Tag Archives: alexander glazunov

Pinning the Sylph

22 Oct

This entry’s dedicatees are the wonderful Bag Ladies of The Ballet Bag, who have truly helped make my blog the…whatever it is today.  It’s thanks to them that I’ve been able to increase readership and reach new audiences, at a time when I had no idea what I was doing…and look at me now!  Five readers!  Just kidding…I know there are more of you and I appreciate each and every click of a link that brings you here, but to the Bag Ladies go the heartiest thanks.  They were among the first to believe that something worthwhile is written here, and this is but a small token of appreciation.  Much obliged, Ladies…much obliged.

The Bag Ladies requested I do some more “detective work” like I did for the Black Swan grand pas de deux.  If you recall, it was a mess of information on the different variations, where they came from and a ‘where are they now?’ sort of deal.  At first I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find another ballet mystery I would be able to research, but lo and behold one day it revealed itself to me—Les Sylphides.  In short, Les Sylphides is also a catastrophe.  At least for the Black Swan pas de deux, there was some logic behind substitutions that were made but there’s a lot to the history of Les Sylphides that doesn’t really make sense…like why is it sometimes called Chopiniana?  Tracing the lineage of this ballet is literally like collecting butterflies…we have to gather samples of the same species, note minute differences and determine whether any of it is significant or not.  So join me as I make a fool’s attempt at the Darwinian task of pinning sylphs and mounting them for display (a disturbing image, is it not?).

Library books in tow, my first order of business was analyzing the title.  The story  goes that when Michel Fokine originally choreographed the ballet for a charity performance at the Maryinsky Theatre, the title was indeed Chopiniana.  However, this ballet was set to a completely different selection of Chopin orchestrations by Alexander Glazunov, with the Waltz in C Sharp Minor Op.64 No.2 (trust me, you’re going to want to know the numbers) being a later addition, and pretty much the only piece from Chopiniana that survives in modern productions of Les Sylphides today.  Wait for it…Chopiniana had an entirely different theme!  Different theme, different music, different title…I’m pretty sure this constitutes a different ballet.  For this reason I would argue that Chopiniana refers to Fokine’s original character ballet, which is most assuredly lost (it is ballet history after all).  However, in his memoirs Fokine does provide some details about Chopiniana, which I shall quote below:

Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 -In gorgeous costumes, a large ensemble performed Polish ballroom dances

Nocturne in F Major, Op.15 No.1 –The curtain opens disclosing Chopin sitting at the piano in a monastery on the island of Majorca, where during the night, the ill composer suffers nightmarish hallucinations.  He sees dead monks rising from their graves and slowly approaching him to the accompaniment of a monotonously beaten rain.  Frightened, he rushes away from the piano, trying to seek safety from the horrible visions.  He finds salvation in his Muse.  Again he sits at the piano and finds calm in the sounds of the Nocturne.

Mazurka in C Sharp Minor, Op.50 No.3 –(A wedding in a Polish village)  An unfortunate girl is being married to an elderly man whom she does not love.  In the course of the general dancing, her beloved finds his way to her.  As a result of his passionate pleas, she throws the wedding ring at the unwanted suitor and flees with her beloved.

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2 –Hi, it’s me, Steve here and Fokine doesn’t describe the waltz in the manner that he did the other dances, only that it had Anna Pavlova (in a Taglioni costume, a la La Sylphide) and Michael Oboukhov (in a “very romantic black velvet costume” from the ballet Fairy Doll) dancing a pas de deux with “choreography [that] differed from all other pas de deux in its total absence of spectacular feats.”  Fokine goes on to describe the choreography that had “not a single entrechat, turn in the air or pirouette.  There was a slow turn of the ballerina, holding her partner’s hand, but this could not be classified as a pirouette because the movement was not confined to the turn but was used for a change of position and grouping.”  This sounds about in line with the Waltz we see in Les Sylphides today, but I can’t say for sure if it’s actually the same.

Tarantelle Op.43 –This was performed by Vera Fokina assisted by a large ensemble.  I tried to project the authentic character of the national dances which Vera and I had observed on our trip to Italy, when we studied them in detail on the island of Capri.

As you can see, Chopiniana was a plotless ballet in five tableaux, most of them depicting character dances, except for the Waltz.  So what does this mean?  For now, just remember three things: character dances, Alexander Glazunov orchestration, and it was performed by students at the Maryinsky.

Following is a video recording of the Russian National Orchestra performing Chopiniana, however this footage doesn’t contain the Polonaise and actually the order appears to be messed up (as if this wasn’t all confusing enough already) but for the record, the orchestra is playing Mazurka-Waltz-Tarantelle-Nocturne.  The order I have listed above is the official order of Chopiniana.

Things get messy the following year…in 1908, according to one text I have, Chopiniana was danced again at a Maryinsky benefit, under the title of Dances to Music by Chopin.  In 1909, a new version was performed, entitled Grand Pas to Music by Chopin.  I’m not entirely sure, but by conglomerating information from several books, I believe this would be the same ballet Fokine refers to as Second Chopiniana or Reverie Romantique in his memoirs, and thus the prototype of Les Sylphides. Second Chopiniana had a new set of Chopin pieces for the score, orchestrated by Maurice Keller, while also retaining Glazunov’s orchestrated Waltz.  Fokine mentions a pretty funny story regarding the Waltz, which actually has an Etude in C Sharp Minor as the introduction.  This didn’t go well with one of the Maryinsky singers, Ivan Ershov (also a faculty member of the Conservatory of Music), who overheard it while walking by and threw a hissy fit in the middle of one of Fokine’s rehearsals.

“What are they doing?  What are they doing, these ballet people?” he began to yell in colorful tenor.  “They are combining an Etude with a Waltz!”

I always find it funny when musicians are so disagreeable when it comes to ballet…but even funnier was Fokine’s response:

“Ivan Vasilievich, this was not done by the ballet people.  Your director, Alexander Konstantinovich Glazounov, has combined the Etude and the Waltz.  Go across the street”—the Conservatory of Music was located just across the street from the Maryinsky Theater—“and yell there.  And we will resume our rehearsal as soon as you leave.”

Oh Fokine…you tell him!

Anyway, from what I’m reading, this version actually had Chopin’s Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 too, but as an overture.  Here is the full listing of Chopin pieces used, and if I’m reading his memoirs correctly, the “glorious” cast who performed in the 1908 premiere at the Maryinsky (though don’t quote me on this):

Polonaise in A, Op.40 No.1 (overture)

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Nocturne in A Flat Major, Op.32 No.2

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

*Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3 –Vaslav Nijinsky

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7 –Olga Preobajenska

*Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2 –Anna Pavlova

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2 –Tamara Karsavina

Waltz in E Flat, Op.18 No.1 ‘Grand Valse Brillante’

Now there’s a reason why the Mazurkas are starred.  For the woman’s Mazurka (danced by Pavlova), some productions today use the order goes as it is above, but in others the Mazurka comes after the first Waltz.  I couldn’t find any information as to why this is, and I’ll get to the man’s Mazurka later but I list the order above because the one film I could find of Les Sylphides that actually uses the Polonaise overture is a 1958 film of the Maryinsky.  So I’m assuming, without concrete evidence that the Maryinsky version is closest to what debuted in 1908.

“Second” Chopiniana (in three parts)

So you would think, Les Sylphides pretty much has it together, right?  Silly mortal…you’d be very wrong.  Les Sylphides officially earned its title from Diaghilev, when it premiered in 1909 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes (much of the cast from above was the same, except with Alexandra Baldina instead of Preobajenska).  Diaghilev purposely named it Les Sylphides to recall Marie Taglioni and La Sylphide, and there were even more changes to the orchestrations.  The newly orchestrated score is credited to Glazunov, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Taneyev, Anatole Liadov, Nicholas Tcherepnine and Nicolas Sokolov.  At this point, I have such a headache trying to sort this out I don’t WANT to know what’s different.  I could spend hours listening to actual scores and seeing if I can decipher any differences in the counter melodies, but I already drove myself to the brink of insanity trying to work on the man’s Mazurka, for you see, some productions use Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3 and others use Mazurka in C, Op.67 No.3 and I was trying to find video of it and had a surprisingly difficult time of separating them.  The major companies I could find (Kirov, Bolshoi, Royal Ballet, ABT) all used Op.33 No.3.  The only example I could find of Op.67 No.3 was this excerpt of the poet’s solo:

You could compare them for yourself, but it’s maddening.

Now as for that heinous mess of a score, according to a copy I borrowed of the piano music, this was the order as presented by Colonel W. de Basil’s Ballet Company at the Royal Opera House:

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Nocturne in A Flat Major, Op.32 No.2

Waltz in G Flat, Op.70 No.1

Mazurka in D, Op.33 No.2

Mazurka in C, Op.33 No.3

Prelude in A, Op.28 No.7

Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op.64 No.2

Waltz in E Flat, Op.18 No.1 ‘Grand Valse Brillante’

Notice the Polonaise is gone and that the placement of the Mazurka in D (the woman’s Mazurka) is also different.  The Prelude serves as a new overture, and the above arrangement can be heard in this performance by The Royal Ballet, with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in three parts:

*A Roy Douglas is credited with the arrangement…I’m going to bury my head in the sand for that one.

Well, this isn’t an exhaustive history, but I’m certainly exhausted by thinking about it.  Regardless of the finer details, after watching many (too many) videos of Les Sylphides, what I love about this signature Fokine ballet is how unpretentious it is…it requires the art of subtlety because there are so few virtuosic movements to inspire the typical audience response.  Fokine discusses this in his memoirs, in that he wasn’t looking to please the audience at all, in fact one of his goals with the piece was to prove he understood and could indeed choreograph classical dancing on pointe!  Fokine had some interesting thoughts on Nijinsky dancing the role of the poet, telling him not to admire himself and to simply admire the beauty of the Sylphs around him…but for more on that you’d have to read his memoirs, and speaking of the books that may or may not have been used in research for this post (I honestly can’t remember what bits of information came from what) here’s a list:

The Art of Enchantment, by Nancy Van Norman Baer & others

Birth of Ballets-Russes, by Prince Peter Lieven and translated by L. Zarine

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, by Boris Kochno

Memoirs of a Ballet Master, written by Michel Fokine and translated by Vera Fokina

Michel Fokine, by Dawn Lille Horwitz

And just for giggles, here are other productions of Les Sylphides by the Bolshoi and Kirov that I watched in researching for this entry.  They didn’t really contribute much…but it was either that or hit the books again!

Les Sylphides, as performed by the Bolshoi in three parts:

Les Sylphides, as performed by the Kirov in four parts:

Thank you, Mr. B (that’s Bernstein, not Balanchine)

10 Feb

Is it just me or does it seem like a lot of the major ballet companies have done or will do Sleeping Beauty this season?  Off the top of my head I can recall the Royal Ballet, Mariinsky (in Washington DC this weekend!), NYCB, Pacific Northwest and at the beginning of this summer ABT will have Alina Cojocaru as a guest.  That’s a lot of Sleeping Beauty…and yet I’ve never seen it.  Obviously, I don’t expect that the artistic directors of the world to have conference calls to discuss what they’re doing each season so that they don’t overlap, which really doesn’t matter anyway because I highly doubt anyone can afford to globe trot to all of these Sleeping Beauty productions.  It just seems like an odd coincidence considering the fact that the classics are generally done on two/three year cycles.  Anyway, just the thought of it all seems exhausting to me, but alas, I hate flying.  Although chances are if you could potentially afford such transnational adventures, you probably wouldn’t be flying economy class so perhaps the experience is more enjoyable under those circumstances.  The only time I’ve ever flown first class was on a half an hour flight from Detroit to Columbus which they put me on because I missed my original flight after being delayed in customs because I was caught with foreign tangerines in my bag.  Oops.

Anyway, I would like to devote today’s post to a book I came across at the library, entitled Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings edited by Josiah Fisk with Jeff Nichols as consulting editor.  It’s an amalgamation (I love that word) of various writings by composers themselves on other composers, on music, art movements, personal philosophies, you name it.  I don’t know that it’s necessarily a good stand alone resource, but it gives a lot of good tidbits, some just a paragraph or too, some more lengthy essays.  It also lists the source interviews, letters and writings that each passage comes from so if there’s more you need to know about the context in which the passage was written this book can show you the way.  Basically, it’s a nifty astrolabe that can guide you through an overview of composers and their thoughts.  Although I do have to say that the book is a little difficult to navigate.  For example, a composer like Tchaikovsky has a chapter of his own writings, but the index also provides page numbers for when other composers mention him by name so he’s all over the book.  It’s still pretty murky though because specific pieces aren’t always mentioned so there’s a lot of skimming with this one.

Obviously, the relationship between music and dance is hard to ignore.  In fact, I treasure and live by it (Merce Cunningham would argue otherwise and ironically I’ll be seeing the Legacy Tour inaugural show in just a couple of days.  Woot woot!).  It’s not often we get to hear the composer’s perspectives on music and ballets that are performed to their music.  In Stravinsky’s chapter, there are some of his thoughts on The Rite of Spring, how he loved the music, how he felt Nijinsky didn’t understand music and was not a good choreographer and of course the infamous premiere night in which people stormed out (among them, Camille Saint-Saëns apparently), holding Nijinsky by the coattails as Nijinsky shouted counts to his dancers over the jeers of the crowd with Diaghilev flicking the lights on and off in an effort to silence them.  And there’s also random facts like how Stravinsky and Balanchine actually watched Disney’s Fantasia together during Christmas, 1939 (Bet you didn’t know that!).  But most of all (since I find much of Stravinsky’s music jarring and somewhat unpleasant) he did share some poignant views on music and composers.  I’ve selected a couple of my favorites:

The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.

Some people achieve a kind of immortality just by the totality with which they do or do not possess some quality or characteristic.  Rachmaninoff’s immortalizing totality was his scowl.  He was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl.

Rachmaninoff hilarity aside, fast forward to the chapter on writings by Dmitri Shostakovich, who was a student of Alexander Glazunov (who is known to balletomanes as the composer of Raymonda).  Shostakovich said of Stravinsky and Glazunov:

Glazunov was the first to convince that a composer must make the performers submit to his will and not the other way around.  If the composer doesn’t need a triple or quadruple complement of brass instruments for his artistic vision, that’s one thing.  But if he starts thinking about practical matters, economic considerations, that’s bad.  The composer must orchestrate in the way he conceived his work and not simplify his work to please the performers, Glazunov used to say.  And for instance, I still feel that Stravinsky was mistaken in doing new orchestral editions of Firebird and Petrushka, because these reflected financial, economic and practical considerations.

Glazunov insisted that composing ballets was beneficial because it developed your technique.  Later I learned he was right about that, as well.

I find this all quite fascinating.  Needless to say I became intrigued with any Shostakovich ballets (he wrote three, none of which were successes in his time and have only recently been reconstructed by the Bolshoi and Kirov/Mariinsky.  Judith Mackerell’s article on Shostakovich ballets is a recommended read.  Link here).  I’m also drawn to how comparable it is in dance; tracing the lineage of influences through choreographers and their commentaries on each other, although I wish it were all collected in a single book for our perusal.  It would be interesting to know what MacMillan thought of Balanchine or Ashton of Petipa or whatever combination and see that intertwined into one source, like Composers on Music.  You would think for every composer there must be an equal amount of choreographers out there.  But perhaps it’s important to not make any generalizations about the arts.  Another passage I found particularly interesting, which addressed why music is different from all other arts (hey, everyone has their biases!) was by Leonard Bernstein (hold onto your hats, this is a doozy!):

We are constantly hearing negative phrases: anti-art, anti-play, anti-novel, anti-hero, non-picture, non-poem.  We hear that art has become, perforce, art commentary; we fear that techniques have swallowed up what used to be known as content.  All this is reputed to be lamentable, a poor show, a sad state.  And yet look at how many works of art, conceived in something like these terms, prosper, attract a large following, and even succeed in moving us deeply.  There must be something good in all this negativism.

And there is.  For what these works are doing is simply moving constantly towards more poetic fields of relevance.  Let us be more specific: Waiting for Godot is a mightily moving and compassionate non-play.  La Dolce Vita, which deals with emptiness and tawdriness, is a curiously invigorating film, even an inspiring one.  Nabokov’s non-novel Pale Fire is a thrilling masterpiece, and its hero, Charles Kinbote, is a pure non-hero.  Balanchine’s most abstract and esoteric ballets are his prize smash hits.  De Kooning’s pictures can be wonderfully decorative, suggestive, stimulating and very expensive.  This could become a very long list indeed; but there is one thing it could not include     a piece of serious anti-music.  Music cannot prosper as a non-art, because it is basically and radically an abstract art, whereas all the other arts basically deal with real images     words, shapes, stories, the human body.  And when a great artist takes a real image and abstracts it, or joins it to another real image that seems irrelevant, or combines them in an illogical way, he is poeticizing.  In this sense Joyce is more poetical than Zola, Balanchine more than Petipa, Nabokov more than Tolstoy, Fellini more than Griffith.  But John Cage is not more poetical than Mahler, nor Boulez more so than Debussy.

Why must music be excluded from this very prosperous tendency in the arts?  Because it is abstract to start with; it deals directly with the emotions, through a transparent medium of tones which are unrelated to any representational aspects of living.  The only “reality” these tones can have is form     that is, the precise way in which these tones interconnect.  And by form I mean the shape of a two-note motive as well as of a phrase, or of the whole second act of Tristan.  One cannot “abstract” musical tones; on the contrary they have to be given their reality through form; up-and-down, long-and-short, loud-and-soft.

And so the inescapable conclusion.  All forms that we have ever known     plain chant, motet, fugue or sonata     have always been conceived in tonality, that is, in the sense of a tonal magnetic center, with subsidiary tonal relationships.  This sense, I believe, is built into the human organism; we cannot hear two isolated tones, even devoid of any context, without immediately imputing a tonal meaning to them.  We may differ from one another in the tonal meaning we infer, but we infer it nonetheless. […] [T]he moment a composer tries to “abstract” musical tones by denying their tonal implications, he has left the world of communication.

Now that’s food for thought.  He may have been discussing the nature of music, but I think Bernstein also may have touched on what inspires expressivity in dance, what inspires us to dance in the first place and why each choreographer’s language is unique.  Although I didn’t fully grasp the nature of what he was saying, I do feel like this is a pretty sound explanation for why music is so crucial in how I personally relate to dance.  Good to know.

So…if you’re one of those dancers that is looking for that “artistry” button, sink your teeth into this book and see what happens.  Improving your understanding of music could inspire creative interpretations in your dancing.

Or maybe, send your orchestra pit/musicians a Valentine’s card.  The muses might reward you.