Ballet for Martha

Appalachian Spring-Martha GrahamAppalachian Spring is a ballet about freedom and endless possibility…the joy and terror of the blank slate at the heart of the mythical American pioneering spirit. The story centers around a young, newly married couple and the building of a farmhouse on an open plot of land in early 1900s rural Pennsylvania. It’s easy to sense a longing for a mythical America of wide open spaces, which had long vanished by 1944 when Aaron Copland and Martha Graham created Appalachian Spring. At the same time, the ballet explores universal themes. There is a tension between the freedom of youth and the grounding of experience. Here is how Copland described the piece:

The bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful and apprehensive, which their new domestic partnership invites. An old neighbor suggests, now and then, the rocky confidence of experience. A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are left quiet and strong in their new house.

Last month I offered a few thoughts on the music of Appalachian Spring and a unique performance by students at the University of Maryland. Now let’s watch a 1959 film of the complete ballet, featuring choreographer Martha Graham in the role of The Bride. Copland wrote the music under the working title, “Ballet for Martha.”

Here is part 2, part 3 and part 4.

Medea’s Dance of Vengeance

Jason and Medea, Carl Van Loo, 1759
Jason and Medea, Carl Van Loo, 1759

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between Greek mythology and a modern-day soap opera plot. A perfect example is the story of Medea and Jason, recounted in a play by Euripides from 431 BC. Jason marries Media, but leaves her for Glauce, daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth. Medea gruesomely avenges Jason’s betrayal by killing their children.

This story was the subject of American composer Samuel Barber’s 1946 ballet score for Martha Graham. Graham’s company had premiered Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring two years earlier. Listen to Barber’s complete score here.

Barber explains that the ballet went beyond the story to reflect the underlying timeless emotions:

[quote]Neither Miss Graham nor the composer wished to use the Medea-Jason legend literally in the ballet. These mythical figures served rather to project psychological states of jealousy and vengeance which are timeless. The choreography and music were conceived, as it were, on two time levels, the ancient mythical and the contemporary…As the tension and conflict between them increases, they step out of their legendary roles from time to time and become the modern man and woman, caught in the nets of jealousy and destructive love.[/quote]

Later, Barber adapted music from the ballet for Medea’s Dance of Vengeance, Op.23a. He wrote a short introduction in the score:

[quote] The present version, rescored for large orchestra in 1955, is in one continuous movement and is based on material from the ballet which is directly related to the central character, Medea. Tracing her emotions from her tender feelings towards her children, through her mounting suspicions and anguish at her husband’s betrayal and her decision to avenge herself, the piece increases in intensity to close in the frenzied Dance of Vengeance of Medea, the Sorceress descended from the Sun God. [/quote]

Let’s listen to a recording by Marin Alsop and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra:

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There’s something almost cinematic about the opening of this piece. It immediately establishes a distinct mood in the way a film score would underscore an opening scene. Beginning at 0:59, consider each solo voice’s unique persona, from the flute, clarinet and oboe to the string interjections. Can you hear a sense of anxiety slowly creeping into this virtual movie soundtrack? Does the music conjure up specific images or just feelings?

At 8:20, listen to the obsessive furry of the repeated piano line. Notice how this deranged line falls in on itself rhythmically at 9:40. The piece ends in a frenzy of madness. At what point do passion and love cross the line to insanity?

[quote]Medea: “Look, my soft eyes have suddenly filled with tears:
O children, how ready to cry I am, how full of foreboding!
Jason wrongs me, though I have never injured him.
He has taken a wife to his house, supplanting me…
Now I am in the full force of the storm of hate.
I will make dead bodies of three of my enemies–
father, the girl and my husband!
Come, Medea, whose father was noble,
Whose grandfather God of the sun,
Go forward to the dreadful act.”[/quote]

-Euripides

Prokofiev’s Cinderella

Cinderella slipperI spent the weekend in the orchestra pit. The Richmond Symphony accompanied Richmond Ballet in five performances of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Written between 1940 and 1944, Prokofiev’s lushly romantic and virtuosic score captures perfectly the drama and atmosphere of the famous fairy tale  story.

Here is what Prokofiev said about the score:

[quote]What I wished to express above all in the music of Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and flowering of that love, the obstacles in its path, and finally the dream fulfilled. The fairytale offered a number of fascinating problems for me as a composer – the atmosphere of magic surrounding the Fairy Godmother, the twelve fantastic dwarves that pop out of the clock as it strikes twelve and dance chechotka reminding Cinderella that she must return home; the swift change of scene as the Prince journeys far and wide in search of Cinderella; the poetry of nature personified by the four fairies symbolizing the four seasons…[/quote]

Cinderella is full of quirky and slightly sarcastic melodies which play with our expectations. Prokofiev loves to give us little musical curve balls in the form of “wrong” notes and sudden harmonic twists. More than once he veers off into a completely unrelated key. Here are some highlights from the score:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Going to the Ball[/typography]

In this first excerpt, can you hear Cinderella’s sense of breathless excitement and anticipation? How does Prokofiev’s music capture this mood? After 1:08 notice the way the music alternates between a feeling of two (walking) and a feeling of three (an elegant waltz).

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Cinderella’s Waltz and Midnight[/typography]

Here is the end of the second act. Following the famous waltz, the clock strikes midnight (2:49). Listen to the way the music captures the drama of this critical moment in the story:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Amoroso[/typography]

Do you remember the theme you heard at the end of the last excerpt? This theme is first introduced at the beginning of the ballet. Representing the love between Cinderella and the Prince, it functions as musical foreshadowing. At the end of the ballet, as Cinderella dances with the prince, the theme returns. Prokofiev creates a feeling of depth and soaring expansiveness in the orchestration. Listen to the wide range between the lowest and highest instruments right up to the final chords as the curtain falls:

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The Rite of Spring Turns 100

Stravinsky, sketched by Picasso
Stravinsky, sketched by Picasso

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the premier of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of the twentieth century’s most important and influential pieces. It was written as a ballet score for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris and originally choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky.

The Rite of Spring was revolutionary. Its dissonant sounds, complex rhythms and ferocious musical primitivism had never been imagined. The first audience, expecting the elegant classical ballet of the nineteenth century, was rudely confronted with the violent cacophony of a new twentieth century reality. The premier on May 29, 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees was so shocking that a riot broke out. You can read the New York Times’s account of the evening here.

The Rite of Spring shakes off the civilized world and offers a glimpse at raw nature in all of its earthy, potent glory. In this clip from a rehearsal, Leonard Bernstein suggests that the music conjures up primal feelings of connection to a living earth-the feeling of laying on the grass and hugging the earth on a warm day or wrapping your arms around a tree trunk. Disney’s use of the music in the soundtrack of Fantasia suggests something equally primordial. Stravinsky said that his unifying idea was “the mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring.”

Let’s listen to an excellent concert performance by conductor Jaap van Zweden and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (video below). Elements of the music may remind you of jazz and even rock. Early jazz musicians were influenced by composers such as Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel. At the same time, composers were becoming interested in the music of Asia and Africa which fed into jazz. You might also hear music that reminds you of Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Many of Stravinsky’s melodies for The Rite of Spring grew out of folk music from the most rural reaches of Russia. You may notice that the music is often constructed on an ostinato, or repeated motive or phrase. Listen closely to the way Stravinsky layers chords to create shocking new harmonies. Most importantly, enjoy the feel and groove of the rhythm. At times you will hear Stravinsky layer competing grooves on top of each other to keep us feeling off balance. For one especially exciting example of this, listen to the base drum beat at 13:30 and what follows.

The Rite of Spring is divided into two parts, The Adoration of the Earth and The Sacrifice (starting at 16:03). Listen to the way the piece grows out of a single high bassoon line. More and more instruments join and interrupt. Consider the mood that is set in this opening. Do you feel a sense of anticipation, as if something shocking is just around the corner? Does the music take sudden turns which surprise or even scare you? Can you feel a sense of motion and raw emotion in the music?

The second part centers around the tribe’s selection and sacrifice of a young girl (16:03). Listen to the way Stravinsky musically builds tension and anticipation as this ritual unfolds (25:44). The ballet ends with a Sacrificial Dance as the girl dances herself to death (29:09).

For more background and analysis of The Rite of Spring, watch this episode of Michael Tilson Thomas’s Keeping Score. Also hear the thoughts of composer/conductor Pierre Boulez and watch this video. Share your own thoughts about this monumental piece in the thread below. Tell us what you heard. What aspects of the music do you find particularly interesting? What emotions do you feel as you listen? What are your favorite moments in the piece?