Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Stravinsky's Ballets

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Stravinsky's Ballets

Article excerpt

Stravinsky's Ballets. By Charles M. Joseph. Yale University Press, 320pp, Pounds 25.00 ISBN 9780300118728. Published 24 November 2011

Igor Stravinsky's stature as one of the most influential composers of the modern era seems all but incontestable, and Charles Joseph's study accordingly situates its subject as the 20th-century counterpart of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. More intriguingly, Joseph refocuses, and therein refines, our understanding of Stravinsky's precedence by underscoring the centrality of ballet to his oeuvre as a whole.

Dance and music enthusiasts alike are well acquainted with his commissions for the Ballets Russes, including the near-mythic pandemonium unleashed by the 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring (choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky), and with Stravinsky's prolific collaboration with the choreographer George Balanchine. The statistical indelibility of dance remains nonetheless impressive: Joseph details Stravinsky's works for ballet as spanning 52 years of compositional invention. Close to 1,300 choreographed versions are known to exist, the visual counterparts to nearly 90 per cent of Stravinsky's compositions and arrangements. Joseph notes that the genre of ballet music has historically held little appeal for composers (Tchaikovsky being the obvious exception, and indeed Stravinsky in 1927 accepted the commission of Le baiser de la fee as a "compatriotic homage" to his predecessor), and he masterfully probes the impetus and the outcome of Stravinsky's idiosyncratic, career-long predilection for ballet.

The author of two previous books on Stravinsky, Joseph here focuses mainly on the original productions of Stravinsky's dance works. While this accommodates but a cursory nod to their choreographic afterlife (Maurice Bejart's 1959 version was for Balanchine the "best Rite ever produced"), it expedites a nuanced analysis of the musical heritage Stravinsky absorbed and transcended and the cultural contexts in which he composed. The Firebird (1910), for instance, emulates the pitch vocabulary of Stravinsky's mentor, Rimsky-Korsakov. The initial audience was jolted by the intensity of its "Infernal Dance", yet the ballet wends, as even exotic fairy tales must, towards a lushly concordant finale. In contrast, Petrushka (1911, with choreography by Michel Fokine) concludes to ominous intonations, as the ghost of the uncannily soulful puppet (heart-rendingly performed by Nijinsky) hovers and then expires above the theatre. …

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