance. One of the aims of the book is to stress the importance of dance for Stravinsky throughout his career as a source of inspiration that at times significantly shaped his development as a composer. Joseph offers richly contextualized and detailed pictures of Stravinsky's ballets, ones that will be extremely useful for both dance and music scholars. While he isolates each work, several themes run through Joseph's text. Among the most important are Stravinsky's self-positioning as simultaneously Russian and cosmopolitan; and Stravinsky's successes in collaboration, through which he was able to create fully integrated ballets that elevated music's traditionally subservient role in relation to choreography.

To begin, Joseph introduces his motivation for the project, arguing for the necessity of an in-depth study of Stravinsky's works for dance in light of the fact that they comprise a significant fraction of the composer's output (more so than any other Western classical composer) and that these works, most notably The Rite of Spring, occupy such a prominent place in the Western canon. According to Joseph, owing to Stravinsky's sensitivity to the "complexly subtle counterpoint between ballet's interlocking elements" (xv), the ballets stand out in the genre for their highly interdisciplinary nature. In the chapters that follow, Joseph examines each of the ballets, focusing alternately on details of the works, histories of their production and reception, and their biographical contexts.

The first chapter broadly contextualizes Stravinsky's work, offering

an introduction to the cultural history and musical traditions that Stravinsky inherited at the turn of the twentieth century in Russia. Joseph provides a thorough account of the practical realities of musical life in St. Petersburg that resulted in certain developments in Stravinsky's compositional style and early career. One of the major focuses of the chapter is the tense institutional divide in the mid-to-late nineteenth century between the Western European classicism of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and the Russian nationalism of the New Russian School. While Joseph acknowledges that, "ultimately, these highly charged contraries would prove not so contrary after all" (12), he argues that the reconciliation and integration of musical Slavophilia and Europhilia would greatly influence Stravinsky's training (particularly under the tutelage of Rimsky-Korsakov) and eventually shape his compositional commitments. Joseph goes on to describe the gradual escalation of Stravinsky's reputation during his early career, while admitting that his father's celebrity as an opera singer enabled many of the composer's opportunities.

The Firebird, Stravinsky's first ballet, is the focus of chapter two. Joseph first adumbrates an historical backdrop for the work, providing relevant biographical details about The Firebird's producer Serge Diaghilev and the inception of the Ballets Russes. Interestingly, Joseph notes that Stravinsky only fell into the commission by chance and was actually Diaghilev's last-minute backup choice of composer (Nikolai Cherepnin, Anatoly Lyadov, and others had previously declined Diaghilev's offers). By exploring primary source material--testimony from dancers and collaborators involved in the ballet as well as information provided by Stravinsky's sketches--Joseph goes on to describe how the work came together. These details go a long way in making a case for the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of The Firebird. Comparison between the finished score and the piano autograph completed about a month before the debut, for instance, suggests that the composer responded to choreographic needs over the course of rehearsals. …

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